In 1977, my friend Joel Gersmann, whose main purposes in life are writing plays and running the experimental Broom Street Theater, was doing a music show on WORT-FM. Joel had programmed a huge series featuring the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I owned nearly all of Fi-Di's recordings, so Joel, needing additional material for the broadcasts, asked if I was interested in coming on and helping out with commentary and of course providing my recordings. I was only too glad to do so.
When that series ended, Joel and I decided to continue our on-air collaboration, for it had been very popular with listeners. WORT-FM was then a very funky place. All the equipment was second-hand, and our signal barely reached the other side of town. There was quite a staff turnover rate, since about 90% of everything was done by unpaid volunteers. It wasn't long until one of the classical programmers headed to greener pastures and, partly because it was a 9:00-to-noon Sunday morning slot (the most popular time of all), I put in a bid to get the job. The station had about 100 classical music recordings, but I had about 7,500, mostly solo and chamber music.
With that "Classical Omelette" was born. Without any foolish modesty I have to say it shortly started to reign supreme on the Madison airwaves. The secret (now it can be told) was that I kept my mouth shut. I said what the piece was and who was playing it and made a very brief comment if there was something special about the recording or about the performance. The music itself did all the important talking, after all. This must have been a hit with the listeners, because our fund-raising went very well indeed.
It was some time before I realized that people actually pay attention to what you say and how you say it. The phone rang constantly, regulars wanting to share some tidbit or ask a special question about the players or the performance. I was very active as a performer myself in those days, mostly with a trio-sonata group called Musica Camerata, consisting of baroque flute, recorder, and continuo (cello and harpsichord). This put me a bit apart from all the other classical broadcasters in town, both at WORT and at Wisconsin Public Radio, our great rival. But I never prepared anything other than the record playlist. All announcements were ex tempore, whatever came into my head to say.
My programming philosophy was to play only complete works, not excerpts. There was a lot of keyboard music, but each program was always arranged to have a definite structure, sometimes straightforwardly chronological, but more often more complicated patterns, comparing and contrasting different national styles of the same period, for instance, but without any academic hoopla.
In due course there was a solid phalanx of devoted listeners. My doctor told me once that much to his wife's annoyance, he didn't go to church with her on Sunday mornings because he wanted to listen to my program. One of the more extreme cases was a fellow who called many times to tell me that the program was the only worthwhile thing in his life. The real diehard fans would come in to answer phones during the on-air fund-raisers, which we held three times a year.
After a couple years I started to get involved in the station's internal business, serving two stints as Board chair, helping to set up a whole new facility using funds provided by a Federal grant, and so forth. It was exhausting but rewarding work. Then came the Reagan years, and suddenly Public Radio was out to get its share of the funding pie. We would have borne that fairly well, I think, but as it happened the core group was maturing and starting to drift away into more challenging potentials elsewhere in the broadcasting industry.
I did several different stints on the air, late nights, evening drive time, and various formats. This worked fairly well, but in due course I too was finally worn out, and when a major process screwup by the management suddenly unfunded my position without input from me, I had no way to make an effective protest other than to remove my talent.
The next day I programmed an all-Bach event and made no announcements whatever until the very end. As an indication of how astute the listeners were, one of them called about halfway through the program and said, "You're quitting, aren't you?!" Indeed I was, after about 800 programs in ten and half years. It was a fun time, a really glorious time, but I left it without regret, and to this day I don't listen to the radio at all.