Along with popular and country music, blues is now a booming, modern audiovisual industry. Particularly since the mid-1980s, when a young guitarist/vocalist from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan interrupted the decade’s synthesized, video-driven pop trends by blending rock swagger and blues rhythms to help create an ongoing roots music revival.
A sizable, pre-existing subset of aging traditional blues fans has ballooned since Vaughan mixed Jimi Hendrix’s firepower and Albert King’s phrasing until his untimely death in a 1990 helicopter crash. Now, there are more blues artists, clubs, festivals and cruises than ever before.
And South Florida’s blues ambassador is Jesse Finkelstein, founder and managing director of Blues Radio International. A tall, soft-spoken, otherwise retired attorney and grandfather in his 60s, Finkelstein delivers broadcasts from the decidedly non-blues location of a high-rise condo, overlooking the ocean in Hillsboro Beach, that’s also his residence.
The Rochester, N.Y., native has been based in South Florida for 12 years – and since 2012, he’s broadcast the world’s only live blues program on the seemingly outdated, decidedly non-hi-fi shortwave radio format to listeners on six different continents, adding intermittent shoots in 2013 from its own broadcast channel, BRI TV. The live radio performances and interviews appear simultaneously, with better fidelity, on the internet through Okeechobee-based Radio Miami International.
Yet it’s the 100-plus-year-old shortwave technology that allows BRI to reach two-thirds of the world by audio beyond the internet, which is still in its comparative infancy, and blocked or unavailable in most countries.
“I’ve been interested in radios since I was a teenager, and collect a lot of them,” Finkelstein says, gesturing toward shelves displaying dozens in his living room. “Most of these are European shortwave radios from the ’30s through the ’50s, which gives you the idea that people were tuning into them from places like Munich and Vienna, perhaps during World War II. This one was made by General Electric, and here’s one made by Firestone.
“The idea that you can send a signal through the air, and have it be heard without a wire thousands of miles away, still fascinates me. When people talk about wireless today, they’re talking about a 50-foot range from their computer to their router.”
Framed photos of BRI performers like Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Walter Trout, Tinsley Ellis, and Bob Margolin line the walls of a hallway leading west toward the broadcast studio, which might otherwise have been a modest-sized office or spare bedroom. The decor there includes shots of additional performers like Keb Mo, Samantha Fish, Elvin Bishop, and Rory Block.
There’s also a guitar owned by the late Roy Buchanan, and a couple custom axes made by Duke Robillard, amid screens, microphones, cameras and, of course, more radios.
“I started working in commercial radio at age 13 at a small station,” Finkelstein says. “There’s a picture of me doing that in 1974 up there on the wall. I’ve always been fascinated by the science of it; the ability to reach people in different places. The impetus for Blues Radio International was the thought that there was something beautiful to be shared, including with people you couldn’t otherwise reach, if you could figure out how to do it.
“So while we’re surrounded by the internet, it’s important to remember that almost two-thirds of the world doesn’t have access to it. We have listeners in more than 184 different countries, some of them very well-to-do places, but I wanted to reach people without those luxuries as well. And shortwave was a retro way of doing that.”
Shortwave radio doesn’t only allow for listeners from far-away locales. Native New Yorker Taj Mahal, the iconic, 76-year-old roots music vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, has said shortwave first allowed him access to the blues. Finkelstein grabs a pen and paper to draw a diagram that helps to illustrate the medium’s special properties and functions.
“With a four- or five-dollar device, people in difficult situations in impoverished areas, refugee camps, or war zones can hear the programs this way,” he says. “Not just our friends with problems like debt and divorce, but people who are truly in misery. The Earth is curved, and transmissions like FM are based in a straight line of sight. If the transmitter can’t see your receiver because of that curve, then transmission is impossible.
“Shortwave, at certain times of the night, can feed off of the charge from the sun during the day on a level of the ionosphere. So it’s possible to bounce a signal off of that, on one side of the globe, to a listener on the other side.”
Finkelstein also broadcasts annually from the Blues Music Awards in Memphis and other international locales, and records segments at area nightclubs like the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, all available on the BRI website. What you won’t see there is advertising of any kind. BRI is a true nonprofit that, in fact, goes far into the red within its leader’s deep pockets. Yet he focuses on his non-monetary gains rather than counting fiscal losses.
“Jesse is a true supporter of the blues,” says JP Soars, the Boca Raton-based singer, guitarist and leader of his own band, the Red Hots, and a member of the Southern regional all-star blues act Southern Hospitality. “He does it purely for the love and preservation of the music. I always enjoy visiting with him and being a guest on his show.”
“I initially ran this idea past some people in the industry,” says Finkelstein. “And one guy says, ‘So you want to record live music?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to play records, because I think the magic is in the live music.’ He says, ‘And broadcast in on the worst radio medium known to mankind, 10,000 miles away, to people living in tents who’ll never buy a damn thing from you? What’s the point?’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly the point.’”
To exemplify that point, he brings out thank-you letters and emails from fans in places like Germany, Syria, Cuba, and Russia.
“A most poignant message was from a guy in Syria,” Finkelstein says, “via his cousin, who was in Paris and had internet access. And he wrote, essentially, ‘I’m in a war zone. Some members of my family have died. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and I’m spinning around the shortwave radio to find out where I can take the rest of my family to be safe before the next bombing round, and then I ran into this! There was all of this religious propaganda, and then, suddenly, this live blues program. For 10 minutes, you removed me from the hell I’m living in.’”
“So while I can’t take people out of a war zone or take away their misery, I know blues really connects with people. We stay away from any political commentary, and have a lot of listeners in Cuba. When we started with WMRI, the station was broadcasting some programming by Cuban exiles that was not particularly complimentary to the current regime. So the Cuban government was jamming the signals during that programming, but we found that they didn’t bother to do that while our show was on. I like to think that’s because we weren’t viewed as a threat, but rather as having something beneficial to offer.”
A fan of all forms of music, including intricate jazz, Finkelstein purposely chose the blues genre for broadcast because of its relative simplicity, feel, and universal roots music appeal.
“The thing that grabbed me about the blues was when I first saw B.B. King perform,” he says. “It was 1971 or 1972. And it was the complete package; a big production. I’d grown up appreciating the British rock and roll that had come out of the blues, John Mayall, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton, who introduced white American audiences to this very black American art form. I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan in somewhat the same light, introducing rock guitar fans to blues music. But seeing B.B. made everything come together. He had a horn section, which helped me understand the appeal of Big Band jazz music.”
“I listen to all styles, including lots of world music and particularly jazz. And we didn’t know what the response would be to these broadcasts to parts of the world that don’t have our history with Western culture and have different, micro-tonal scales compared to our music,” Finkelstein said. “But blues has an instrumental simplicity that can make it participatory, and understood by people from many different backgrounds. And lyrically, it deals a lot with things that affect people on a daily basis. It’s not otherworldly. It’s understandable and relatable.”
It’s the relationships, whether between he and his interview subjects, or himself and people on a different continent that he’s touched through radio yet will never meet, that Finkelstein hints might eventually be the basis for a BRI-based book.
“We interviewed [Allman Brothers Band co-founding drummer] Butch Trucks not long before he died,” he says, “and Johnny Winter on his tour bus maybe a year before he died. Guitarist Matt Schofield has demonstrated the unique styles of blues greats, and keyboardist Jon Cleary the aspects of blues that makes the music special. We’ve had some great interviews, and some great connections not necessarily related to music. Walter Trout talked about an amazing encounter with Carlos Santana that changed his life.
“Walter was playing guitar with John Mayall’s band, and a multiple substance abuser at the time, and he told me about a gig they were playing in what was then East Germany. Santana was on after them, and when Walter and the band got off the stage, with everyone telling them how great they were, Carlos accosted him. He said, in effect, ‘I see what you’re doing up there. I see that you’re wasted, and sticking your middle finger up at the Creator who gave you this talent. And if you have the guts to straighten this out, I can help you do that.’”
“That hit Walter like a ton of bricks. He and Carlos talked it out over the next 48 hours, and that was it. No more drinking, no more drugs, and no rehab or detox for Walter, who now has a wife, three sons, intact relationships and a successful life. Which might very well have been in jeopardy otherwise. It’s amazing to hear about someone saving someone else’s life. And Walter had a similar conversation later with [fellow guitarist/vocalist] Mike Zito, who cleaned up, turned his life around, and now counsels death row inmates. It’s very powerful to have someone open up to you like that. These are some of the stories we have.”
When Finkelstein refers to “we” instead of “I” or “me,” it rings genuine. He’s not a performer, admitting only a cursory knowledge of musicianship despite the dozens of vintage guitars he’s collected, with many on display throughout the condo. Only a small volunteer staff helps with the multiple levels of presenting weekly BRI broadcasts. And that staff seems to share his selflessness.
“Jesse’s not just in South Florida with BRI, either,” says Debbie Mitzman, a staff member of 18 months. “He goes to festivals all over the world, and wherever we’re traveling, we’re filming. Jesse is shy by nature, so he won’t toot his own horn, but he knows how to always make the artists who are interviewed, and/or perform, feel like family. And the listeners. It’s all worth it if we can touch even just one person, whether it’s in Alabama or Algeria.”
More than five years into his mission, Finkelstein has succeeded in delivering the blues around the world, largely to multitudes who essentially have the blues yet hear in the music reasons for optimism. He sees it as the sound of overcoming hardship, and envisions only a brighter future for the station and its listeners.
“In another five years, I’m hoping we’ll have expanded further than that of a largely First World phenomenon,” Finkelstein says. “We hope to reach more people, as many as possible, with something positive they can put into their lives. And we can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Hear Blues Radio International’s live performances and interviews every Sunday at 9 p.m., Monday at 9 p.m., and Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on 9955 kHz shortwave or on a simultaneous stream at www.wrmi.net. New BRI TV episodes air once or twice weekly, and both audio and video archives are available through the BRI website.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect time for BRI’s Monday schedule.