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Artist Profiles

Awilda Rivera: On the Air

By Published: February 8, 2007

The Latin Jazz Cruise is perhaps the only radio show in the nation dedicated to this unique blend of black American music and pulsating Caribbean rhythms, exposing listeners to artists such as Machito and Ray Baretto.

Awilda RiveraThe sonorous, silky voice of Awilda Rivera is a comforting presence for listeners of WBGO-FM, the universally acclaimed jazz radio station in Newark, N.J. Every weeknight, from eight at night until one in the morning, Rivera plays a sophisticated set of classic jazz recordings and new releases, addressing her audience in an intimate tone that suggests a gathering between friends. Though she seems like a natural at it, Rivera had in fact never seriously considered a radio career when she first volunteered for the public radio station. "If you had told me that I would end up in radio full time, I never would have believed you," Rivera says.

Rivera originally arrived at WBGO as a volunteer in 1982 to help the station with its fundraising. When the New York City resident first showed up there, she didn't know what she was getting into; the station had only been on the air for three years, and she'd never been in Newark before. At the time she was working for Greenwich House, a drug rehabilitation center serving Chelsea and Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Soon, Rivera was asked to record voice-overs for promotional spots, and she was almost immediately encouraged to devote more energy to broadcasting. "It was a great deal of on-the-job training," Rivera remembers. "A lot of the on-air hosts of the time kind of encouraged me. They kept telling me I had this 'radio voice' I didn't even know I had. So I said, 'What have I got to lose?'"

Rivera spent much of the next decade developing skills in hosting and producing radio programs even as she helped with fundraising duties. She made her debut as a fill-in announcer in 1992, beginning a regular announcing stint a year later. By 1998, she decided to leave Greenwich House, where she had moved up to administration. She knew then it was a big risk. "I remember typing out my resignation letter," Rivera says, "and I couldn't believe the leap I was making. But I was ready to make the change."

Today, Awilda Rivera is one of the most frequently heard voices on WBGO. In addition to her weeknight duties, she hosts the Latin Jazz Cruise every Tuesday night. By Rivera's own account, it was a remarkable turn of events for her. She had always been shy, and her only media experience was a public speaking course she had taken in school. Despite all the encouragement she received, the thought of being a DJ did seem intimidating at first. When she did her first fill-in shift, a colleague told her, "Awilda, just forget there are 400,000 people listening to you!" Rivera laughs at the advice. "I don't even think about that anymore."

Awilda Rivera first became enamored with radio as a little girl in Manhattan, lying in bed with her Mickey Mouse transistor radio and going up and down the AM dial. She listened to various radio shows such as Cousin Brucie and a Saturday evening program devoted to Frank Sinatra. Music was always a big part of Awilda's childhood; her father had a massive record collection that encompassed everything from opera to popular music. "My parents were pretty much party folks," Rivera says, "so they would always have an excuse to party. Music was always blaring out of the stereo system in our house."

Her Puerto Rican parents naturally gravitated to Latin music, introducing her to the likes of Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. It was jazz, however, that Awilda embraced the most and was more curious about than any other music. The first jazz record she ever heard was by Stan Getz, and she sought similar records after that. As she began to more hear music in the vein of Getz's work, Awilda became more interested and more intrigued in jazz's sophisticated arrangements and the complex playing. By the time she began broadcasting on WBGO full-time, her interest in jazz had grown into a bona fide passion.

As a DJ at WBGO, Rivera does more than just go on the air at the appointed time and play jazz records. She can spend a good deal of time programming her show in advance. She takes relevant news from the jazz world into account when selecting the tracks, and she sequences them to fit a coherent pattern so that the play list gels. She also thinks it's necessary to give listeners some context about what they hear, making her more of a musicologist than a typical DJ.

Part of the discipline, Rivera is quick to point out, is to keep her commentary short—usually two minutes or so—meaning she has to be selective about what to mention about a particular record. Preparation is always key in concocting a play list, Rivera notes. The object is to keep it fresh every night. She always puts her audience first, rather than draw from her personal tastes. Although she does not take requests, she will always consider for another time suggestions from listeners who call into her show.

Depending on the nature of the program, putting one together can be a laborious task. For instance, Sunday Morning Harmony, the first regular program she did at WBGO, emphasized pianists and guitarists. Over time, as she assembled play lists for the show each week, Rivera increasingly had to seek out more jazz guitarists to avoid relying heavily on obvious choices like Bucky Pizzarelli or Pat Metheny. As she tracked down more guitarists, she became more knowledgeable of jazz guitar and gave many unknown performers more exposure. Pianists, she admits, were easier to find.

On her current Evening Jazz program, many of the records Rivera plays blend upcoming artists with legendary favorites, and they are mainly low-key, smooth performances appropriate for the intimacy of evening radio. Placing her audiences first, she offers a one-on-one relationship with the listener that feels like a friend who stops by to play her latest CD purchases.

Every Tuesday night, though, Rivera turns the WBGO studios into a party, as she hosts the two-hour Latin Jazz Cruise. The Latin Jazz Cruise is perhaps the only radio show in the nation dedicated to this unique blend of black American music and pulsating Caribbean rhythms, exposing listeners to artists such as Machito and Ray Baretto. After having been on Saturday nights its popularity has grown even more since moving to Tuesdays. It's both a vindication of Rivera's efforts and a testament to the music's popularity, even if commercial radio stations don't appreciate it. "Spanish-language stations have been encouraged to play it," she says, "but they won't, because it doesn't sell."

Unlike such stations, of course, WBGO is a public radio station, so it relies on meager annual government funding. In fact, the majority of the station's financial backing comes from its members by way of its on-air fundraisers, and the station tries to seek more donations through fundraising drives. Rivera enjoys the opportunity to take part in fundraisers and team up with pitch partners—usually fellow DJ's Brian Delp and Sheila Anderson—because the partnership allows them to be less formal on the air. "You get more of a sliver of our personalities [during fundraisers] than when we're doing our own shows," Rivera says.

Clearly, listeners inclined to make a pledge will be more encouraged by such an approach. "When we do a fundraiser in the studio, we're loosening up, we're having fun, and I think people respond to that," Rivera explains. Not that the approach always works. "Sometimes," she laughs, "folks will call in and say, 'You guys were so entertaining, I forgot to make a pledge!'"

Awilda Rivera continues to entertain people by communicating her love for jazz. Not only has she remained a popular presence on WBGO, she's also provided the voice-over narration for Jazzwomen, a documentary by Italian film maker Gabriella Morandi about the role of female jazz pioneers in the music's history. Rivera has been able to share her passion for jazz with her audience, which has gotten bigger thanks to the availability of WBGO on the internet. No matter how big her listener-ship gets, though, it remains very much an intimate circle of friends thanks to her ability to talk as if she's talking directly to you. And she's having the time of her life doing it.

Visit WBGO-FM on the web.

Photo Credit
Enid Farber

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