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Amsterdam residents bring the polka in radio show

Saturday, December 03, 2016 - Updated: 3:31 AM


By EMILY DREW

Recorder News Staff

Locals with a Polish background, or avid polka fans, are likely familiar with the stylings heard on Polka Magic Radio Network.

From familiar classics to newer hits, John "Lil-Jas" Lesniewski and Robert "Happy Bob" Pawlak have been playing polka music on their weekly radio show since June 1, 1985, with no plans on stopping.

"It's enjoyable," Lesniewski said. "If it gets to the point where it's not fun anymore, we probably wouldn't do it."

Both of the show's hosts have a Polish background, with grandparents emigrating from Poland. They recalled listening to the polka music shows that preceded their own with family.

"I remember as a kid growing up involved in the farming community, trying to sleep in on a Sunday, my father would have it cranked up," Lesniewski said. "That's when it was a 7 o'clock show on Sunday. We filled in for that."

"Same with my grandparents," Pawlak said. "We didn't have much. We grew up on a farm, everything was probably invested in the farm and not much in the house. I remember tuning the radio and listening to it. It wouldn't come in that great."

Pawlak said the demand for the Polish radio stations has not died down. They both thanked tradition for the longstanding support for their show.

"What happens, I think, you have the people that are grandparents and maybe parents and then the young kids," Pawlak said. "Peer pressure I think takes them away for awhile, but as they grow a little older, some of them come back and they become very involved in it."

Polka Magic Radio Network has been operating under that name for 31 years on WSPN, the radio station from Skidmore College. Pawlak said he and Lesniewski had filled in for previous polka radio shows before getting their own.

The show has also been recognized over the years. It most recently received the Heritage Guard Award from the Casimir Pulaski Society in Rotterdam, as well as at ceremonies in Mechanicville, Saratoga and Albany.

Lesniewski described their show as "an upbeat Polish polka program." He said they try to stay out of the political scene but do interject current events, community news and dedications for birthdays, anniversaries and weddings.

Lesniewski said the show is unscripted.

"Believe it or not, we tried to do it regimented and it felt regiment," he said. "It felt like reading off a teleprompter. We couldn't do that. Then I feel like it sounds like that, too."

The live show airs 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday and can be streamed online at www.thepolkamagicradio.com. The show has its own traditions, such as the Thanksgiving Day show that aired Thursday, and a Christmas Eve and Easter show.

They can also be found doing live shows at community events around the area, supporting fundraising efforts.

When asked what stands out to them most about doing the show, both hosts said it was the connection to the audience.

"I'd say for us, it's sort of like a party," Pawlak said. "You play music, you have fun. Even when it's just us, we're not alone."

"Getting feedback, that's always enjoyable," Lesniewski said. "People like this music, don't like this song, and just that interaction. You get to know them as kind of like family. You get invited to their events at times."

Since they do a live stream via their website, Polka Magic Radio Network has a wide audience. Pawlawk said they have gotten listeners in Japan, Ireland and Germany. They are also affiliated with Polish New Castle Radio out of Pennsylvania, which gets them listeners in other parts of the country.

Lesniewski said the evolving technology has changed a lot of how they do the show.

"The portable hard drives, there's 30,000 polka songs on that. All I do is plug it into the computer now. It's pretty cool," he said.

Lesniewski said previously, they used to carry into the studio five or six plastic totes full of records and then boxes of cassettes.

"That'd probably be the biggest thing that's changed. Other than that, phone calls, request dedications, that's all the same," he said.

Pawlak projected a change in technology would be what gets Polka Magic Radio Network off the air.

"We don't want it to (end), but it's going to be some type of technological thing," he said. "As long as we can still do it."

Until then, listeners can still expect to hear Lil-Jas and Happy Bob on the air.

Lesniewski said while it is hard to gauge how many listeners there are tuning into each show on the radio, there could be more than a thousand listeners. On any show there are about 30 to 40 callers with even more people listening silently.

"There are people that you don't really know of. It's tradition," he said.

Pawlak said the passion for polka music and Polish heritage has not lessened.

"It hasn't seemed to die off at all," he said. "I think it's gotten little bit stronger."