PROVINCETOWN — For some who move off Cape, it’s a challenge to stay away. Like a full-moon tide, the lure of the place pulls them back. This was true for Cape native Scott Penn, former executive director of Outer Cape Health Services and host of WOMR-FM’s Lush Life, offering jazz vocals from the Great American Songbook. After a 17-year hiatus, Penn couldn’t resist the opportunity to reprise the popular show.
Penn still lives in New York City. But in 2018, he started making the drive up I-95 once a month to WOMR’s studios on Commercial Street in Provincetown. Now, due to the pandemic, he broadcasts from his apartment in Brooklyn. And the ballads of Lush Life have taken on an added poignancy since Penn’s audience has been hunkered down at home.
“Being on WOMR was one of the best things of my life,” said Penn, whose show is named for the Billy Strayhorn torch song, written in 1933. “To be able to do it again makes me so happy.”
The familiar voice that soothed listeners most Saturday nights from 1987 to 2001 hasn’t changed. But Penn has updated Lush Life and extended its musical reach. “I didn’t want to just recreate what I did 20 years ago,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to make my show different and give it some fresh energy?’ ”
He went hunting for new music, but not through old, dusty record boxes like he used to do. Instead, he immersed himself in streaming platforms, looking for recordings from outside of the U.S. Lush Life still features vocalists covering the standards, but now, it’s gone global, including such artists as Claire Martin and Ian Shaw from the U.K. and Canadian Matt Dusk.
“To take a song where you think you’ve heard every possible version of it and have someone approach it with fresh eyes and ears, it reminds you why you love the song,” Penn said.
Born and raised in Hyannis, Penn fell in love with music at a young age. He grew up listening to his transistor radio, when the only station on the Cape was WOCB-AM. At his grandmother’s house, he’d sit and listen to her play pop songs of the ’40s and ’50s on the piano.
Leaving Hyannis for college, Penn embarked on a long and challenging career in health care administration. He spent summers working at Cape Cod Hospital while he was a student at Brown University, then earned a master’s in health advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College.
Soon after, Penn was hired by New York-Presbyterian Hospital in uptown Manhattan as a patient representative, working in what he called the “complaint department for the thousand-bed hospital.” The issues were many, ranging from “patient’s rights and nondiscrimination issues to something so mundane, like this one woman who came in to complain because she was charged three cents for ice,” Penn said. “I gave her the three cents.”
In 1987, after five years in New York City, the Cape called him back. Hired as administrator of Provincetown Health Associates, Penn oversaw its merger with AIM Medical Center in Wellfleet and became executive director of the new organization, Outer Cape Health Services.
“The chance to be back on the Cape in my field was terrific,” said Penn. “At 29, I was maybe pretty naïve, because I had no idea what we were in for in Provincetown. None of us did. But I felt battle-tested after New York.”
Penn headed the main medical resource on the Outer Cape during the AIDS epidemic that hit Provincetown hard, ultimately claiming the lives of nearly 400 residents. “It was a very stressful and challenging time,” he said, citing the efforts of “the incredible staff, board, and community.”
That first year at Outer Cape Health, Penn received a call from WOMR station manager Bob Nelson, informing him of an open slot on Saturday nights. Penn jumped at the opportunity.
“I had zero experience,” he said. “But one of the cool things about WOMR is that people without any experience can learn how to do it.”
As his listening audience grew, community-run WOMR became something of an oasis for Penn. After an exhausting week at Outer Cape Health, he would tune out his surroundings and spend all of Saturday prepping for the evening show.
“I really don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had the radio every week,” said Penn. “It kept me sane.”
By January 2001, after 14 years at Outer Cape Health, Penn was ready to move on. “I was really burned out,” he said. “It was hard for me to commit to a high-pressure job for a while, so I went off on this adventure in New York.”
He spent his first 10 months in the city driving cabs. “It was wild,” said Penn. “I had calluses on my hands from gripping the steering wheel so tightly.”
Penn returned to health care as director of a Bronx homeless shelter’s medical clinic. Being there reminded him of why he was in the field to begin with. “It was heartbreaking, seeing families in crises with all of their belongings in shopping bags,” said Penn.
In 2006, Penn took a job as deputy director of the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, part of NYC Health and Hospitals. Until his retirement in 2018, Penn worked behind the scenes to provide care to 9/11 survivors with a range of health issues.
“In many ways, it was like gearing up to provide AIDS services, because this was a group of people — World Trade Center survivors — that didn’t exist before 9/11,” said Penn.
During the time his show was off the air, Penn’s fans never forgot him. “It’s amazing just how many listeners in those 17 years he was absent would call the station to ask about Scott — ‘Where is he?’ ‘When is he coming back?’ ” said John Braden, WOMR’s executive director.
Now broadcasting at home with free DJ software on his iPad, Penn looks back wistfully on the studio days when he’d cue up records on the turntable. “It’s a lost art,” he said. “I don’t know if people realize what a gift it is to have WOMR in the community. It is really just the greatest radio station ever.”
Lush Life is on WOMR-FM from 1 to 4 p.m. on the last Friday of the month, and from 9 p.m. to midnight when there is a fifth Saturday of the month.