Go behind the scenes of Gene Shay’s Folk Show farewell and hear a playback

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Gene Shay, host of The Folk Show, retired yesterday after 50 years on the radio and 20 years on WXPN | Photo by John Vettese
Gene Shay, host of The Folk Show, during his final broadcast. He retired yesterday after 50 years on the radio and 20 years on WXPN | Photo by John Vettese

Gene Shay joked in the middle of the afternoon yesterday that he was in the middle of the longest retirement show any DJ has ever had. But the celebration was hardly unwarranted; Shay has been a guiding force in the Philadelphia folk community since the 1960s. He co-founded the Philadelphia Folk Festival and has hosted his Folk Show on various radio stations in the city – including XPN, where he had been for the past 20 years.

Yesterday, Shay’s broadcast career drew to a close with laughter, tears, some of his favorite music from over the years, and a surprise singalong featuring 111 musicians and friends from the Philadelphia area folk music community.

Shay began the show as normal at 3 p.m., but by 3:30 he found himself the subject rather than the host – XPN morning show DJ Michaela Majoun staged a “gentle takeover” to usher in a string of callers and friends sharing their memories of Shay, musicians from Tom Rush to The Stray Birds, and fellow broadcasters like WFUV’s John Platt.

Unbeknownst to Shay, the army of musicians was setting up next door in the performance studio and at 4:00, he was ushered across the hall where the room sang “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to him.

Below, listen to the two singalongs, stream Shay’s farewell show in its entirety, and look through a gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs from the broadcast.

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Photo by John Vettese

Before Shay or the musicians arrive, audio engineer Adam Staniszewski plans the room setup with XPN Program Director Bruce Warren

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Eric Hurlock of Tin Bird Choir and Joe D’Amico of Mason Porter are the first musicians to show up, along with manager Biff Kennedy. Staniszewski starts setting up microphones in the background.

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Photo by John Vettese

Well-wishers sent flowers to the studio.

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Gene Shay prepared a speech for his final sign-off and gives it a read-through as the broadcast gets ready to begin.

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Shay making notes on his script as Bruce Warren and producer Ian Zolitor plan the show in the background.

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Shay and Bruce Warren go over notes for the show with about fifteen minutes left till airtime.

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Photo by John Vettese

Before the show goes live, Warren pops out in the hall to discuss the “gentle takeover” with Michaela Majoun; XPN Midday Host Helen Leicht and Folk Show producer Ian Zolitar look on.

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Meanwhile, musicians begin to fill up the studio.

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Lyric sheets for “Turn Turn Turn” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” are handed out.

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Shay’s friends Jack Murray and Ramona LaBarre – who have worked on concerts at Landhaven and Godfrey Daniels – wish Shay well. “Break a leg,” Jack says. “Or whatever it is you say for radio. Break a neck?” “Break a throat,” Shay reasons.

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Photo by John Vettese

Clowning around with a beard and moustache brush with seconds left till airtime.

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The show is live and Shay signs on for the final time.

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Photo by John Vettese

Over in the performance studio, the room reaches capacity as yet more musicians file in for the singalong. You can hear their warmups down the hall.

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Photo by John Vettese

The broadcast room is filled with Shay’s close friends and family, creating a warm and cheerful vibe throughout the show.

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Photo by John Vettese

Surprise! Majoun gets behind the host mic for her “gentle takeover” of the show.

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Photo by John Vettese
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Shay feigns shock and disapproval, but is totally on board for the ride.

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Shay listens to a moving tribute from singer Tom Rush, who spoke eloquently of his friend’s importance to the folk world and then played a new rendition of “Mole’s Moan,” a favorite song of Shay’s.

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Photo by John Vettese

Bruce Warren works the phone lines to coordinate the call-in guests. Here, he asks John Platt to hold as a song set finishes.

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Photo by John Vettese
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Majoun’s broadcast notes for the taken-over version of the show.

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Photo by John Vettese

Musicians in the studio warming up…

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Photo by John Vettese

…and awaiting Shay’s arrival for the moment of surprise.

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The crowd greets Shay…

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…who spends a moment taking a tally of all the friendly and familiar faces.

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Again, he feigns shock / outrage at the taken over show, but is obviously delighted by it.

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Photo by John Vettese

Seated behind a microphone, Shay greets the musicians…

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Photo by John Vettese

…who begin singing “Turn turn Turn.”

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Helen Leicht and Michaela Majoun share their memories of Shay between songs.

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Photo by John Vettese
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The band begins “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”…

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…where many musicians took lead on each of the songs verses.

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Shay joined in on the singalong.

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After the songs are done, Shay takes a moment for a quick group photograph.

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Photo by John Vettese

Tess Coffey, XPN’s assistant to the general manager and longtime friend of Shay’s, stops by to say hello…

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Photo by John Vettese

…as does Shay’s former producer, Jessica Mandik.

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Chris Smither calls in and Shay reminisces about how he learned to roll a jay from Smither’s grandmother.

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Photo by John Vettese

The crowd in the room has gotten bigger as the end of the show approaches.

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XPN General Manager Roger La May gets on the microphone to share his congratulations with Gene and announce a new scholarship program in Gene’s honor, benefitting young folk broadcasters.

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The show winds down…

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And after Shay makes his farewell speech and concludes his final sign-off, the room breaks out in applause.

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