AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio

Choosing Music


AMPPR Board Members Talk About Radio
Interview Excerpt #2


FRANK J. OTERI: Lois remarked about how great it is to be able to play the music you love all day long, which leads me to a loaded question. How do you choose the music you broadcast?

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Oh, boy. [Everyone laughs.]

BOYCE LANCASTER: You have a second tape for that?

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: How much time you got left on this tape?

LOIS REITZES: I should say that I naively thought… [Laughs.] I was under the ridiculous impression that that’s what people do. [Laughs.] How do we choose what we do? Well, I would say that I was fortunate to have a wonderful predecessor at WABE who was the founding program director, Jonathan Phelps, and he was not from a music background. He was an actor and an experienced radio personality who had a wonderful feel for music and mood: people’s needs at different times of day. And I think that was the governing idea. You want to make the day worth facing. So, in the morning, you try to select things that make people want to face the day. And that’s pretty much been the philosophy.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, no Isle of the Dead at 9:00 A.M. [Everyone laughs.]

LOIS REITZES: No Isle of the Dead, few Shostakovich symphonies… But over the years there have been other concerns, dictates, making way for news headlines, learning more about people’s body clocks and rhythms and needs and the fact that they like to hear the weather forecasts, and a human every 10 minutes or so, in the early morning while toothbrushing and shaving, or in their cars. At my station, we start out with shorter, brighter works… We’re dual format, so we have Morning Edition… classical music and NPR News, although I consider jazz American classical music, so we have jazz as well, albeit a very conservative variety. I also think that, perhaps the most important thing Jonathan impressed upon me was not to program according to my own taste, that that’s really what could be the downfall of the station or format. But, I do want to say that it was an important evolutionary process for me, coming out of school with the conservatory and then a graduate school intensive kind of background and people were terribly snobbish and parochial, to realizing genuine, but naïve, listeners, music lovers, what that listener might expect from a radio station. And that’s pretty much to present a more balanced and perhaps more standard menu but with enough room to enhance it and expand their scope of listening.

CHRIS KOHTZ: I can boil this personal philosophy, programming philosophy down to a nutshell. That is on one hand, understand who your audience is, and on the other hand, knowing that, look for the best of the best. That when you know who your audience is and how you want to feed that audience, then be supercritical about what you feed them. You know, if, for example, they like Beethoven’s 5th, then we go out of our way to make sure we find the best Beethoven 5ths that we can offer. You could argue that, well, you should give them every one that’s out there. Well, that’s okay, but then if you play each one, you know, if John Eliot Gardiner‘s Beethoven 5th is superb, but you play every one that’s currently available on recording, John Eliot’s not going to come around for another 2 years, even if we play it on a once a month rotation.

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: But who’s the god that determines which is the best?

CHRIS KOHTZ: Somebody has to. When I say that, it tends to raise people’s hackles, but I don’t think I’m raising the standard above what anybody here would do. I mean, there are some recordings that are just plain god-awful performances. The horns are out of tune, there are missed entrances, the audio is very poor. That’s what I’m saying about the best of the best. I’m not getting into saying, “Boy, you know, that 1st movement is better because he takes the accelerando more excitingly than anybody else.” Those are those kind of superficial things that everybody at an individual station could argue. We’re not so much worried about that. We’re just talking about, look at the formatics of radio, look at the technical needs, and make sure that those recordings meet those needs.

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I started Morning Pro Musica back in 1971 at the time when kids were being told by teachers to hide under their desks in case there was an atomic bomb attack. And when families literally went to bed not knowing if they were going to wake up in the morning, and kids had nightmares. And it became pretty obvious that what was needed was a sort of dependability and a reliability that could only be given by the same person doing the same thing 7 days a week, kind of like another member of the family. But what I determined right away, thanks to the audience, was that they really wanted familiar cadences, familiar music, in the early hours, and so I started off with early music, because that was easy for people to take. And save the more modern stuff for closer to noon, at the end of the program, at the end of the 5 hours. And, you know, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was play Antheil or Penderecki or Stockhausen at 7 o’clock in the morning. I’d be guilty of somebody stabbing themselves in the eye with their own toothbrush… [FJO laughs.] And the one thing that I did not want to do was to inflict my own personal taste on my audience. Once a year, I grant myself a weekend in which I play my own personal favorites. That weekend is closer to my own birthday, it’s kind of a birthday present to myself. And the rest of the year it’s dictated by enormous numbers of lists that I’ve put together over the years of anniversaries and birthdays and holidays of countries and tons and tons of things that make the selection of a piece of music relevant. So that for any 5 hours, I’ve got maybe 15, 20 hours of music from which I can select a 5-hour program. And I treat every program as a 5-hour canvas on which I paint in music and try endlessly to make a musical masterpiece each day. As far as playing the best, the performance that I think might be the best possible one might be something somebody else hates. And so for years, before our library got too big to do it, I used to just play the recording that was played longest ago, if we had 5 or 6 recordings of the same piece of music. Now we’ve got too many recordings, probably 30 or 40 recordings of the Beethoven 5th, or something like that, so it gets harder to do. But…

CHRIS KOHTZ: So you do have to make some sort of determination, though. Like you said, 40 is too many. So you have to draw a line somewhere. That’s all I’m getting at.

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And, yeah, usually there will be a raison d’être for which version I choose. The one thing that I do now is I give the newest recording in the library preference over all others. If it hasn’t been aired, then that’s the one that gets played. The other thing is, over the course of the years, I have played tons of music that I can’t stand. Music I really do not like at all.

BOYCE LANCASTER: You have no choice.

FRANK J. OTERI: Are you willing to give us an example?

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: There’s a lot of contemporary music that I think will fall by the wayside. And…

FRANK J. OTERI: But you feel the need to play it.

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: Yeah. One was Henry Brant‘s 88th birthday, or whatever it was… Obviously, I played Henry Brant. I didn’t care for it, but I played it. That’s probably doing him something of a disservice. He’s one of a great many. I could name a dozen more composers whose music I like even less. The thing is that I’m serving a very, very wide audience, and as a result, some of the things I like, I know they’re going to hate. When I did the raga series, when I went to India for 6 weeks in 1981, and brought back a whole series of recordings of interviews with all of the top Indian instrumentalists in an effort to fulfill a quest of learning about raga, and I did an 18 week series of raga on Saturday mornings.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow!

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: And there were an enormous number of people who absolutely hated it at the start. But by the end of the 18 weeks, I got a letters from people saying, “How do I get such and such recording?” And I looked back, and they were the same people who wrote denouncing the whole thing to begin with.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, he said something that I thought was a really interesting jumping off point for us. “Sometimes I play music I don’t like,” and when I asked for an example he gave a contemporary composer, and normally what I get from people is, “Well, I like the contemporary music, but I can’t play this, because I feel like my audience can’t deal with it.” But what he was saying was exactly the reverse, which I thought was quite wonderful.

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: I am a contemporary composer, too.

BOYCE LANCASTER: Do you play your own music?

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: On occasion I have… [Everyone laughs.] Very rarely, but there have been a couple of times because it was mandated by an anniversary or something like that, I’ve played something…

FRANK J. OTERI: On your birthday? [Everyone laughs.]

ROBERT J. LURTSEMA: No, it was actually part of a theme program. I played my Monarch Suite in a program on butterflies.

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