Ask Charlie Blair the historical significance of Memorial Day, Thanksgiving or any big, national holiday and you’re sure to get a thorough response. Blair, quite possibly the oldest college radio DJ in the country, knows America’s history and he knows it well.

Blair, or Charlie B. as he is known on air, is the 70-year-old host of Musica Americana, a KCPR program whose goal is to tell “America’s stories in song” by incorporating history of the country’s past and the music associated with it. Musica Americana airs Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon on KCPR, 91.3 FM.

“We tend to think of (holidays) as time off or little extended vacations or time to do a little extra shopping, but it’s time to look back and see why these holidays are important,” he said. “My whole thing is to take a few minutes and see why they are important. I think the music associated with these holidays helps people (remember the past) in a pleasant way.”

It is this idea – that music provides a universal medium through which people remember the past – that drives Blair’s program. Some listeners have even joked with him that they should receive extra credit for listening to the show since it contains so much information.

“I really like it because we play a lot of songs that have meaning to them, and he has a story for everything,” said Suzy Sittig (Sue Bee), who has been Blair’s co-host since summer 2006. “He has so much life experience.”

About four years ago, Blair applied to the station after spotting a sign for the on-campus radio station among a mass of other clubs’ signs on Dexter Lawn.

“At that point, I was vaguely aware that the college probably had a radio station, but (seeing that) sparked a little interest,” Blair said.

At the time, he had just started attending Cal Poly to pursue studies in botany. (Blair has a doctorate of medicine and was a surgeon in the air force before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1999 while stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc.)

Then, partly because of some previous volunteer work at KCBX, the local NPR affiliate, where Blair had sat-in on shows and gotten acquainted with a couple of DJs and programs, and partly because he felt impulsive, he decided to apply for a DJ position at KCPR.

“It was because of my acquaintances with some of the musical hosts on the other stations that I thought, ‘You know, I think I can do this,’” he said. “So I applied, and I’ll be darned – I was surprised that they accepted me . because, I’m older than the average student – heck, I’m older than most of my professors!

“I was just pleasantly surprised. You apply to something like that, and there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get it, but I was pleasantly surprised that they took me in.”

But it was a match made in heaven, as the saying goes.

Blair grew up in the Golden Age of radio, the thirties to the mid-fifties, when “radio was one of the main unifying things in the country,” and music has always been one of his passions. Exposed to music at an early age, Blair grew up listening to a wide variety of music and playing the piccolo and later the recorder in bands from grammar school through college at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He also sang in the Occidental and student church choirs, and was a member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity.

Music – along with the outdoors, medicine and botany – has been a lifelong interest.

Blair’s quick to point out that he’s certainly not the oldest radio personality in the area, but at least at KCPR, he’s obtained that unique position. But that doesn’t bother him.

“I’m running into a lot of older, returning students – you know, students in their forties and fifties – and these returning students ask me how I feel about all these younger students, and I say, ‘Hey, I’m looking more at common interest than at age,’” he said. “Throughout my life, I’ve found various groups that I share common interests with between nature and outdoor activities and musical activities, and it’s really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

It also gives the mainly college listeners a different viewpoint.

“It’s neat because, with KCPR, most (DJs) are college students,” said Sittig, 28, herself an “older” college student. “I think we have a tendacy to play the current indie music, but it’s neat to have such a wide variety of music and genres to play.”

Each week, Blair and Sittig come up with an idea for a particular segment, then search for songs related to the topic in Blair’s vast collection of tapes, CD and even some 78s he’s amassed from years of going to concerts and festivals, and pouring through catalogues and music-store bins. On Labor Day, it was music relating to all things labor. For Passover this year, it was African-American spirituals based largely on Exodus references calling for freedom from slavery and oppression.

“When you’re talking about music … there are all these things that (can come together) – that’s why I think music is so very important,” he said.

Blair has always been one to keep busy with various activities, he said.

“When I was in the process of retiring, one of the nurses said I would probably be so busy (being) retired that I would probably wonder how I had ever had enough time to work full time,” he explained.

In an e-mail for his med school class reunion last month, in which he detailed his life since graduating, Blair commented that she estimated that it would take him two to three months to get busy with other activities. “She was wrong in that it took me barely two months,” he joked.

For the foreseeable future, Blair will continue his radio program – in addition to his numerous other activities – trying to evolve it as he receives positive feedback and friendly corrections from his listeners. It’s a learning process, he said.

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