When Peter Kernast graduated from what was then Trenton State College in 1976, he knew WTSR-FM as the college’s small radio station that played rock groups like Journey and REO Speedwagon.
He couldn’t have imagined that nearly 45 years later he would be nearing three decades as one of the station’s mainstays.
Although he graduated with a degree in chemistry and spent his career as a process chemist working at well-established pharmaceutical companies in Mercer County, Kernast remained passionate about music. FM radio, in particular, fascinated the Hamilton resident.
“Back in the 1960s when I was a kid, it was all AM radio: that’s how we listened to music. It was groups like the Beatles, and not much folk music except for the superstars like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. But then, in the late 1960s, WMMR out of Philadelphia came on the scene.”
Hearing music on FM radio for the first time changed the whole music game for Kernast.
“It was completely different from AM: it was very progressive,” he said. “I really got attracted to that music, to the folk singers of that era, through that early exposure to FM.”
By the 1980s, Kernast knew he wanted to find a way into the business.
Through his brother, Kernast met a DJ at the radio station, Gail Gaiser. That was the kismet moment: through Gaiser, Kernast was able to join the station. Though he began at the station, in the late 1980s, playing a variety of music, including progressive rock, Kernast was more and more fascinated with the idea of creating a show that focused mainly on folk and alternative music. He started with a show, “Other Musical Diversions,” on Tuesday mornings. Then, he began “Legacy” on Mondays mornings, and dropped the “Diversions” show by 1990.
“Legacy” transitioned to Monday evenings in 1992, bringing in a co-host to the show, John Bates, who helped Kernast balance hosting the show and his full-time job as a chemist, filling in when Kernast had to work. (Kernast retired from his career as a process chemist in 2017.)
Bates, who was also a teacher at Hightstown High School, owned Rock Dream Records in Hamilton.
“I used to frequent his store, and then, when he started a concert group with his students, I’d go to his concerts,” Kernast said. “John was also a concert promoter and had been involved with WTSR, so we became good friends. When my work obligations changed, and I had to travel more for my job, John helped me out. The show probably wouldn’t have survived to today if it wasn’t for him.”
The show, which is broadcast out of the campus’s Kendall Hall, is funded by the school, part of the Arts and Communication department at TCNJ, and completely student run.
What does Kernast attribute the success and longevity of his radio show to? Several things.
“No one was doing folk or world music programs at the time, that was what I really wanted to do,” he said. “And, over the 30 years I have been doing the show, I have done a lot of interviews with numerous artists, like Peter Knight, the fiddle player to Steeleye Span, and also groups and great single performers, like guitarist Beppe Gambetta, a renowned flat picking guitar player from Italy who has been awarded national honors. I’ve had Celtic folk music bands like Mollie’s Revenge to a bluegrass band from the Czech Republic called Druhá Tráva. Druhá Tráva performed live on the radio in the 1990s, and I remember some of them were playing in the hallway, because I couldn’t fit them all into the studio.”
Kernast is also constantly looking for new artists to add to his show’s playlist. An international organization called the Folk Alliance has an annual conference, attended by record company executives and individual artists, where Kernast finds a lot of artists. He also goes to local venues to hear music, from traditional performers at The Princeton Folk Music Society to the Hopewell Theater and Ewing’s 1867 Sanctuary. Kernast said he is always finding someone new to add to the show.
Kernast also recognizes that a lot of the world and folk music he plays touches on political and social issues. He had always played native American artists from independent record labels, but his focus on indigenous artists increased in 2016, during the protests against a pipeline to be built through the Standing Rock Indian reservation. The protests gained national attention.
He started a weekly feature of Native American music called, “I Stand With Standing Rock.” True to that tradition, he now plays indigenous music every Monday.
Walter Miziuk is one of the station’s most loyal listeners, who has been listening to “Legacy” since 1991.
“Over the years, Peter and I became friends, which allowed me to see, firsthand, his commitment to the music,” Miziuk says. “The genres he pays have historically been overshadowed by commercial pop and rock, and a show like ‘Legacy’ provides exposure and often an introduction to an artist [for the listener], resulting in a more diverse platform. There are a lot of talented artists producing great music, who struggle for recognition and exposure and to be heard, because air time is so competitive: ‘Legacy’ provides that platform for them.”
Where will the 30-year-old-show—and Kernast—go from here?
“The future is an unknown, you never know where life’s path leads you,” Kernast said. “But I have more energy to put into the show now that I am retired, and I was finally able to put up a website in May, where people can see my playlists and musical recommendations. And now, with internet streaming, you can hear my station all over the world. It’s a great thing.”
For more information about “Legacy,” go online to wtsrlegacy.com.