Op-ed column: Classical DJs make mistakes too — sometimes on purpose

A few weeks back, Carl Strock got teased for connecting the “1812 Overture” to the Lone Ranger. No f

A few weeks back, Carl Strock got teased for connecting the “1812 Overture” to the Lone Ranger. No fair. It’s the sort of mistake anyone could make, including Public Radio announcers. You know, classical music disc jockeys.

Naming no names, except my own, public radio announcers have been known to flub an announcement. To misname a composer or a piece of music. To get the orchestra or the conductor wrong.

I surely did.

It happened 15 to 20 years ago, when I was the weekend announcer at WMHT. On the air 16 hours a week, playing an average of three selections an hour.

Stretched out over five years, announcing each selection both before and after playing it, I had around 25,000 opportunities to mislead the public.

If you were listening back then, you may have heard a piece of music, or a musician, identified incorrectly.

Worst of all — and let me assure you that no other announcer, active or retired, ever stooped to such unethical behavior — not all those misidentifications were accidental.

Called on the carpet

The then-station manager, a woman who must have regretted her choice a week after hiring me, never seemed to notice. She was too busy correcting my other faults.

Foremost among them, my on-air persona was insufficiently somber. I spoke of the music and its performance, now and again, with less than reverential awe. It may even have happened that I laughed while the microphone was open.

She once called me into her office and said, “Your on-air comments sound careless. Think ahead. Know what you’re going to say before you open the mic.”

In sincere innocence, I replied, “But I do that now. I always know what I’m going to say when I open the mike.”

She looked at me with what might have been incredulity, or might have been dismay. She said only, “Oh my God,” then turned and gazed out the window. I took that as an invitation to leave her office.

Another time she tried to reform me with metaphor. “Pretend,” she said, “that this station is a highway. Playing classical music is driving down that highway. When you drive too close to the edge, it is my job to pull you back to the middle.”

Never one to deflect a metaphor, I said, “Do you really want me to drive in the middle of the road?”

Never one to abandon a metaphor, she said, “You know what I mean. When you get too close to the edge, it’s my job to pull you back.”

Anxious to maintain the dignity of the discussion, I suggested perhaps I was obligated to wander near the edge, thereby providing her with the substance of her work.

Her reaction to that — details of which I will spare the genteel reader — led ultimately to an invitation to leave the station.

Now, about those intentional mistakes.

On Sundays, I played it straight. All I had to do was push buttons, read record labels, and throw in an occasional fact about the composer or the music.

Listener requests

But Saturdays . . . ah, Saturday, the Listener Request Show. The best job I ever had.

At the time, it was a phone-in program. (Afterwards, the station used a phone answering machine, and then e-mail. Tacky.) Listeners called the station, and I talked with them, real live conversations. I took their requests and, unless they asked me not to, acknowledged them on-air.

Along the way, I developed phone-pal relationships with many listeners: the woman in West Ghent who loved Rachmaninoff as much as I did; the man in Troy who requested Chopin “to clear the air” whenever I played Wagner; the man in Greene County who got me hooked on William Grant Still; the woman who loved the Glazunov saxophone quartet. People like that were at the heart of what made it the best job ever.

In return for their friendship — I blush to admit it — I occasionally tossed in one of those deliberate mistakes. Never more than one a week, and I always played the music asked for and always — well, nearly always — announced those requests accurately.

You see, requests came in and had to be programmed on the spot. Maybe I could balance an hour with what was asked for by talking fast or slow between pieces. Other times, the music ended with three or four minutes left in the hour, and no itty-bitty requests on the list.

That’s when I’d play an unrequested extra, usually a traditional instrumental encore. And because it was my choice, not that of some legitimate and respectable listener, I felt free to be less than altogether and absolutely truthful about naming them.

What’s in a name

A few I repeated, and never got caught. At least, no one called me on them. One was a piece by American guitarist Ry Cooder, identified as work by the Danish composer Raiku Dehr. Another was an obscure harp piece identified as work of Spanish composer Arugula.

But sometimes I did get caught. One of my favorites was playing a cut from the sound track of the movie “Local Hero” and claiming it was a 19th century Italian work. It wasn’t even over before a young man called to say it sounded an awful lot like Mark Knopfler.

Which it was.

My all-time favorite, though, and this gets back to the Carl Strock episode: someone requested the “William Tell Overture.” When it was over, I opened the mike and said, “That was the ‘William Tell Overture,’ by Rossini.”

Which it was.

Then I said, “Played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.”

Which it was.

Then, in a moment of indefensible whimsy, I said, “Conducted by Brace Beemer.”

Which it was not.

A minute later, a very polite but puzzled woman called to tell me there must have been some mistake, because Brace Beemer was not an orchestra conductor, he was the actor who played The Lone Ranger on radio.

Which he was.

Absolutely the best job ever.

Phil Sheehan lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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