Several years ago, Will Luckey of West Tisbury and his family were on vacation on the island of Culebra, off Puerto Rico. They were taking a tour with a guide who was pointing out the luminescence of the local waters. Will said that where he came from, Martha’s Vineyard, the waters often had a good deal of luminescence as well.
A woman overheard Will’s comment and said, “Oh, you’re from Martha’s Vineyard? So do you know Barbara Dacey?”
Will said, “Well, actually I do, she takes guitar lessons from me. Are you from the Vineyard?”
“No,” replied the woman, “I’m from Chicago — I’ve never been to the Vineyard. I just know Barbara from the radio, I love her — I stream WMVY on my computer.”
Thirty-two years ago, Barbara would have had a hard time fathoming such an exchange. In 1985, Barbara, holding in her hand a tape of a bank commercial she had recorded in Boston, worked up her nerve and knocked on the door of the little bungalow at the end of Carrolls Way in Vineyard Haven that houses the WMVY studio. She had an appointment with program director Jeff Damon.
At the time, Barbara had no hopes of becoming a radio personality, let alone one with a global presence. A friend of hers at Hill Holliday advertising in Boston had set her up to do a couple of radio spots, and while she was on the Vineyard for the summer, she thought maybe she could get a gig doing voiceovers for local spots, and maybe even get a little experience working behind a mic. To her surprise, Damon offered Barbara her own time slot: a six-hour shift doing listener requests on Sunday afternoons.
“Was I nervous?” recalls Barbara. “I was terrified; it took me a long time to get over my nerves.”
It’s not as though Barbara didn’t have any experience performing. She started singing with a band back when she was a student at Wellesley High School. “I think the first song I ever sang was ‘Season of the Witch,’” Barbara recalls. Then after graduating from Skidmore in 1974, she made her living singing and playing guitar in clubs around Boston and Harvard Square. She accompanied modern dance classes like Joy of Movement with vocals, guitar, and percussion. And when she started coming to the Vineyard for the summers around 1970, she played local venues like the Colonial Inn, the Atlantic Connection, and the Navigator Room at the Harborside Inn.
But working on air as a deejay and performing live in clubs were different animals. “The hardest thing,” said Barbara, “was learning how to be yourself on the air; it doesn’t come naturally, it’s a little daunting.” Barbara listened to herself, and thought she sounded stilted and artificial. But over time she developed into the trusted friend we’ve grown accustomed to hearing on the airwaves.
What’s unusual about Barbara’s career is that she spent all 32 years working at one station, something that’s unheard-of in this day and age. She went from being music director to becoming program director in 1993, a position she would hand over to P.J. Finn in 2005. “I was looking to move into another realm of the station,” said Barbara, “and P.J. was looking for more responsibility, so it was a great move.” In 1998 the station was one of the pioneer stations in the country to begin live streaming online, and the station’s audience began to swell.
It might be easy to excuse Barbara for being a bit complacent, living the good life on the Vineyard in what seemed to be a dream job, but tough times were on the horizon. As WMVY entered the new millennium, it was becoming harder and harder to succeed as a commercial station, and in 2012 the station’s signal was sold to WBUR. WMVY would then have only an online presence, managed by Friends of MVYradio.
“When we sold our signal, we told all our listeners that we would be back,” said Barbara, and true to their word, it wouldn’t take long. In December 2012, a Save MVY Radio campaign was launched. The goal was to raise $600,000 in 60 days, and they succeeded. In 2013 they bought the broadcast license for 88.7 FM from Vineyard Public Radio Inc.
The station now has a terrestrial presence on the Cape, the Islands, and Newport, but it also is one of the most streamed Internet radio stations in the world.
WMVY is in good shape, and that made Barbara’s next decision that much easier. Last Tuesday, Oct. 24, she announced on air that she would be stepping away from her position at the station at the end of the year.
Barbara will tell you that she loves what she does, and she’ll particularly miss the personal relationships she’s established: the relationships with her co-workers, with the community at large, and with the music industry. But it was time to put a little air in her own life, and allow herself the luxury of pursuing some personal interests.
Barbara would love to take some time and more fully explore her music, both vocally and instrumentally. Local musician Isaac Taylor told her about a voice coach named Warren Senders in Medford. She’s been studying with him for over a year, and she would like to devote more energy to these studies. Senders is an internationally recognized vocalist, composer, and performer who specializes in Hindustani music. “Do I ever think I’ll be a Hindustani musician?” asks Barbara. “Probably not, but it informs my regular singing. There are all different scales, and it’s very improvisational.”
Barbara also wants to continue studying guitar. She’s been studying with Will Luckey for about eight years now, and wants to devote more time to that in the future. I spoke with Will the other day, and said, “Will, just between you and me, can Barbara sing?”
“She’s got a terrific singing voice,” said Will. “She has a lot of musicality and a very unique musical soul. We’re just trying to get her guitar playing so that it’s at the same level as her singing.”
Barbara is quick to point out that the goal of her music is not necessarily to go out and play in clubs; she just wants to see how far she can take it. “Maybe I’ll just have people come over and we’ll sit on the back porch and I’ll sing a few songs,” she said.
Another passion that Barbara would like to spend more time on is her work with the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center on the Island. Barbara began meditating about the same time she moved to the Island, but she said it was pretty much a solitary pursuit until Shamar Rinpoche founded the Martha’s Vineyard Bodhi Path in 1999. The center became a big part of her life, and, along with Sharon Gamsby, she now serves as co-coordinator.
Looking back over her 32 years at the station, Barbara has a lot to feel good about. There was the exhilaration of getting her first full-time position at the station back in 1988. “I have five siblings,” said Barbara, “and one of them sent a bouquet of flowers to me every week for five weeks. They realized what an important step it was for me — it touched me so much.”
And then, of course, there was the success of the Save WMVY Radio campaign and the triumph of coming back on the air in 2013.
She’ll also miss one of her favorite parts of the job, interviewing musicians: “Lou Reed was playing at the Hot Tin Roof, and I had a chance to interview him. I remember it as being potentially very intimidating, but it turned out he couldn’t have been nicer.”
And then there was the interview with Judy Collins. “Judy was a great interview because she made it a great interview,” said Barbara. “You need the energy of the other person, you can’t create it all yourself. She was a real pro.”
So yes, Barbara Dacey is stepping away from WMVY after the first of the year, but notice how her announcement made no mention of quitting or retiring.
“I’m stepping away,” said Barbara. “I’m going to make a clean break from what I’m doing now, but if there’s a chance to come back sometime in the future — I’ll just leave that open.”