The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dennis Owens, Washington’s classical wake-up man for four decades, dies at 87

Dennis Owens at WGMS radio in 1997. (Tom Allen/The Washington Post)

Dennis Owens, the witty voice of classical music radio in Washington whose rumbling bass voice could throw off the atomic clock, died Sept. 26 at a hospice center in Naples, Fla. He was 87.

The cause was degenerative heart disease, said his wife, Christiane Owens.

For nearly four decades, until his retirement in 2005, Mr. Owens dazzled his listeners on WGMS with tongue twisters, told gently ribald tales of wayward composers, sniped at radio industry consultants eager to make every station sound the same and delighted loyal listeners with antics generally heard more on pop stations than on the august airwaves of classical outlets.

“Classical music is like sex,” he explained to Washington Post columnist Bob Levey in 2002. “You never know how long it’s going to last, and it’s embarrassing if you clap at the wrong time.”

Having worked as a country and western DJ in Canada and a pop jock in Bermuda, Mr. Owens brought to classical radio a brash, sometimes biting style that he used to break the stereotype of the classical DJ as a stuffed shirt who might order you to turn your radio off if you mispronounced a German composer’s name.

“This is not music for people who understand it,” he told The Post in 1997. “It is music to be enjoyed. The people who complain when I play ‘Star Wars’ are retired, in their living rooms, prepared to be concert-hall entertained. I play music for people who are in their frigging cars, they’re agitated by the traffic and they want something to soothe them.”

Mr. Owens worked several shifts at WGMS before enjoying his longest run as a morning show host from 1981 to 2002. His show drew a big audience, regularly landing among the region’s top 10 most highly rated programs — a rarity for classical music.

In the 1990s, as commercial classical stations throughout the country went silent, their owners certain they could make bigger profits with pop tunes or political talk, Mr. Owens managed to retain freedom to entertain his audience as he saw fit. He told stories about his dog, Scilla the Silly; hosted listeners — he called them his “Assembled Ears” — on trips to Germany, Austria, China, Kenya and other spots around the globe; and resisted consultants’ nudges to play it straight on the air.

“There’s a constant desire on the part of the consultants to steer you away from the music, to eliminate the personality and just make everything soothing and easy,” Mr. Owens told this writer for the book “Something in the Air” (1995). “It’s insulting, dismal, comical. They do their mall testing — four or five bars of Haydn and people say, ‘Yeah, I like that,’ and five bars of Gershwin and people say, ‘That’s too busy,’ and all of a sudden, Haydn is in and Gershwin is out.”

But over time, station managers stripped DJs of their control over what music got played, leaving Mr. Owens to determine only the words he said.

On the air, he recited poetry, cracked wise about news headlines, and noted the surrealities of life, asking on one morning, “What do they list as your hair color on your driver’s license if you’re bald?” and observing on another day: “Some of you drink from the fountain of knowledge. Others merely gargle.”

His words were generally well chosen, resulting in a constant stream of invitations for Mr. Owens to narrate and emcee performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Ballet, the military bands and many other musical groups.

On occasion, his quips resulted in controversy, as in 2000, when on St. Patrick’s Day he praised the Irish author Frank McCourt’s memoir, “ ’Tis,” and shared the writer’s view that the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York was just an excuse for people to drink too much and behave poorly.

Mr. Owens offered listeners a joke: “What’s three miles long and has an IQ of 40? The New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”

A priest affiliated with an Irish lobby group on Capitol Hill asked the station to take action, and Mr. Owens apologized on the air the next day.

Mr. Owens moved to Florida to retire in 2005 but continued as an occasional fill-in voice on WGMS via remote hookup until the station dropped its classical format in 2007, segueing from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” to Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good.”

Dennis Owens was born in London on July 11, 1934. His father was an engineer, his mother a secretary. By 16, Mr. Owens felt he was bumping up against anti-Catholic discrimination in Britain’s education system, his wife said, and the family moved to Canada, where he finished school and found work, first in a federal government communications office and then as a country DJ in Saskatchewan.

His radio career took him to Bermuda, where he spun pop hits, and then to Washington, where he found part-time gigs announcing at WTOP’s TV and radio stations and on WGMS, even though he had zero classical experience.

His British roots and knowledge of German and French led the station manager to conclude that Mr. Owens would have no trouble pronouncing the names of composers.

In 1972, WGMS hired Mr. Owens as host of an overnight program, the “After Hours Show,” and a year later he married Christiane Giesch, a recent immigrant from Germany. She is his only immediate survivor.

At home, his musical tastes were eclectic. He loved to listen to Frank Sinatra, Motown and the Beatles — and to the classical numbers he played on the air. He said he didn’t worry that popular interest in the classics would vanish. Adults will always grow into the genre, he thought: “At some point around the age of 35, more or less, something horrible happens to your music, and Mozart is waiting.”

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