Despite remaining virtually unknown in her native Scotland, Fiona Ritchie has been introducing many millions of Americans to Scottish, Irish and other Celtic music every week for the past three and a half decades, through her immensely popular show, The Thistle & Shamrock, on America’s National Public Radio network.
Scotland’s unofficial cultural ambassador to the United States, she has been described, by Murray Horwitz, former vice president of cultural programming at NPR, as “the living embodiment of what is distinctive, wonderful and most valuable about public radio”. Back in Scotland, singer and broadcaster Archie Fisher has commented: “The Thistle & Shamrock has become a soundtrack for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. She instinctively knows what connects with her listeners.”
So popular has her show proved that it became one of the first on public radio to reach listeners in every state in the US. Yet few of these listeners may realise that for the past 14 years, the show has been recorded in an 18th-century building in Highland Perthshire, close to where Fiona now lives with her family, and sent to NPR in Washington DC via the internet, although its administrative HQ remains in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she continues to make frequent transatlantic trips.
The broadcaster who has spent so much time linking Scotland and America was born in Greenock in 1960 and grew up in nearby Gourock, in a household where an old-fashioned “wireless” helped her develop an appreciation of music and a love of radio. Her mother loved the songs of Robert Burns and Fiona’s involvement in a youth choir encouraged her interest in folk songs. She embarked on a degree course in Scottish and English literature at the University of Stirling, but was later drawn to major in psychology.
Three years later she made the first of many Atlantic crossings to take up a six-month position as a teaching assistant in the psychology department of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, before returning to Stirling to graduate with honours in psychology. She went back to Charlotte, however, joining the team of a new NPR member station there, WFAE-FM.
Her early days with the newly launched radio station immersed her in a wide range of radio work, but most significant was towards the end of 1981, when she was asked if she could put together a programme of music celebrating her own traditions. Although she just had about a dozen home-grown LPs with her, she duly made the programme. Such were the tentative beginnings of the show that would become one of NPR’s most widely heard music programmes, with listeners in all 50 of the United States as well as in Guam and the US Virgin Islands, and also globally via NPR Berlin, the American Forces Network and internet streaming.
The following year she was appointed WFAE’s director of promotion and development and in 1983 The Thistle & Shamrock, already established weekly on WFAE, began distribution across the United States through NPR. Three years later Fiona became its full-time producer and host.
Not only has the show acquainted New World audiences with the music emerging from the Celtic Old World (as well as from its related musical diaspora in North America) but it has often helped boost the careers of musicians from Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere.
“When I first started,” she told an interviewer, “there was just a limited number of recordings. Since then, there has been an explosion of this music.”
So much material, in fact, that an archive was established at St Andrews University, Laurinburg, North Carolina, to house the immense collection of vinyl music received by the show along with a digital library of radio programmes, show playlists and books on traditional music and culture. In 1994 it was duly named the Fiona Ritchie Radio Archive.
She co-anchored several high-profile live July 4th radio broadcasts for NPR from Washington DC during the mid to late Nineties, presenting the concerts before outdoor audiences of some 250,000. Another live music event she presented was for the Prince of Wales at Holyrood Palace in 2001.
Back at home, she has fronted numerous music programmes for BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 2, as well as partnering Radio Scotland, in 1993, to launch the world music series Celtic Connections, going on to serve as an early advisor on the mammoth Glasgow festival of the same name. She has been an advisor to the British Council, and to the Smithsonian Institute’s renowned Folklife Festival.
“Being away from Scotland,” she says of her early days with the show, “gave me the desire and the distance to explore my heritage. It gave me a niche and a different perspective. I was also returning to Scotland annually at Christmas, which gave me a chance to listen to the changes in the music. It was an opportunity for me to perceive what was happening in both places.”
Quite apart from giving vast exposure to the music, Fiona helped pioneer digital delivery systems to NPR member stations and created NPR’s first mp3 music download in 2003, launching her own Thistlepod podcast four years later, then creating a 24-hour Celtic music stream, Thistleradio, for digital broadcaster SomaFM.
Her championing of Celtic music over the airways has brought her many honours, including an honorary doctorate from St Andrew’s University in North Carolina, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Swannanoa Gathering, gold, silver and bronze medals in the New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards – competing with some of the largest radio networks and production houses in the world. Back in the UK, 2014 saw her awarded an MBE for Services to Broadcasting and Scottish Traditional Music.
That same year she enjoyed critical acclaim for Wayfaring Strangers, the New York Times best-seller she co-wrote with Doug Orr of Warren Wilson College, about how Scots and Irish immigrants brought their music to Appalachia and other regions of the United States. “When NPR first partnered with me in presenting The Thistle & Shamrock,” she recalled in an interview, “we talked about using my radio show to open a doorway into a world of evolving Celtic music traditions for public radio listeners.
“I could never have imagined how far that door would swing open my way, too, helping inspire my search for the depth of connection that underpins our migration story in Wayfaring Strangers.” In 2015 the book won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award.
She regards the music she plays as “a window on to something very old and very real that speaks to people as no other art form can. There is nothing quite like folk music, because it explores the intimate nature of everyday life and celebrates the trials and tragedies of regular people. And that’s something that I think is very worth preserving.”