Listeners to MIT radio station WMBR may have been delighted to tune in on a recent Sunday and hear Dusty Springfield singing “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.” Perhaps they were intrigued by what followed: the same song, but performed by Isaac Hayes, French pop star Sheila, and Jamaica’s Pat Kelly. Those who continued to listen to the show, and countless versions of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” for two full hours were rewarded — or perhaps punished — with a Greek country disco version by Demis Roussos.
The host of “Subject to Change,” Patrick Bryant, calls this format “PatNauseam.”
Most of Bryant’s selections are from the golden eras of folk, soul, jazz, and ’60s pop. Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the Etta James-associated “At Last,” and the Celtic folk standard “Wild Mountain Thyme” are a few recent examples.
Bryant usually starts with the original before showing how the song changes when interpreted by jazz improvisers, pop crooners, bluegrass pickers, indie rockers, or how it sounds in foreign tongues or when sampled for a hip-hop track. A reggae version is seemingly inevitable.
Longtime WMBR listener Michael Malyszko calls the show “fun and you always learn a lot. My wife rolls her eyes a bit when it comes on. Maybe it’s a form of self-abuse, but I figure if I’ve been listening for almost two hours, I’ve made it this far, so I might as well hear the Yugoslavian version of the song.”
Says Bryant, “I think that radio should be a provocation, but I hope that maybe after being initially alarmed or irritated the audience can have a deep listening experience. There are so many DJs out there, so why would someone listen to a particular show? Perhaps the tributaries of a particular song might be of interest. But it can be an endurance test.”
The variety of versions of a song is key to the show’s success. Bryant started to work on a show devoted to “My Funny Valentine,” but abandoned it after finding “that nearly everyone had done it in a standard, mundane, jazz form. I’m really looking for songs that morph and change through cultures, countries, and generations.”
“Subject to Change” got its start nearly 20 years ago, initially offering an eclectic music mix before evolving into a disco show. One trademark was Bryant’s deadpan readings of a Somerville newspaper column that featured anonymously submitted rants. Bryant, who is a labor lawyer by day, started doing theme shows but gradually found it more interesting to do an entire show around a single song. The PatNauseam format became permanent four years ago.
Some songs come from listener suggestions. Watching the recent “Genius: Aretha” miniseries inspired Bryant to program a month of covers of Aretha Franklin songs including “Rock Steady” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” And then there’s what Bryant calls the “Andy Williams Acid Test”: “If I’m stuck, I just look at a record by Andy Williams, who did all these ersatz covers. If he sang something, chances are dozens of other people did as well.”
After Bryant has settled on the song of the week, his first destination is his Somerville basement, where his collection of 15,000 records can be found. (Bryant downplays the volume of discs, insisting that few are worth more than a dollar.) After that, Bryant looks to websites like Discogs, WhoSampled, and SecondHandSongs. Inevitably he’ll buy a few new albums just because that one song is on them and the version can’t be found online. The pun-loving Bryant refers to such selections as “Tell Me I’m Not Streaming.”
Since the pandemic forced WMBR DJs into recording their shows from home, Bryant says he’s been taking as much as 15 hours to prepare for a single episode.
New York City resident Tom Pappas first started listening when he lived in Boston. He now streams the show over the speakers at the fish market where he works. “For the most part, the customers who notice the multiple versions of the same song are positive and curious,” he says. “Except in the case of ‘Little Green Apples,’ which was pretty upsetting to us all.”
Other station DJs also have their limits. Bryant was honored when the late WMBR host Captain Al (Frank Shefton) suggested Bryant fill in on an episode of “R&B Jukebox.” “He had to make a point of saying no PatNauseam. He didn’t want his show sullied with it,” Bryant says with a laugh.
This writer — who is banned from listening to “Subject to Change” at home — understands where Captain Al was coming from. Earlier this year Bryant featured two hours of versions of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” It was fascinating to hear how it sounded in the hands of everyone from Johnny Mathis to D’Angelo to Estonia’s Velly Joonas. But when Flack’s version came on another radio station a week later, I immediately turned the dial.
“Subject to Change” airs Sundays from noon to 2 p.m. on WMBR-FM (88.1). Archived editions are available for two weeks following the broadcast at wmbr.org, where playlists for all prior episodes can also be found.