Braille Monitor                                                    March 2009

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Tuning in to Sidetracks

by Christine Miller Ford

Ed and Karen McDonaldFrom the Editor: The following story appeared in the Mineral Daily News Tribune in Keyser, West Virginia, on Thursday, November 28, 2008, (Thanksgiving Day), and the GateHouse News Service circulated it. The subject of the profile is longtime NFB of West Virginia leader and former NFB national board member Ed McDonald and his wife Karen. Here it is:

It's likely that more West Virginians are now hearing Ed McDonald's unique mix of contemporary acoustic music rooted in the traditions of folk, bluegrass, and blues. In recent weeks Sidetracks, the popular hour-long program that McDonald and his wife Karen have put together from their home in Keyser each week since 1998, is still airing on West Virginia Public Radio stations on Fridays, but now two hours earlier, at 9 p.m. McDonald said he hopes the change will pay off with a larger audience for the program. "A lot of times we hear from folks who say they really enjoy Sidetracks but don't like staying up till 11 o'clock,” he said. "Audience surveys show the number of listeners tends to peak during drive time around 7 p.m. and then gradually taper off every hour after that. Being on early should mean more people listening."

Sidetracks can also be heard each week on WFWM-FM (91.9), a station based in Frostburg [Maryland]. That station broadcasts the show at 11 a.m. Saturdays, immediately after Car Talk.

Each Sidetracks show centers on a theme, with McDonald in recent months organizing programs around the one hundredth anniversary of the Mother's Day holiday, Father's Day, the anniversary of West Virginia's statehood, Independence Day, Labor Day, the arrival of fall, and other key dates. "Some themes are just a given as I look through the calendar,” said McDonald, who worked as a DJ in St. Albans near Charleston and other cities in West Virginia before pursuing a master's degree in broadcasting at Ohio University, then returning to his native Keyser in the late 1980s. "Other times I'll follow up on something that's on the news or that strikes me as interesting."

When the Wall Street meltdown hit the nation in late September, McDonald put together a show featuring songs about hard times. The thematic approach comes from the way the McDonalds organize their music collection. McDonald, who, like his wife, is blind, makes Braille labels and attaches them to the CDs as soon as they arrive in the mail. "We have thousands and thousands of CDs, so many that I'm honestly afraid to count them all," said McDonald. "Karen writes up a card for every song that has potential for our show. Then, as I listen to the CDs, I put the cards into different envelopes. It might take a year or longer before I have enough song titles in an envelope to build a show around. When I need a theme, I'll look through my envelopes and see what looks full enough to make a show out of."

At any given time McDonald is working on dozens of themes. Some that he's mulling over for coming months: songs about dogs, songs about wandering, the Civil War, and the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth in February. This week's show is a Thanksgiving celebration. "We're featuring songs about home--Thanksgiving being an occasion that often turns our thoughts toward home," McDonald said. Next week Sidetracks starts the first in a series of shows centered on the holiday season.

Besides the West Virginia Public Radio stations around the state, where the program has been a fixture since the fall of 2003, Sidetracks is also heard on community and Internet stations as far away as New York, Missouri, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere.

In part because both McDonalds are West Virginia natives, references to the Mountain State pop up regularly on Sidetracks, as do songs from Hazel Dickens, Kathy Mattea, Tim and Molly O'Brien, and other West Virginia musicians. "I make no apologies about the program being West Virginia-centric," McDonald said. "When I think that maybe that's not a good thing, I look at Garrison Keillor and his focus on Minnesota. That hasn't hurt him. The truth is, the bulk of our listeners are here, and West Virginia artists have learned who we are and make sure that we get a copy of their latest work.”

Having ties to West Virginia, however, isn't enough to land a musician on the program, McDonald said. "We don't play anything from a West Virginia artist if it's not up to our standards," he said. "Karen makes sure of that."

Karen McDonald, the show's music director and associate producer, for years worked as the director of the Farmington Youth Experience community choir. She also plays the piano and other instruments. In addition to adding to the audience for Sidetracks in 2009, the McDonalds hope to establish a Website for the business and find underwriters for the program.

"Our focus for all these years has been on establishing a track record and building an audience, both with radio listeners and among musicians, and we've done those things," he said. "Now we're hoping to find businesses that are willing to invest in us. That's our next big step."

For details on Sidetracks, go online to <> or contact Ed and Karen McDonald by mail at 151 S. Mineral Street, Keyser, West Virginia 26726.


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