“Writing an article is like planting a garden, painting a still life, producing a soundscape or writing a script. Each starts with the need to arrange materials into something expressive. From there, it’s a matter of drama, balance, economy and knowing when to stop.”
San Diego, Cal. — In February of 2003, I stood before a roomful of radio professionals and unveiled plans to create a daily educational show on classical music called Exploring Music. The program would air on the WFMT Radio Network and be hosted by veteran broadcaster and musician Bill McGlaughlin. I would be its producer.
At the close of the conference, I was waiting for a return flight to Chicago when a senior producer from NPR tapped me on the shoulder: “You know, you’re way understaffed.” He went on to offer some free advice: “Don’t try to hit a home run every day. Be happy with a double or a triple.”
In the lead-up to the show’s launch, there was also advice that came to Bill McGlaughlin from his old friend Garrison Keillor, who mused: “A daily show is like a billy goat. It will eat everything.” Keillor told Bill: “You’re going to want your producer to be a writer.”
At that time, I was a radio producer, but spent all my free time learning to write screenplays, which got me a couple freelance jobs writing children’s plays for actors and orchestra. Already, I was beginning to marry the principles of storytelling with the presentation of music on the radio. As it turned out, Bill and I were simpatico.
Exploring Music could have been a simple task: we could have offered a few fun facts and played large chunks of music—that didn’t occur to us. Instead we plunged into a regimen of boiling down hundreds of audio tracks and towers of books into five highly-produced hours of content each week. For us, Exploring Music was not an educational show about classical music; it was storytelling—entertainment drawn from the classical music milieu, with setting, characters, plot, conflict and a rich musical soundtrack.
From the very beginning, the National Endowment for the Arts touted Exploring Music as a model for innovative arts content. Soon, foundations and private benefactors clamored to meet its six-figure budget each year. Now in its 13th year, Exploring Music has the largest following of any program in the history of the WFMT Radio Network.
In 2008, after serving as senior producer for Exploring Music for five years, I began applying the idea of presenting the arts through storytelling to new responsibilities at WFMT, serving as interviewer, producer and eventually web content producer. Working with artists such as Riccardo Muti, Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Pierre Boulez, Jake Heggie and Yo-Yo Ma, I began to tap into Chicago’s rich artistic life to make innovative and compelling radio and web content.
If doing a daily radio show is like keeping a billy goat (to borrow from Garrison Keillor), operating a website is like keeping a herd of them. These days, web articles grow stale at an alarming rate. Being WFMT’s web content producer and writing three and four articles a day proved to be valuable training for my next job: executive producer of a daily arts magazine in Atlanta.
Moving to Atlanta’s NPR station, I found myself in an entirely different company culture. WABE is carving its niche in the news world, which, like a fine arts radio station, targets an educated, culturally active demographic. This is not to say the news audience turns on its radio hoping for a solid hour of Bellini and Wagner—but it was a golden opportunity to introduce people to them.
My next production, City Lights with Lois Reitzes, brought Bellini and Wagner into context with, and alongside all the ways in which people express themselves creatively: music, theater, dance, books, food, travel, fashion, design, architecture, gaming, animation and film. What could be more fun than doing a show on Nibelungen and cosplay?
Alas, it was not to last. 2015 was an election year, and new management gobbled up more and more airtime for news and talk. I returned home to Chicago where I learned that working as a freelancer is more demanding than any staff position (bosses respect the fact that you might want evenings and weekends off sometimes; the freelancer’s boss (me), doesn’t).
Since early 2016, I have developed a diverse portfolio, writing and producing radio programs/podcasts for clients such as WQXR in New York, WFMT, The Atlanta Opera, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.