Henry Brandon, left, (Ebony), and Jonathan Gresty, (Ivory), say they are good friends despite their differing on-air approaches to the show.
photo: David McLean
"A few weeks ago I ran a quiz and a guy called in from Oklahoma City with the correct answer. It's great, the Ebony and Ivory show has gone global."
Ebony and Ivory host Jonathan Gresty
The celebration was a simple one: on-air congratulations, the clinking of beer bottles and then the next song. An unadorned observance of a unique phenomenon: "The Ebony and Ivory Show," believed to be Slovakia's only English-language talk and music radio show.
The third anniversary of the show brought the co-hosts, American Henry Brandon (the "ebony" of the title) and Brit Jonathan Gresty (the "ivory"), together to celebrate their successful and intriguing run on eastern Slovakia's radio waves.
The show was founded in November 1997 by Bryan Rylands, a Brit living in Prešov at the time. He and Brandon, a native of Brooklyn, New York, hosted the show for the initial few months until Rylands left in early 1998, leaving local English teacher Gresty to take over the vacant slot.
Gresty, who has lived in Slovakia for nearly nine years and currently teaches language and literature at the University of Prešov, says that the show is divided into two halves allowing for each DJ to express their own styles. "We divide the programme into two slots. I'm on from ten to eleven and Henry is on from eleven to midnight," he says. "We try for a mix of about half talk and half music."
Broadcasts of Ebony and Ivory have bulit up a loyal following with many listeners using the Internet to tune in.
photo: Ján Svrček
During his slot, which tends to focus on a particular theme, Gresty often has an English-speaking guest. On a recent night, the guest was Daniel Shaw, a British musician who travels throughout central and eastern Europe, often on foot, with his Christian-Celtic band Heaven's Shore.
Other recent guests have included Peace Corps volunteers, a representative of Habitat for Humanity working in the region, and a local school student who spoke of her fondness for American gospel music. On other nights, Gresty might read passages from a particular novel, take calls from listeners, or offer a quiz. Prizes for correct answers have included apples from Gresty's own tree, a jar of his mother-in-law's home-made strawberry jam, a CD, or a book in English.
He speaks Slovak fluently and often peppers his show with Slovak language explanations to help out the less advanced listener-learners. As for the music, he says, "I try to play good stuff that may not be familiar to our listeners. Things like tracks from the deepest parts of the Beatle's White Album, or old Smiths songs, or Radiohead. I also try to mix in some Slovak musicians, like I.M.T. Smile or Jana Kirschner."
Brandon laughs and shakes his head as Gresty describes his song selection; although friends, the two have been known to disagree on music selections and the programme's format.
Brandon prefers his hour to be less centred on talk and more focused on music.
He mixes dance, rap, and hip-hop with jazz and older Motown music. "I play the music I like, but also music that listeners might never get to hear in eastern Slovakia. And I don't talk as much as Jonathan," he says. "I'm more of a free-wheeler. I'll just spin what I feel like playing, which is unusual here in Slovakia. My sense is that most radio shows are heavily scripted," he adds.
"I tend to prepare more while Henry improvises, though nothing's really scripted," Gresty says. "Listeners
say they like the cosy, spontaneous, chatty atmosphere of the show."
An international audience
That mixture, Gresty adds, has earned the duo an international following thanks to Internet broadcasts. "I couldn't believe it the first time a friend e-mailed and said he'd listened in on his computer. It was incredible. Some guy in the US listening to a broadcast you can't get if you're in, say, Poprad. It's amazing."
Gresty says that they now have regular listeners - friends, friends of friends, Slovaks studying abroad - on the Internet every week. He plans to set up an e-mail address so that people can make requests live from anywhere they're listening.
"A few weeks ago I ran a quiz," he says, "and a guy called in from Oklahoma City with the correct answer. He's [originally] from Prešov, but he's working in the States and was listening in. It was great. The Ebony and Ivory Show has gone global."
As to how the show has been received over the years by local listeners, Gresty is upbeat but uncertain.
"It's been difficult to gauge," he says. "I have students who listen every week, but I also have students who have never tuned in, so I can't really say. The station seems happy about the show. I just hope we can keep it going for as long as possible."
He adds that many of his listeners are young people who have been to Britain or the US on work visas and use the show to help maintain their English language skills. He also thinks the openness of the show has an appeal for many listeners.
"I sometimes try to be a little provocative and I think some of the interviews give a different perspective on things. I earnestly believe I was one of the few radio presenters who went against the absurd ban on political comment prior to the elections in September 1998. I analysed Orwell's Animal Farm and suggested parallels between things in the book and things going on here with the old [Vladimír Mečiar] government."
Politics is only one of the many potentially contentious subjects.
"We've talked about bribery at the university, the town's graffiti epidemic, and lately the American elections, of course," he says. "All between some really great songs, I should add."
While they may have their own distinct styles, the two have succeeded in forming a local favourite for radio listeners looking for new and old music, a lot of native English, and a different perspective from that offered by Slovak radio stations.
"I'd like to think our show could provide a platform for guests to talk about things they care about and to speak openly about them," Gresty says.
The Ebony and Ivory programme, which airs every Tuesday night from 22:00 to midnight on Prešov's Radio Flash (103.7 FM), carries a signal heard as far as Spišská Nová Ves to the West, and Humenné to the East. For the past year it has also been available on the world wide web at Radio Flash's Web site (http://www.flashradio.sk).
8. Jan 2001 at 0:00 | David McLean