A Matter of Sound: Reflecting on the broadcast legacy of Jim Santella

Jim Santella, a longtime Buffalo broadcaster and radio innovator, died last week. He was 86.  Since his passing, more than once people have asked if I knew him. I did. Informally, at first, as a listener. And later as a friend and colleague at WBFO, where we talked often about the craft of radio.

I’ve read the many tributes that have followed his passing, but today, someone unfamiliar with the local radio scene and its history asked me what qualities made Jim so well respected.

The answer lies broadly in the fact that Jim was an artist before anything else. He was an actor, writer, and television director, but radio was the medium he used most often to express his creativity.

To understand Jim’s approach to radio is first to appreciate his authenticity. Although many broadcasters have found success developing a persona, Jim was about being himself − on purpose. He extracted from the medium its most social and communicative elements, many of which had been previously explored but never fully articulated. He had a welcoming presence but was driven by an underlying creative pursuit for the possibilities that played among voice and song and radio. From the studio (again, think art) he built an audience, but fundamentally, and more importantly, he built relationships.

There were other DJs we liked. But Jim was our companion.

A pleasant authenticity became style. Style became sound. And the sound’s influence was profound.  A case can even be made that the sound of NPR, a news network that today has millions of weekly listeners, arrived not through journalistic descent, but from the immediate influence of progressive rock DJs around the country, who like Jim, were changing how radio was practiced.

Jim heard sound as a painter sees color. He mixed intellect and passion at the point where knowledge of a subject met an enthusiasm to share it.  Not in a curatorial sense, or even instructionally, but rather through a commitment to communicate, the first step in relationship building.

The progressive rock era of the late 1960s and early 70s coincided with both the start of Jim’s career and the blossoming of FM radio, a previously blank canvas that was then being filled in. But the eventual distinction between FM and AM was about the personalities on the air as much as the technology underpinning FM’s superior sound quality, a reality that speaks to the merits of artistic freedom. 

Many owners with FM stations failed to devote much attention to those properties, in the early years, focusing instead on their AM companions. But in the 1960s, many factors, like affordable home stereo systems and the availability of FM radios in cars, helped draw listeners to FM.

It’s here however where the attribution gets muddy.

Broadcast histories often note that station owners began experimenting with FM at this time, but to accurately frame that moment is to realize that those owners, or their managers, gave the DJs − by design or indifference − the freedom to experiment. Jim was among the innovators who, through the gift of conversation, and the ability to tell a story, demonstrated how radio’s cultural influence, born in the golden age of broadcasting, could be extended and expanded for a new generation of listeners. 

It was that kind of experimentation that allowed Jim to “think differently about how to present music on the radio,” as he often said.  

He knew radio’s history and understood its potential, and in the process, he gave us a shared experience, in real time, when we were all in it together, listening simultaneously. He was a friend talking to us, not an announcer talking at us.

Thanks, Jim.  

You always made it sound better.

Editor’s note: Funeral and visitation information is at

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