Ode to Joy

Looking for an independent station on the FM dial where passionate DJs pick all their own songs? Guess what: It's been around for 82 years.

At 8:00 a.m., Carl Kasell announces that a bomb blast in an Iraqi town has just killed five people outside a Shiite Muslim mosque. The explosion appears to have come, he says, from a gas cylinder attached to a bicycle.

Two minutes later, National Public Radio news gives way to another voice, this one belonging to Steve Staruch, who begins reading Minnesota news and weather. It's unseasonably warm, he says, with a projected high of 35.

You'll never believe this John Philip Sousa story! Drive-time host Bill Morelock
Craig Lassig
You'll never believe this John Philip Sousa story! Drive-time host Bill Morelock

Then he switches into the first person: "I promised something sassy-sounding as we opened the next hour of Top of the Day. Here are three short pieces for winds, from French composer Jacques Ibert. Here's the Bergen Woodwind Quintet."

This is the radio station I wake up to every day: Classical 89.3, "Music and Ideas," WCAL-FM, or as I call it, "a world of flutes." Most of the time I only half-comprehend what the voices are talking about before falling into the world of flutes. One morning, I had slept late, finger-humping the snooze button until well after 9:00 a.m., when Melissa Ousley's soothing patter came on. She said something that struck me as completely hilarious at the time, which I paraphrase now from memory: "Here are four short Brahms pieces for piano. Just to warn you ahead of time, they finish quite a bit louder and faster than they start."

I appreciated this caveat. The purpose of morning classical radio is hardly to startle the half-awake. This is why Ousley (pronounced "Owzlee") and her colleagues babble so soothingly, never failing to sound less than surreal. They're informative, too: Classical 89.3 is the radio equivalent of Classical Music for Beginners, the book I picked up last year in hopes of shaking loose whatever knowledge I once possessed on the subject--especially now that I, you know, write about music for a living.

Still, something else strikes me even more about this weird station. Its DJs take music personally. They tell you how they feel about the music, why they love it, why they're playing it. And they're able to speak in these terms for the simple reason that they're choosing the music they play. Where the most popular Twin Cities classical music station, KSJN-FM (99.5)--one of Minnesota Public Radio's 35 regional stations--is loosely bound by a playlist handed down in advance from three program directors, Classical 89.3 follows the whims of those voices among the flutes.

"They would never use focus groups to determine what they should be playing, which I know KSJN does," says Edina musicologist Michael Steinberg, a popular writer and avid listener of both stations. "The WCAL people, they come across more as distinct individuals who have a kind of stake in the music, a kind of commitment to it."

In its way, the tinier station sounds like a classical music variant of REV-105 in a sea of Clear Channel--one of the few holdouts for free-form FM programming in its arena. And while the underdog station's many former MPR employees are strenuously diplomatic about their old friends (pointing out, for instance, that MPR produces some vital shows), they can't help but seem happier where they are.

Maybe there's something emboldening about the physical isolation of the place. Though WCAL's 100,000-watt signal covers the entire Twin Cities, Classical 89.3 is actually located in Northfield, a few blocks from a Malt-O-Meal plant and some 35 miles south of Minneapolis. A staff of about 25 operates out of a squat 54-year-old building made of horizontal stone, which sits at the top of a woodsy hillside on the pastoral campus of St. Olaf College. The station looks like it sounds: an oasis of learning, art, and sweaters.

Steve Staruch (pronounced "stare-ick") makes the drive down the highway from Minneapolis every day before his early shift. And on the morning of the Iraqi bicycle bomb, I decide to make the drive, too, to interview him. It turns out the DJ shuffles CDs in a studio that looks a little like the elegant interior of a Japanese restaurant. Montell Williams is yammering silently on the TV in the corner--a mute reminder that a larger world hums on outside Tchaikovsky's Fate. Staruch has just explained to his listeners that the piece was reassembled from orchestral parts after the touchy composer burned the original score--a response to a colleague's criticism.

"I get here at about 5:30 in the morning, and I need to know that there are people out there," Staruch says. "Because I sit here and talk to a sponge. That's my job. I talk to a sponge and you sit here and get to hear my conversation."

A buttoned-down member of the Dale Warland singers, the host is graying, yet boyishly enthusiastic about his day job. When I tell him he's been part of my subconscious for years, he cackles with delight.

"Radio is the most intimate broadcast medium," he says. "You can close your eyes, but it's hard to close your ears."

 

Classical 89.3 keeps a silent bond with its listeners: Here is something I love. Here is why others have loved it. And here's why I hope you'll love it, too. By all accounts, this bond extends to its patron: St. Olaf doesn't interfere with the work done here, though the school has owned WCAL's license for all of its 82 years. And while other small college stations have closed shop or joined larger networks over the last decade, WCAL has turned down overtures from Minnesota Public Radio. (MPR, which operates KPCC in Los Angeles, along with a station in an Idaho ski town, declined to comment on any interest in WCAL.)

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