PROSPECT – Radio personality Jerry Kristafer likes to joke that there are 100 people in radio and 99 jobs. During his 45 years in broadcasting, he’s been left standing a few times after the music stopped; but when he lost his morning show at Hartford’s WDRC-FM in October 2013, he quickly found another chair. He is the morning deejay at WJMJ, the Archdiocese of Hartford’s radio station.
“I started in radio to get off the farm,” he quips to a visitor in his brightly lit studio, surrounded by consoles, monitors, sound boards and VU meters – some of which are still a mystery to him because he’s used to having a sound engineer at the controls.
“I grew up in a farm in South Jersey and worked my behind off in the summers and realized that’s not what I wanted to do,” he says. He was state runner-up in an American Legion oratory contest when he was a freshman in high school in 1968, and that led to a weekly cable TV high school news program, covering Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties. “That was cool. I was 14 and had my own TV show,” he says.
“Hold on a second,” he says, putting on headphones. He flicks a switch and goes on the air. He varies the pacing and pitch of his bass voice: “The Vogues on WJMJ. It’s 8:38, 22 minutes before nine on Wednesday morning, and this is Mr. Barry Manilow.”
Early radio gigs
He pulls off the headphones and slides the volume control down. He ticks off a few of his early radio gigs: WJIC in Salem, N.J., in the early ’70s; WMID in Atlantic City; and WISH in Indianapolis, Ind., where he met then-weekend news anchor Jane Pauley and the weekend weatherman David Letterman.
He worked in Pittsburgh for a while and went to New Haven in 1977, working at WCDQ, WAVZ and then WKCI 101 FM (KC101). The musical chairs continued, and he went back to Pittsburgh, then bounced back to Connecticut in the late ’90s. “I came back and replaced Howard Stern at WCCC,” he says. From there, he went to WDRC, WELI in New Haven, back to WDRC and finally to WJMJ.
“Hold it a second here,” he says, donning headphones again. “Today up near 60,” he broadcasts. “It is 36 here at WJMJ, Catholic radio, where faith meets life.”
He says he worked with Glenn Beck at KC101, helping him get started in talk radio. “I kept in touch with him for quite a bit for a while but then he got so big it’s kind of tough to stay in touch with Mr. Gazillionaire,” he chuckles.
He says voice-tracking is hurting the radio industry. That’s the practice of pre-recording radio patter to splice in between songs. “You can do a four- or five-hour show in about 20 minutes,” he says. One person working a single shift can voice-track a morning show for, say, a Connecticut station, a midday show for an Ohio station and a Gospel show for an Alabama station. “You don’t get three salaries. They throw you a little bit more money, but ostensibly you’re doing the work of three people for the pay of one,” he says.
Mr. Kristafer doesn’t voice-track on WJMJ’s “The Morning Watch,” but if he did, it could have prevented what happened next. After reading an announcement of an upcoming prayer service for peace in Ukraine, he says on the air, “Remind them that you heard about it this morning –” and before he can say, “right here on WJMJ,” the pre-programmed computer starts playing the next song and he stops talking.
“Stupid,” he mutters. “I thought I had a 15-second intro. Oh well, the sun is still out, the birds are chirping.”
He says he has known Father John Gatzak – executive director of the archdiocesan Office of Radio and Television, which includes WJMJ – since 1978, when they were both at KC101. Father Gatzak was doing his “Take a Stand” telephone talk show there at the time. “When Father John found out that I was available [in October 2013], he asked me to come in and talk,” he says.
But Mr. Kristafer had been used to using edgy humor, playing music with objectionable lyrics, having help with the control board and often having co-hosts to clown around with. How does he approach working for a noncommercial religious station, playing uplifting music, running his own controls and doing it all alone?
Actually, he welcomes the change. “It’s nice to be able to talk about things that are either serious or inspirational. When you work on a station like DRC-FM, and tens of thousands of other stations like that, you’re getting paid to do jokes and corny stuff,” he says.
As for audience expectations, he compares it to working at McDonald’s and then getting a job at Burger King. “And your buddies come in and say, ‘Hey, I’d like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.’ And you say, ‘We sell Whoppers.’ And they say, ‘Well, why don’t you sell Quarter Pounders with Cheese?’ You say, ‘Well, I was wearing a different paper hat then.’”
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have ideas about changing the format sometime in the future.
“I told Father John and [operations manager] Gary [Mihalik] when I came here that there are things that I would like to talk about,” he says. “And I’m not talking about the Kardashians or whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow was getting a divorce or any of this other dopey stuff.”
He interrupts himself to don his headphones again. “Lena Horne on WJMJ,” he broadcasts. “It’s 8:52, almost seven before nine on a Wednesday morning. This is Jerry Kristafer.”
Jerry Kristafer – a radio name, not his real one, which he keeps to himself – is married and lives in Cromwell. He has two grown sons. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday and believes he is at the right place at the right time. “I am a very spiritual person; I’m a relatively religious person. I’m an assistant minister at my church [a Lutheran Church in Cromwell]. First I thought, Gee I’m not Catholic, and Father John said it’s not about being Catholic; he handles all that stuff.”
As John Lennon sings “Woman,” Mr. Kristafer says WJMJ plays music from the ’40s to the present, and the entire library contains more than 3,000 songs. His favorites include ’40s music, lyrical music and Frank Sinatra. At concerts by his favorite band, Chicago, he sits near the horns and hums along with the trumpets, the instrument he played as a child.
On the radio, John Denver is finishing up “Rocky Mountain High,” as Mr. Kristafer is reaching for his headphones again. Before going on the air to introduce The Temptations, he says, “I’m loving the opportunity to do this.”
When the program ends at 10 a.m., Father Gatzak catches up with us and says everything fell nicely into place after Bruce Stevens left the morning slot to move back to Maine in October 2013. “I knew Jerry and I knew his talents and ability to energize an audience and entertain an audience,” he says. “People are very happy that they didn’t lose Jerry in the market.”
The music is still playing, and Jerry Kristafer still sits in his studio chair weekdays from 5-10 a.m. at WJMJ, 88.9 FM Hartford, 93.1 FM Hamden and 107.1 FM New Haven.