by Gene Marrano
I never knew the late Seth Williamson all that well for the decade I worked at WVTF as a part time news reporter/show producer (Studio Virginia) and weekend on air host. But this much I did know: Seth was THE voice of public radio in southwest and central Virginia, especially when it came to the “Morning Classics” program he hosted for almost 28 years. Many learned to appreciate classical music, often for the first time, listening to Seth in that deep, baritone and somewhat nasally delivery, as he presented pieces from the masters, and from newer composers we may have not known much about.
He often had tidbits about the composers at the tip of his tongue, factoids that made a Mozart or a Dvorak or a Bernstein come alive and seem more human. He liked to throw in challenging vocal pieces, with heavenly voices that often harkened from the Middle Ages. Then again you might hear a John Williams score from “Jurassic Park”, or the theme from Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” just to shake things up a bit.
Seth was a huge presence at WVTF, and not just for his considerable size, which he pared down some in part due to a successful battle he was winning with prostate cancer. He passed away last week following complications from an unrelated surgery. He leaves behind daughter Emily, a talented visual artist (and performance dancer I might add) and another daughter Deirdre, who used to fill in at the station on the air from time to time. She affectionately called Seth “Daddy,” I recall – something patriarchal, which struck me as being out of a movie like Giant.
Seth could be cantankerous on occasion and railed against management decisions from time to time; the dropping of his “Back Roads and Blue Highways,” Americana music show was a sore point. Back to the Blue Ridge, the old time and bluegrass show he hosted for countless years with Kinney Rorrer, was a weekend destination listening point for many.
Williamson was also an accomplished musician on any number of instruments with his Sauerkraut Band and a handful of other groups.
Afternoon Classics host Steve Brown, who followed Seth at noon on WVTF and hosted an all-day musical tribute to him earlier this week, said his late friend “was deeply connected with his audience and that’s how he saw radio – as a personal connection with listeners.”
Williamson, who finished college at Virginia Tech after starting in his native Texas (at Texas Tech), “could have worked anywhere,” according to Susan Geary, the former local producer for WVTF’s Morning Edition program, which preceded Seth’s shift. “He was one of the best radio announcers in the business. He was very passionate and very committed to making good radio. He chose to stay here. He loved the Blue Ridge Mountains and the whole area.” Seth used to wax poetic on the air about the birds he would spot while living in Sling’s Gap, a part of Franklin County that creeps up on to Bent Mountain.
Geary recalled that Back Roads and Blue Highways, another show Williamson had hosted, was a personal soundtrack for his life. “When he separated from his wife he was playing breakup songs, when he found a new love the music reflected that too.”
Like I said, I didn’t know Seth Williamson very well, but you could sense his presence and the respect he commanded at WVTF. Even as public radio stations around the country dropped classical music altogether or downsized the hours of music offered daily for the sake of ratings-boosting talk programming, Seth’s identification with lovers of the genre – and with loyal donors to the NPR affiliate – helped keep Morning and Afternoon Classics sacrosanct at WVTF.
I know Seth is playing in a heavenly band or two somewhere now. I wish I had gotten to know him a bit better over the years, but I’m sure glad I was able to listen as often as I did when he graced the airwaves.
Hear more about Seth Williamson from Susan Geary and Gene Marrano, both now on Fox Radio 910am, this Saturday and Sunday morning at 11:30 on “Roanoke This Week with Gene Marrano”.