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The man behind the mic

NCPR News Director David Sommerstein cuts loose as a DJ

October 3, 2019
By GRIFFIN KELLY - For the News ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - If you go in David Sommerstein's car, you're going to find albums from the New Orleans brass ensemble Soul Rebels, a copy of Lizzo's "Cuz I Love You" and a phone connected to perpetually endless music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora.

The options are limitless. And because there's so much to choose from, he often doesn't plan his North Country Public Radio music show until the day of.

"It used to be you would have to get a hold of specific albums or CDs and get a set list together," Sommerstein said in a phone interview Friday, Sept. 27. "Nowadays, there is no shortage of good music. The tough part is trying to squeeze it all into one show and find the cream of crop."

Article Photos

North Country Public Radio News Director and DJ David Sommerstein hosts “The Beat Authority,” which airs Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m.
(Photo provided by David Sommerstein)

Every Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. on NCPR, Sommerstein hosts "The Beat Authority," a music show that showcases eclectic dance, jazz, hip-hop and rhythmic music from all around the world. He likes to get specific with his genres as opposed to calling the songs he plays "world music," a term he finds ambiguous and doesn't do justice to the musicians.

"I envisioned the through line of the show to be music from all over the world," he said. "It should highlight songs with really dance-able beats and that are good for a Friday afternoon. And that idea gives me flexibility. I can play groovy bluegrass or funky folk music. It's not all Latin or music from Africa."

Throughout the year, he hosts dance parties at North Country venues, which are basically like on-site productions of the radio show.

"The few gigs a year I do are way more rocking and upbeat and loud compared to the radio show," he said. "The goal is to really just get lost in the music, especially during the cold months when I do the shake-off-those-winter-blues-type of gigs at a place like the Recovery Lounge (in Upper Jay)."

Sommerstein hosted a dance party at the Waterhole in Saranac Lake on Saturday evening, Sept. 28.

In August, Sommerstein became NCPR's news director, a position previously held by Martha Foley since 1993. The news director is responsible for editing stories, working with reporters and managing NCPR's weekday morning news show, "The Eight O'Clock Hour." Sommerstein had been an NCPR reporter and then Foley's assistant news director for about a decade, and he said he learned a lot from her in that time.

"She taught me plenty of good lessons on good writing, transparency and how to stay in touch with the community and be humble," he said. "I couldn't have asked for a better mentor."

Sommerstein's first taste of professional radio was with WBFO in Buffalo, where he had been working in Spanish. At that point, his only other radio experience had been a show he hosted in college on Tuesday afternoons. He had told the then-program director David Benders that he wanted to be a jazz DJ and was given a shot.

"I was horrible," Sommerstein said, "but I was more than welcome to come in and practice. Benders taught me how to communicate with listeners without boring them to tears. Playing music is not that hard. Sure, you've got to stay up with it, but that's really all. Presenting music, that's what's hard, and that's an ongoing skill that I'm always working on."

Eventually, because of his bilingual capability, Sommerstein started assisting a salsa show hosted by two Puerto Rican DJs.

"It was a super-popular show," he said. "This is going to sound a little weird, but it was so popular because people who were in prison, their family members and loved ones would send shout-outs through the radio. I would help out the phone calls and later co-hosted."

During the breaks for "Beat Authority," Sommerstein seamlessly integrates Spanish into his speaking - a skill he honed while hosting a Latin jazz show in Colorado. He doesn't say entire paragraphs, just a few words and phrases such as "muy buenos tardes." Yes, a lot of the music he plays is in Spanish, so the language goes along with the track selection, but mostly it's just Sommerstein being Sommerstein.

"I don't think it's a forced aspect of the show," he said. "That's how I talk in regular life. That how I talk to my daughter or my wife. I get that we don't have (as) many Spanish-speaking people in northern New York than in southern Colorado, but I hear a lot of people really appreciate it. Also, we have a couple of diverse and bilingual communities in the North Country. I think it's just a part of our 21st-century life, and it really fits for the show."

Many radio music shows focus on classic rock or today's top 40 pop hits. These days, it can be a little difficult to find new and alternative music on the radio. It's not impossible; you just have to know where to look. Sommerstein appreciates streaming services for their ability to offer new and interesting music, but he thinks radio plays just as important of a role. It can be listened to digitally, too; you don't have to be in range of a specific radio tower to pick up a signal.

"That's a big focus for NCPR news, providing unique stories, so it's my job to do the same as music host," he said. "We should be playing music that's new, introducing new trends and bands that are up-and-coming. I'm very focused on making sure what I do today doesn't sound like show from five or 10 years ago.

"Public radio has become an oasis for key genres, like, where else do you hear jazz?"



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