Jeff Spurgeon is no stranger to the world of radio. The Nebraskan native with a soothing baritone voice has been working in radio for over forty-five years, starting his career at pop stations in Nebraska and eventually moving east to work in New York. Since 2006, he has been the morning host of WQXR, New York’s only classical radio station. The station, which has been broadcasting for over eighty-years, is a beloved institution for the city’s classical music-lovers, connecting listeners with first rate recordings of opera, chamber music, symphonic music, and live broadcasts from New York’s finest venues.
Because the global pandemic has forced concert halls across the city to shut down, WQXR has become a lifeline for its audience, bringing the comfort and joy inherent in classical music to their lives during this uncertain time. We sat down with Jeff last week to talk about his favorite types of music, how he’s adjusting to working from home, and his tips on how to become a great radio host.
What’s your favorite thing about working at WQXR?
I think swimming in the music. I get to go into this big pool every day. It’s the music. To just have that. There are days when a particular piece may not stir you, especially if you’ve heard it a lot...But then something will hit you. And it might be something new, and it might be something that I’ve heard a great deal. But something will hit you. And it becomes thrilling. And you realize what an incredible resource and a treasure this music is.
And occasionally, you can get some sense of the time that has passed, the eras in which it was created, the world that it was born in. And I think the most amazing thing about the music is that even though it’s centuries old, and some of it is many centuries old, I guess it’s because humans don’t evolve very quickly, that the emotions those people felt and wrote into that music still come to us today, they come alive today when the music is performed. And so we are in contact with ourselves and our fellows with this music. And as I say, I get to swim in that pool every day. And that’s an amazing privilege to have.
What is your favorite genre of classical music?
I really love song ... They’re just little gems. It’s like going to the jewelry store, and they’ve got a couple of big diamonds up front that everyone wants to look at. And all around you are these gorgeous, little, multi-faceted, little jewels that are two or three minutes long. And the thing that I love about classical song is it stops time. Because a song offers you a chance to savor an emotion, to revel in an emotion, or to spend time with an image. Choral songs set poetry so beautifully. And some of the poetry is so dull and lifeless, to my ears, read aloud. [Then] you put the music with it, and it just gains this magical thing. So I really love song, I really love that experience and that marriage of music and words.
What role do you think WQXR plays in its listeners’ lives, especially during the pandemic?
What we hear [from listeners] is that people really appreciate it. And I think that the reasons that they appreciate it is that it is something that has continued for them when so many other things feel as if they might not continue. Some part of what we call normal life has ceased. And I think that when winds of change blow, we try to grab something that lets us hold on and feel stable. And so if this is a radio station that you’ve listened to for a long time, that has grounded you in some way, where the music that is on the station grounds you in some way, then that’s something that helps you hold on.
What changes or adjustments have you had to make at WQXR since the start of the pandemic?
Well, it’s from home. Where I’m sitting right now is where I work ... Since the twenty-third of March, we’ve all been working from home. Our technical department was amazing in getting us the equipment that we needed to be able to work from home. So that’s the biggest change. I miss the studio, and I miss seeing my colleagues. I like the commute, which has gone down from about fifty minutes to about fifteen seconds. And it’s not a complaint; it’s just a statement of difference. It’s nice to do your work in a workplace. I think that we are all suffering, those of us fortunate enough to have jobs, are suffering from never really turning that off. It’s hard to turn work off, because you’re always there.
In the last couple years, there has been a big push to make the classical music industry a more diverse and inclusive space for women and people of color. How has WQXR worked to become a more diverse and inclusive organization?
A concerted effort has been made over the past couple of years to program more music by women composers, and by composers of color. And to program more performances by artists of African descent. And to be a little more aggressive in looking for that material, which has been overlooked in time. And what we’re finding is that [African-American composer] Florence Price is a pretty wonderful symphonic composer, that [Black composer] Samuel Coleridge-Taylor writes music as beautiful as anybody in his time. And that these artists have been pushed aside. And that classical music has done that, along with every other aspect of American society. So we are trying in a small way, and it’s really just a beginning, to figure out how to deal with that lack of diversity.
You make being a radio host look easy and effortless. What are some important lessons you’ve learned in your career that have allowed you to perform so well on the air?
Well, years of practice. I’ve been doing it for more than forty-five years. I had great mentors when I was young, who taught me about being intimate...They said to talk to one person. So my first teacher said, “get a picture of somebody you like, and put it up in front of you. And talk to that person.“ I think one of the things I’m really good at is recovering from mistakes, because I make so many of them. So I think part of that is just relaxing with the situation as it is...I think the rest of it is just time, and spending time with the music.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
What advice would you give someone who wants to go into radio?
You have to tell a story...You’re really telling a story [on the radio]. So it’s having the mindset of figuring out what the story is, how do you want it to start, where do you want it to end, and that’s true for an article in a newspaper, it’s also true for an introduction to a piece of classical music, even though the story might be thirty seconds long is all. But it’s better if it’s conceived. I think it’s all story telling. That’s what Don Hewitt, one of Don Hewitt’s watch words at “60 Minutes” was “What is the story? Tell me a story. Tell me a story.” So that’s the story of a song, that’s the story of a symphony, maybe it’s the story of a scene, or the story of an image in a piece of music. What’s the story? That’s what we mostly do, is storytelling.
What do you think people who are more familiar with other genres of music, like pop music, can learn from listening to classical music?
I don’t know. I’ve thought about this a lot...My biggest belief about music is that you don’t pick it — it picks you. You don’t pick the music you like. And if you were to ask somebody why they like a piece of music, or why they love this song, it’s very hard to say. It’s very hard to say why you love a piece of music. People who are asked that question wind up describing it...But they can’t go farther than that. So it’s something beyond us. I have this crazy belief that the music we love somehow tells us something about ourselves, or affirms something about ourselves that is true in some way. And that, that’s why we like it. And it’s a process that’s not a conscious one. Because I don’t think that you go through a list of things, and decide what to like — you like it as you experience it.
I think there’s something really wonderfully profound, and at least for now a little beyond our understanding, about why we love the music we love and why it attracts us.
Listen to WQXR on the radio at 105.9 FM in New York, or stream it at www.wqxr.org.
“What we hear [from listeners] is that people really appreciate it. And I think that the reasons that they appreciate it is that it is something that has continued for them when so many other things feel as if they might not continue.” WQXR host Jeff Spurgeon