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Finding her next wave

She’s been celebrated at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s an old friend of Howard Stern. So what is legendary DJ Meg Griffin doing at a local college station?

By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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GLOUCESTER — Meg Griffin has stories. There’s one about the time a young Tom Petty interrupted a live on-air interview to gawk at her pregnant belly. And the day she played the Marshall Crenshaw tune “Some Day Some Way’’ 18 times in a row. And the barrage of complaints she received, and ignored, when she started spinning a record by a newcomer named Patti Smith.

“I was self-indulgent, but always with artists I believed in,’’ says Griffin, a veteran New York disc jockey who has been living in Gloucester since 2008 and turned up without warning or fanfare in February on WUMB-FM (91.9), the University of Massachusetts Boston’s radio station. “To be remembered as a radio personality you need a singular vision, and you can’t be compromised.’’

That’s a tall order in an industry withered by corporate consolidation, narrow music formats, and market-tested playlists, and where DJs have by and large morphed from tastemakers to announcers. Which is why Griffin — a free-form radio veteran whose storied career earned her a spot in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit — materialized on a college station with an audience of just 65,000.

Weeknights from 7 to 10 p.m. Griffin hosts “Music Mix With Meg,’’ where she plays what she likes and says what she thinks. Her other radio show, “Meg Griffin’s Disorder,’’ airs daily on Sirius XM satellite radio.

Neither gig rivals FM radio’s freewheeling early days, when Griffin might spin Jonathan Richman, Chick Corea, and the Ramones back to back. At WUMB she works with a core of around 2,000 roots-oriented artists and a mandate to expand on that in the coming months. But it’s a happy home for someone whose passion for music, and for spontaneity on the airwaves, hasn’t dimmed.

“Things keep changing, and if you don’t keep an eye on what’s happening and where you fit in you’ll be left behind,’’ Griffin says. “I’m playing what I want to at stations where I’m not only allowed but expected to be human.’’

WUMB general manager Pat Monteith reached out to Griffin two years ago when a mutual friend told her that the legendary DJ was planning a move from New York to Gloucester. The station had just dropped its longtime identity as “folk’’ radio with the aim of moving in a livelier, more eclectic direction; Griffin had spent three years at WFUV, a noncommercial New York station with folk music roots that had successfully expanded its programming and audience. On paper it was a match, but first Monteith had to make a phone call.

“I gave a call to ’FUV and asked them if she was a superstar who’s in love with herself or someone who will fit into what we’re doing here,’’ Monteith recalls. “They said she was a tremendous team player.’’ But Monteith was looking for a morning host and senior producer, and Griffin’s bosses at Sirius didn’t want her taking another full-time gig that would have her on the air during competing hours. When Monteith decided to bump the syndicated “World Cafe’’ from the early evening slot in favor of local programming, Griffin stepped in.

Glenn Kennedy of Ipswich, a longtime WUMB supporter who has been listening to Griffin on satellite radio for years, was surprised and thrilled to hear her on the local airwaves.

“It’s incredible how similar our taste is,’’ Kennedy says, “but also how informed she is. It’s gotten to the point where I want to hear what Meg has to say about the music even more than the music itself. You feel like Meg is a friend on the radio.’’

Griffin broadcasts both radio shows from a studio in her condo on Good Harbor Beach, in the former B&B where Griffin’s family spent their summer vacations. Determined to do whatever she had to “to get my little piece of Gloucester,’’ Griffin says she sold nearly everything she owned to buy her home here.

She also persuaded the powers that be at Sirius XM to not only greenlight her move but also send an engineer to install equipment that connects her directly to the music library at Sirius’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. The sounds of seagulls outside her window routinely make it onto the air, which for Griffin is a metaphor for the slice of freedom she’s managed to hang onto.

When she’s not working on her two radio shows, Griffin is at Kittery Crossing Farm in nearby Rowley, where she keeps her two horses. Griffin was studying to be a veterinarian (and hanging out at night in New York clubs) when she decided on a lark to sign on for a show at her college radio station.

“God knows how awful I must have been,’’ she says, “but there was something about hitting that button, and there goes the record, and there’s the mike, and I’m going to tell you something about it. Maybe it felt right because I dug the music so much and knew how to talk about it.’’

Griffin began her career in 1975 at WRNW in Briarcliff, N.Y., alongside another young radio host, Howard Stern. (Their friendship has prevailed across several radio stations and decades.) She was soon snapped up by WNEW, then the New York equivalent of Boston’s once-iconic WBCN, where she made a name for herself as a champion of the burgeoning punk and new wave scene.

“My arrival was right around the time this thing was bubbling up,’’ Griffin says, “and I was out seeing those bands and knew most of them. I brought that to the plate, sometimes to the chagrin of some of the hosts, who were like, Wait a minute. Where are the Eagles? After a while it all starts to mix, and those are the growing pains of radio and music. You have to bring in new listeners and balance it in a way so you don’t betray your longtime listeners. I think that’s part of what’s happening at ’UMB now. You have to keep moving forward.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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