The Midnight Special
Some people who listen to The Midnight Special tell producer-host Rich Warren it’s their way of going to church. Others tell him they’ve courted while listening to the program, made love with the show on in the background or rediscovered the program in their later years after being passionate fans in their youth.
To Rich, creating the national show from his basement in rural Champaign County is a way of staying true to the music. “Some of the songs I play go back 1,000 years,” Rich said. “It’s our heritage. It’s part of who we are.”
Gesturing toward the walls filled with CDs and LPs that make up The Midnight Special music library in his home’s lower level, Rich said, “I want listeners to hear all the people who spend their lives, many of them starving to death, making this music. I feel evangelical, in the non-religious sense, about sharing the music.”
Rich produces and records the show each week from his basement studio made cozier with a brown log cabin-pattern quilt on the wall and his Pointer, Pandora, often resting at his feet.
The music Rich plays isn’t easily categorized. Folk music and farce, show tunes and satire, traditional and contemporary – all have a place along with gentle irreverence and candid observation. WILL-AM airs a national version of the show at 2 pm Saturdays, but it’s produced for WFMT in Chicago. The national version airs on more than 50 stations around the country. The show celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and rich celebrates his 30th anniversary of hosting the program this year.
Rich began listening to The Midnight Special growing up in Evanston. During high school, he began visiting WFMT to help find records and answer phones on request nights. In college at the University of Illinois, Rich hosted his own folk music program that was an unabashed imitation of The Midnight Special. He joined the staff at WFMT in 1974 and in 1983, was invited to guest host the show. Rich became a regular host, alternating with Norm Pellegrini and Ray Nordstrand. In 1996, he became the program’s sole host. “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
When he first took over, he said, he struggled a bit. “People wanted me to do things the way Norm and Ray had always done it.” Rich changed things up a bit and played younger, fresher material and his audience responded positively. “I see myself as a facilitator between people who make the music and those who like to listen to it,” he said. He also produces and MCs another WFMT weekly concert series, “Folkstage,” and writes an audio-video column for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.
The Midnight Special complements the news and information format of WILL-AM because the show’s music often carries a message, Rich said.
“The show tends to be fairly political. It just happens to be more musically political. I play music I want people to think about,” said Rich. “There’s very little fluff in The Midnight Special.” However, he said, he does play comedy, in part because it lower people’s defenses so the message gets through. “As Norm Pellegrini advised me, ‘You can enrich people, enlighten them, but first you have to entertain them,’ ” he said.