Mary Cliff has been living the life that many can only dream about: She is paid to do the thing that she loves to do: radio hosting.
A Falls Church resident for the past 38 years, Cliff’s soft, distinctive voice is a familiar one to anyone who’s listened to WETA or WAMU over the last 43 years.
In 1972 she began working as a classical music host for WETA, ending up at WAMU where she had taken her long running folk music show that was purged in January for bluegrass and economic reasons.
Three colleagues went with her, booted out the door, into the cold. The January cold.
“I hope to go back on the air,” she said in an interview at the Falls Church News-Press last week, “but I don’t have to work.”
Her niche is folk music which she says embraces all “culturally related musics” including blues, classical, contemporary, which find their roots in folk, “if you go back far enough.”
She doesn’t care too much for contemporary music: “It has no staying power and no relationship to real life, as far as I’m concerned. [It’s] all artificial. Electric music doesn’t talk to me.”
This “radio junkie” “fell into radio” in 1966 when she did office work for a station, and two years later, went on the air as a “progressive rock” host (when the genre was called “underground music”).
Over the years Cliff has worked for every major D.C. venue and production you can name as (pick one or more) a radio host, programmer, engineer, typist, manager, reporter, librarian, operations director, writer, editor, line producer, union shop steward, custodian (setting up chairs), whatever’s needed to be done to promote her “baby,” folk music, including coordinating hospitality for the staff and volunteers of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for 30 years.
“I schlep and do whatever is needed to be done,” she said.
“I’ve joked for years I’m an octopus,” she laughed, with her hands in just about everything “folk music.”
Her community Saturday night folk music program, “Traditions,” focused on local artists and performances, and is the name of her website which she updates several times weekly, a convenient place to find out what’s happening folkwise around the region.
She has saved reel-to-reel tapes of interviews she’s conducted with Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Garrison Keillor, to name a few.
When the Beatles came to town in 1964, she got to meet them and shake hands.
She can remember as a child sitting (or lying) for hours in front of her family’s big brown 1930s radio in “pre-TV” days, listening to music, including country music from Mexico. (Mexico? Yes, Mexico and Ray Davis.)
She was born north of the Bronx in New York near Mt. Vernon, and moved to the area with her family as a youngster when her dad went to work for the Pentagon.
Cliff graduated from Immaculate Conception Academy (which no longer exists) and went to Catholic University where she majored in English.
Now she’s at a crossroads with important decisions to make: Does she travel? (Yes. She’s getting ready to hit the road this week) And/or remodel her kitchen? Look for work?
Mostly, what she wants to do is promote folk music and pick up the music where she left off.
“The music is the star, not me,” Cliff said. “I just manage it.”
“The community deserves a program, and right now, the folk community doesn’t have one,” she said.
Moving outside the D.C. market is definitely not a consideration since this is “home,” and her two children and grandchildren live here, too.
Besides, two other huge loves of her life are nearby: the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. Cliff has partial season tickets for both teams.
What does she do when they play each other? Easy: She wears a shirt for one team and a hat for the other.
Now she sees “limited opportunities” for herself: “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” but for sure, folk music and radio will always play key roles in her life, and maybe, just maybe, during her seventh decade stretch, she can combine those passions with a baseball position, since street talk says the Nationals are at their own music management crossroads.