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Forty years of giving it a try," is how Chicago's best-known classical radio "voice," Carl Grapentine, refers to his career. Grapentine, 61, is the mellow-toned, ultra-knowledgeable yet comfortable morning host on classical station WFMT.
He and his wife, Liz, have lived in Oak Park, and raised two children, for 25 years.
In the wee hours, thousands of devoted Chicago-area listeners tune into his "5:58 Club" which continues through the morning drive. Even during the "Snow-M-G" blizzard of early February, Grapentine was on the air bright and early, having slept on the studio's greenroom couch the night before. He ended up living for two days at the station—surviving on vending-machine coffee and restaurant food.
But his talents don't rest there. For the past five years, Grapentine has been the "stadium voice" for the University of Michigan Wolverines football team. He drives four hours each way to and from Ann Arbor every weekend during college football season. There he calls out the plays every Saturday in front of 112,000 fans. It's not as easy as he makes it sound. "You have to know your football," he says.
The man who can rattle off "Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano, playing Mozart's Rondo in A minor, Köchel catalog number five-eleven" memorizes the names of Wolverine players as well as those from the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State. "I do have a pretty good memory," he admits. "But I have a spotter with binoculars helping me." Previously, he was the announcer for Michigan's marching band. As a child, he did pretend play-by-play for Detroit Tiger games on a toy microphone.
Knowledge and enthusiasm
But to most of his fans, Grapentine is a veritable encyclopedia of classical music. Part of his on-air charm is his enthusiasm in sharing his knowledge and his love of music.
When he's not on the radio, he presents pre-concert lectures for several classical music organizations: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera and Music of the Baroque. He also gave pre-concert talks for the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest for 15 years. He amplifies his talks with a Bose SoundDeck 10, which plays musical excerpts through his iPod with top-quality clarity.
"I enjoy the pre-concert talks because I help people make connections with this high-falutin' music and show how it's a very real part of life. I love doing operas because I can tell audiences what to listen for and what to look for."
Though he's paid for these talks, he's generous with his time and talents: In January he hosted a free presentation at the Oak Park Public Library to kick off Oak Park's annual Handel Week Festival. He also gave a free talk before Oak Park's fledgling Verismo Opera Company's debut production of La Boheme last July. ("My neighbor two doors down asked me.") On Feb. 13, he expounded on Bach at North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago.
He also sings (bass, of course) with the Grace Lutheran choir in River Forest which presents 10 full Bach Cantatas a year. He was formerly interim music director for Grace, but the demands were too great. "I worked five days a week at the radio station, two days at U. of Michigan and three days at Grace. That added up to 10 days a week," he jokes.
Not a morning person
For 35 years, Grapentine's been the morning-show host, even though he's not a morning person. "It wasn't by design," he says. For his current gig — when there's no blizzard — he rises at 4:10 every morning.
The secret to a good announcer, he says, is not the timbre of your voice. A good host is "affable and makes a connection with listeners." Of the formerly homeless "million-dollar-voice" Ted Williams, Grapentine says, "Time will tell whether he's affable. You don't [connect with] an automaton, even with a great voice."
Grapentine began his career in Detroit, working the overnight show for a religious radio station in 1973. He grew up in a suburb, Walled Lake, Mich., the son of a Baptist minister and a choir director/music teacher mother.
"I thought I'd be a music teacher or a minster. I even began preparations for the seminary. But then I ran away to show business."
In Detroit, he had an embarrassing brush with notoriety in 1983 when the newspaper ran his photo on the front page. "It was a slow news day," he insists.
"It was Labor Day and I was working the morning show [for classical station WQRS, 105.1-FM]." The studio was located in a downtown office building, officially closed because of the holiday. "I was wearing shorts that had no pocket and put my keys on the desk," he recalls. After cueing up "Scaramouche Suite" by 20th century French composer Darius Milhaud — an eight-minute recording — Grapentine slipped out of the studio for a bathroom break.
"When the door closed behind me," he says, "I knew I was locked out." He boarded the elevator and rushed to the ground floor, hoping building security guard would have a spare key. No luck.
Meanwhile, the record ended and, began to go "ffft, fft, fft, ffft over the air." After a few frantic phone calls, Grapentine and the guard located someone with a spare key for the freight elevator. After 20 minutes he finally got back up to the eighth floor.
"When we got to the top, there were several police officers coming out of the passenger elevator," says Grapentine. "Listeners thought I'd had a heart attack and called the police." Listeners also called Detroit news station WJR, saying there was "dead air" on the classical station and possible a dead DJ.
"When I finally got into the station [breaking a window], the phones were all lit up. I put on another piece of music and just let it die down."
The next day Grapentine picked up his early morning newspaper and saw his own photo on the front page: "Classical Deejay Locks Himself Out."
"It was below the fold, but still — like I said, it was a slow news day." Shortly thereafter, he moved to brighter opportunities in Chicago.
Grapentine has been a fixture in Chicago classical radio for 25 years. Back when there were two classical stations in the middle of the dial, Grapentine worked at both of them. He started at WFMT, moving to Oak Park on the recommendation of a U. of Michigan friend. Back then, the FMT studios were downtown, so Oak Park was a logical choice of residence.
In the early '90s, the competition — privately owned WNIB — was winning the ratings race with their more-accessible "classical top-40" format. WFMT experienced an identity crisis, hiring a new program manager, airing pre-recorded commercials and cutting back on sometimes obscure and less accessible recordings, such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich. During that period WNIB and WFMT poached each other's most beloved hosts. Grapentine switched to NIB and announcer Jay Andres came to WFMT.
Grapentine worked at NIB for five years while WFMT underwent what radio historians call a "listener revolt," objecting fiercely to the pre-recorded ads and the "watering down" of programming. Andres didn't connect with FMT listeners, but when the station developed a pledge-drive model for one-third of its expenses and built a new studio near WTTW-TV's studios, more stability was assured. Grapentine moved back to FMT, encouraged by his friend and fellow DJ Peter Van De Graaff.
"Every time [I changed stations], it was the right thing to do at the time," Grapentine says, looking back. WNIB went off the air in February, 2001, selling their bandwidth real estate (97.1) to Bonneville International's WDRV "The Drive" for $165 million. That move left WFMT as the only radio source in town for classical music and one of the few classical stations in the U.S. with prime middle-of-the dial radio real estate.
Technology gurus say "terra" radio's days are numbered, but classical radio has a vibrant future, Grapentine believes. Even with perceived threats from MP3 players, satellite radio and YouTube, "We're still local. You get live weather and news. Someone playing his own CDs doesn't get that."
He points out that WFMT hosts unique live performances in its studio of local and visiting musicians and broadcasts live opera performances from the Lyric and other top-tier opera companies. They also broadcast the Dame Myra Hess Memorial concerts from the Chicago Cultural Center at lunchtime.
"You get personal connections from radio, local connections."
With no competition, WFMT programming has included more accessible recordings, but Grapentine says they still consider themselves "adventurous."
"We play the greatest hits of the past 600 years. There is such a vast array of classical music out there. Listeners still care and still support it."