Bracing himself for a six-hour recording session with a second cup of coffee, Weasel, who also goes by Jonathan Gilbert, hops around the studio like a giant music geek. He has his CDs in a zipped-up carrier. He has his well-thumbed notebook. This gig at WTMD may as well be the only toehold left in a world that, as Weasel put it, “has no room on the fringe for anything alternative.”
“It’s a very strange world because radio as I knew it, doesn’t exist,” says Weasel, the legendary DJ with a Steve Buscemi voice and marsupial-like eyes that hint at the origins of his nom de air. “Just a handful of cookie-cutter radio stations.”
So it is hard for him to fathom that a modern radio station would allow him to play whatever he wanted—and even send a driver for him.
But sure enough, here Weasel, a living repository of rock ’n’ roll lore, sits in a studio in WTMD’s new digs with a stunning view of Towson Town Center’s white-on-white sign over Dulaney Valley Road.
There’s nothing nostalgic in the studio— not even the romance of a turntable on this desktop console. “No way I’m carrying around 51 pounds of records,” Weasel says. Then the song ends and you witness what sets him apart from everyone else on the air. Unlike other DJs who sit before the mic, the way dentists sit on those stools, with stiff backs, Weasel hits the mic at side angles, hardly ever straight on. He holds up his notebook with what looks like handwritten track aggregate and discusses the 20-minute playlist with a smattering of historical details that come from a long career that sprang at the dawn of rock radio in 1970.
Back then, Weasel was just about to graduate from American University and was working for a storefront Bethesda radio station called WHFS. He was an engineer on its early morning Italian radio show. “I used to wake up and my dorm mates would still be partying,” he says. In those days, HFS played Frank Sinatra during the day and by the evening “the hippies would come in” playing cuts off their favorite albums. This was known as free-form radio, which would take over HFS by 1972. Weasel was running the midnight shift, which was the free-est of the free form.
A tiny, whacked-out club called the Psychedelly was right across the street and the musicians would come by the station and kick the party up a few notches. People such as Frank Zappa, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Little Feat would jump on the air, playing and bullshitting into the night. It was the golden age of FM radio, but the corporate stations were growing uneasy with this new brand of album playing format.
But even then, Weasel was different: He saw the bigger picture.
He brushes this off as obvious, but it’s not. Like any true curator, Weasel has the ability to group art in a distinctive way. His playlists bristle with style. When new wave was breaking in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Weasel was drawing up the musical family tree, showing the connections between Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Graham Parker—all the while throwing in local bands like The Slickee Boys.
This musical context is now taken for granted thanks to programs such as Pandora or Spotify, but when punk, hardcore, or new wave hit the world, it took dedicated DJs to help people understand them. And Weasel not only cared about the tunes of the moment, but their musical DNA, which is perfect for his new WTMD gig, where he has the kind of freedom he hasn’t experienced since the early days.
This is the kind of understanding that the corporate jocks don’t have. Scott Mullins, WTMD’s program director, knew this and when he took the helm of the station in 2010, the first thing he did was go searching for what the industry calls a “legacy DJ.”
“These guys were beloved,” says Mullins, who worked at a station in Louisville, Kentucky that had success in bringing back a legacy DJ. “And the stations back in the ’70s had a big footprint. They had a huge listenership.”
Mullins says he was surprised how hard it was to track Weasel down. No one even had a number for him. Weasel saw his career take an odd turn when he left WHFS, the alt-station that thrived in the ’90s but was stumbling in the early 2000s, for a classic-rock station, 94.7 The Arrow. But his self-professed attempt to “sell out” ended with the recession, “when we all landed out on our asses” in 2009.
When Mullins managed to track him down in Bethesda, Weasel seemed reluctant, despite the promise of unlimited freedom. Then Weasel fessed up that he doesn’t drive. Mullins eventually organized a volunteer carpool service that has been in place ever since.
Weasel was shocked by the commitment from the Baltimore radio station.
“Look man, I think you’re crazy,” Weasel said at the time. “You’ll be screaming in a couple of weeks. But I can’t turn you down.”
That was in 2010 and Weasel has been crafting his extended playlists every Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.
“I can play 30 minutes of music, where can you do that uninterrupted, not even an ID,” he says. And where else could a DJ use songs about wintertime to draw links between the Beach Boys and Billie Holiday? “I like Billie’s ’50s stuff a lot better than Billie’s original Columbia sides,” he says in an aside. “By the ’50s drugs had ravaged her voice and she became rather husky, but you know what? That huskiness gives it a really unique flavor.”
The words hang in the studio air for just a tad longer like a thought bubble to ponder, as the traffic outside the window far below pushes by unheard.
“I hope that people can hear the musicality of what I do,” he says. “I play songs that are in the same key. I build sets with the same tempo. A lot of times I slow tempos down. I’m trying to do this.”
It’s hard to explain what this is. It’s better just to listen to him.
Weasel jumps back on the air explaining to the folks that Mama Cass was always mixed to play in the left channel, the Papas to the right, and how The Belmonts backed up Dion on the tune ‘Wintertime.’
“Those kind of songs, they are mellow, they are filled with imagery.”