12/12/13 12:00pm
12/12/2013 12:00 PM
CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Johnny Neicko, 76, stepped down as host of 'Sunday Polka Time' recently after 31 years.

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Johnny Niecko, 76, stepped down as host of ‘Sunday Polka Time’ recently after 31 years.

When Johnny Niecko of Riverhead began his radio broadcasting career 40 years ago, he wasn’t expecting much.

Then 36, he had recently returned home from Japan and Korea, where he served as a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army, to marry his wife in a traditional Polish ceremony at St. Isidore R.C. Church.

Born in Poland, Mr. Niecko immigrated to Riverhead with his family in 1951. He hadn’t considered working in radio until his barber in Polish Town dared him to give it a shot.

“He said, ‘You know your Polish and you got guts,’” Mr. Niecko said. “He dared me. I couldn’t refuse.”

It was a good bet to take. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Niecko landed his first radio gig at WLNG.

“It was a feeling that is impossible to describe,” he said.

He stayed with the station for four years before moving on to WRCN for about two years and finally settling at WRIV in downtown Riverhead in 1982.

He has since hosted the station’s “Sunday Polka Time” program from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. almost every weekend for 31 years. The show, he said, has a simple format with meaningful roots that reflect his heritage and community.

“I have always listened to that type of music,” he said. “Polka music is happy music. It puts a smile in your heart. I always ran my show in a different format from most. I never talked over the music. People didn’t want to hear BS, they wanted to hear the songs and their feet.”

Over the years, his style has earned him the respect of the community.

In 2008, supporters threw him a surprise party at Polish Hall — complete with a steak dinner and a proclamation from former Riverhead Town supervisor Phil Cardinale — in honor of his 25th anniversary on the air at WRIV.

Looking back, the 76-year-old remembers that night as a highlight of his career but remains humble about the recognition.

“It was a special night,” he said. “Everyone that knew me came out. I think it might have just been for the steak, though.”

In addition to his devoted listeners on the East End, Mr. Niecko said, his audience extends into Connecticut, upstate New York and New Jersey.

“You may be sitting in a studio but it felt like I was traveling,” he said. “All the people calling, it was a nice feeling. They treated me like royalty. My only regret is that I started too late. This is a young person’s profession.”

Mr. Niecko said he first started to think about calling it quits after having a heart attack nine years ago. Over time, he said, the physical demands of the job got to be too much and so he “threw in the towel” this year.

“Age and steps,” he said. “That is the reason why I think now is the right time. To get to the studio I have to climb 42 steps. Each year it got worse and now, by the time I get to the top, I have to take a 10-minute break.”

So, with a heavy heart, Mr. Niecko signed off for the final time Nov. 31 with his signature goodbye: “God bless America, and may the good Lord bless and keep you.”

WRIV general manager Bruce Tria said Mr. Niecko’s departure is the end of an era at the station.

“Johnny is a part of the woodwork around here,” Mr. Tria said. “He’s the salt of the earth as far as Polish Town goes. He was never really affected by trends. He couldn’t care less. He always wanted to do the best show he can.”

Hank Kulesa took over this past Sunday as the host of “Sunday Polka Time,” with Mr. Niecko’s blessing.

“I’ve known Hank for 30 years,” Mr. Niecko said. “He’s hosted the show for me in past and he knows the music. He will do a great job.”