Even when Jeff Stewart was a kid growing up in Kentucky, radio was a big part of his life.
Right before he went to sleep, he’d fire up his parents’ old tube radio and flip between the stations, bouncing between Chicago, Cincinnati and New York.
“I just thought there was something sort of magical about the radio,” he said. “And I guess I still feel that way.”
Stewart spent 35 years as a WMNF volunteer and on-air music programmer. For the last six, he woke up each Wednesday at 4 a.m. to host the morning show.
Today marked his last broadcast.
“I’m amazed to say that I’ve been on the radio for most of my life,” he said.
Stewart has spent a lifetime working creative jobs, from stints at Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Tampa Museum of Art to gigs at two record stores.
Now 56, he is excited to start a new job in health care. But Stewart also has creative projects on the horizon. During lockdown, he got into digital audio editing and learned about podcasting.
When it comes to his relationship with the station, he says he’s going out on good terms.
“WMNF does program changes every three years,” he explained. “I just felt the timing was right for me to get out now and maybe give somebody new a chance in that slot.”
Stewart moved to Florida to study at New College in Sarasota. A lover of reggae, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, he soon heard about WMNF from a fellow student. At the time, there weren’t other non-commercial stations playing that sort of music.
After graduating, he moved from Sarasota to Tampa, looking for work. He headed to WMNF before he even had a chance to unpack.
“It’s a story of a young man with no shoes that turned up one day and was impossible to kick out for 35 years,” he said. (New College is known for students roaming campus barefoot.)
In the beginning, Stewart spent Monday afternoons playing R&B.
“I was really into the music of Stax Records and Memphis and classic Motown and sort of hard-to-find R&B and soul music of the 60s and early 70s,” he said. “And that was my specialty for the longest time, playing favorites and some of that crate digging stuff that a lot of music fans love.”
He’d go on to have a show called Rhythm Vault, which turned into Rhythm Vault International, and showcase garage music and R&B from all over the world. Then he moved to the Wednesday morning slot, where he mixed new releases as well as classic songs from past decades.
“I’ll play Billie Holiday up to A Tribe Called Quest, or some of the great, great new artists that are out there like Leon Bridges and Fleet Foxes.”
Duncan Strauss, host of WMNF’s “Talking Animals,” lives on the other coast of Florida. He always enjoyed listening to Stewart’s show during his long drive to Tampa each week, even before he got to know him as a friend.
“He is a fantastic programmer, really has a real gift for it,” Strauss said. “When you have the kind of breadth and depth of musical knowledge that he does, that’s critical.”
Katarina Lauver, who does the morning show on Thursdays, said she tried to convince Stewart to stay.
“He was just my personal friend but also my radio friend,” she said. “So warm and engaging and funny.”
“I already warned him that I’m going to be pestering him, probably once a month, to do a show,” she continued.
Stewart loved interacting with listeners around the world, especially as WMNF grew with new technology.
“I still remember the first time someone emailed and said, ’'I’m listening to you on a new smartphone on a subway in New York,’” he said.
He’s grateful for all of the radio listeners who have shown support over the years.
“Being a commercial-free radio station, you can’t stay on the air without great listener supporters. I’m just so humbled every time by that listener support from folks that have known me over the radio for literally for decades, and we’ve never met in person.”