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`Thistle and Shamrock'. Fiona Ritchie spins a wee bit o' burr on the air

THOUSANDS of radio listeners across the United States stay home to hear her voice. Her national radio program -- featuring a seemingly obscure genre of music -- provides what one listener calls ``an hour of joy, tears, happiness, and wonderful pleasure each week.'' Native Scot Fiona Ritchie is producer and host of ``The Thistle & Shamrock,'' a weekly exploration of traditional folk music from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany. She tapes the series at the studios of public radio station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C.; American Public Radio (APR) then distributes each program via satellite to 311 affiliates nationwide. More than 125 stations broadcast ``The Thistle & Shamrock,'' making it one of APR's most popular offerings. As a free-lance writer working at the originating station, I've had an opportunity to follow the show's progress.

What is it about Ms. Ritchie's series that so stirs listeners that they call her to describe their ancestries, to propose marriage, and to tell her they've named their pets after her? What motivated the Chicago Tribune to name ``Thistle'' the best new radio series of 1983?

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Perhaps listeners appreciate featured Celtic ensembles like Silly Wizard, The Chieftains, Ossian, and De Danann, who play fiddles, harps, and other familiar instruments in new ways. Perhaps the exotic sounds from pipes, tin whistles, and bodhrans (Celtic drums), entice them. Or perhaps they're enchanted by the pure tones of singing in English and Gaelic.

``I think Celtic music taps into the emotions more intensely than most kinds of music,'' says Ritchie in the Scottish burr listeners characterize as ``compelling.'' ``The music has a timeless quality, even though so much of it is ancient. There is a freshness to it that can be found chiefly in acoustic music.''

Listeners also enjoy the thematic nature of the show. In one program, Ritchie may highlight the versatility of a particular instrument. In another, she may pay tribute to a certain artist or group. She also devotes programs to songs and tunes about broad topics -- journeys, battles, the sea, flight, love. Her brief commentaries between sets -- about the music, artists, and history of the Celtic peoples -- bind each program together.

``The Thistle & Shamrock'' debuted as a weekly series here in January of 1982. A year and a half later, APR accepted the series for national distribution. ``This program was different, a narrow slice of culture too delightful to pass up,'' says Nick Nash, former vice-president of programming for APR, about his initial reaction to ``Thistle.'' ``What struck me as interesting was the way Fiona put it together with that wonderful lilting accent of hers.''

To sound spontaneous, Ritchie prepares rigorously for each program. She selects all the music herself, choosing from among hundreds of records purchased during trips to Scotland. The musical cuts are carefully arranged to showcase every selection.

``Some songs and voices lead into one another,'' she explains. ``Sometimes a song will seem to lead into an instrumental. The music should flow -- draw you from one connection to another.''

Ritchie makes a practice tape of the music to find out if her choices do enhance each other. She writes notes for her breaks rather than a formal script, because, she says, a script ``would change the spirit of the program.'' When she's ready to record, she tries two or three takes of her introduction, then keeps the tape running until she completes the program an hour later.

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``I feel most caught up in the music, transported by it, when I follow this process,'' she says. ``I want to go through the same thoughts and moods as my listeners. If they're elated, I want to be, too.''

Ritchie had never hosted or produced anything on radio before ``The Thistle & Shamrock,'' though she discovered the music of her homeland at an early age. Ritchie, the full-time development director of WFAE, was born in Gourock, on the west coast of Scotland, and grew up in a music-loving family. ``My mum,'' she recalls, ``always liked to play BBC Radio Scotland's traditional Scottish dance music and dance around the house. She'd sing little snippets of songs. Before I knew it, I had quite a wee repertoire of fragments myself!''

After her graduation from the University of Stirling in 1981, Ritchie and her American husband moved to Charlotte. Soon after, she visited WFAE, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and asked about volunteer opportunities. Station manager Jennifer Roth welcomed her, but she warned her that she would never be allowed on the air because of her accent. ``Yes, I'm glad I changed my mind about that decision!'' Ms. Roth says with a laugh.

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