Longtime WNYC music host Oscar Brand dies at 96

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Photo: Courtesy WNYC Archive Collections

Brand in the early days of his WNYC career. (Photo: Courtesy WNYC Archive Collections)

Oscar Brand, host of a folk music show on New York City’s WNYC since 1945, died Friday of pneumonia, according to news reports. He was 96.

Brand hosted the station’s Folklife Festival for more than 70 years and assumed numerous titles and talents throughout his career. He’s remembered as a TV host, emcee, composer, actor, author, narrator, storyteller, musicologist, historian, game show contestant, playwright, children’s recording artist, and curator for the Songwriters Hall of Fame, plus the recipient of an honorary doctorate and two Peabody Awards, according to a WNYC tribute.

[One honor] is from the Guinness Book of World Records (can you guess?) for having the world’s longest-running radio show with the same host. And if that wasn’t enough, rumor has it he’s also the namesake of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch. Now that’s a legacy.

Brand began his radio career at WNYC in December 1945 in an unlikely fashion: The station responded to a letter he wrote to New York stations in which he offered to present a program of obscure Christmas songs. “His song about Santa’s distinctive body odor proved his point,” according to a New York Times obituary. When the station’s program director asked Brand what he was doing next week, Brand said he’d be back.

Brand was born Feb. 20, 1920, on a wheat farm near Winnipeg, Manitoba. He grew up in Minneapolis, Chicago and Brooklyn, and later traveled the country with a banjo, working on farms. He graduated from Brooklyn College with a psychology degree and worked in the psychology section of an Army induction center while editing a newspaper for psychiatric patients, according to the Times.

Listen to a collection of Brand’s work:

  • emacee1701

    Public radio used to have several folk music stations. Now, it’s “alternative,” which bears little resemblance to true folk music like Brand featured on his show. There are still a few true folk music shows left but now one less. It’s a shame. Public radio would seem the logical and natural place for folk music but I guess apparently alternative gets the demographics corporate sponsors want. Greed rules.

  • Brad Deltan

    I don’t think it’s “greed” so much as “survival”. My god, man, Woodstock was 47 years ago! Even the younger attendees are now 65 and up. Similarly, “folk music”…more accurately called “folk revival music” or “contemporary folk” reached a zenith in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and then largely died out as it evolved into other forms. Most notably Americana, which is doing quite well as a genre and is well-represented by many non-comm “triple A” stations out there, like WXPN, WMVY, WERS, KCRW, The Current and KEXP.

    What you’re basically saying is that public radio should be playing the folk equivalent of “music of your life”, which might as well be called “old people radio, no-one under 70 allowed to listen”. Sure it’s got it’s fans, but you can’t have a healthy future as a station programming it!

    • MarkJeffries

      The problem, Brad, is that these people want public radio to sound exactly like it did in 1971 and not adapt to the times. After all, they don’t care about what happens after they die.