NPR’s “The Thistle And Shamrock” To End After 41 Years

NPR’s The Thistle & Shamrock® will end on September 30 after four decades. Show creator, producer, and host, Fiona Ritchie shared the following note with listeners:

June 4th 1983 saw the debut of a new radio show called The Thistle & Shamrock® on stations across the U.S. via American Public Radio.  Then in September 1990, The Thistle & Shamrock moved to NPR as part of an eclectic roster of music shows (“cultural programming” as honoured collectively by President Clinton in 2000 with the presentation of the National Medal of Arts).  So this means, based in the U.S. and Scotland, I’ve been delivering a weekly show to public radio listeners for over 41 years!  Along the way I’ve visited many member stations the length and breadth of the country from WRKF in Baton Rouge to KUAC in Fairbanks, and toured with live shows from California to Carolina.  I became enchanted by Appalachian music in the Southern Mountains and led American radio listeners on musical journeys through my Scottish homeland.  I’ve worked for the BBC at different times, but my broadcasting home has always been with NPR. 

When I first developed The Thistle & Shamrock on WFAE in Charlotte in 1981, there were precious few outlets for this sort of music in the U.S. or indeed anywhere, and yet there were so many great things to share and such eager, open-minded audiences.  Small independent record labels in the U.K., Ireland and North America picked up on my enthusiasm and supplied me with recordings for airplay. Vinyl, reel-to-reel, CD, DAT, mp3 (The Thistle & Shamrock offered NPR’s first free mp3 download in 2003), uploads and downloads – I’ve reached listeners using all sorts of media.  Now people can access every kind of music, anywhere and in any way, via terrestrial radio, streaming services, and vast cloud storage.  In working with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for their 40th anniversary in 2016, I learned that there are more than three million recordings and radio broadcasts in their digital archives, including many a rarity on wax cylinder and every recording technology up to the present time.  Nowadays, vintage vinyl collections are uploaded onto YouTube, and precious field recordings, from remote geographical locations, can be accessed worldwide.  Listeners everywhere can learn old songs from tradition-bearers long since departed, and then hear new music as it emerges from every corner of the planet.  For decades I’ve enjoyed helping music to find its audiences on the radio, but it all circulates more effectively than ever now under its own momentum in every way imaginable. 

Through the years, especially when I’ve given talks to young people or hosted them on work experience, I get asked what I like most about my work, and there are plenty of answers: the delicious discovery of fresh new sounds; witnessing exciting live performances at close quarters; meeting and interviewing artists living their creative lives.  Listener encounters are also endlessly surprising: a few years ago I heard separately from a Ukrainian and then a Russian musician, each having discovered my radio shows online and been equally drawn to what they’d heard. Gathering together through music, in person and on the radio, offers a space for empathy and understanding, a bridge across the barriers of language, custom, and even time.  Radio is magical in that way.  When I’m asked what I like least about my work, there’s only ever been one answer: the relentless weekly deadlines!  Now I want to continue to develop my other interests, including perhaps creating radio moments with more breathing space in between. I am grateful for the journey so far and open to the possibilities!

–Fiona Ritchie
Producer/host NPR’s The Thistle & Shamrock®
June 28, 2024

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