Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 29, 2003; Noon ET
"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon ET. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.
Today, Bob's guest is Dennis Owens, recently retired morning host on WGMS’ Classical 103.5 FM.
| Dennis Owens |
It is rare today for someone to broadcast for so long in a single time slot. Owen's slot lasted nearly 22 years. His audience enjoyed not only the music he offered, but also the verbal contributions that became his trademarks -- a blend of thoughtful observations, quotes, unexpected humor, and intriguing questions. He refers to his listeners as “Assembled Ears.”
Owens is now a primary relief announcer at Classical 103.5.
In Dennis’ words to the “Assembled Ears” of Washington-area listeners …
"To say that radio (and TV) has changed over the years isn't enough. When I began, in 1958, I commenced my career in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Radio today very often lacks broad freedom for an individual to emerge as a distinctive personality. Where it does emerge, it is often cloaked in vulgarism, loudness, cheapness, and VERY much directed at certain segments of the perceived audience.
I have been extremely fortunate to acquire an audience in the Washington market to which I could play the personality role with a lot more subtlety and attempt a lot more finesse than most.
When the end of full-time work came, recently (November 2002), and I became the recipient of a response I could NEVER have imagined, which goes on even now, I know that I have, in some way, made a contribution to others.
The letters and e-mails, so many of them, have told me things I could never have believed were going on within peoples' lives, wherein they considered ME to be a part of it! Now, I want to continue ... in a different way, being a part of the radio station, of the community, of Life in Washington. I hope you will continue to find reason to allow me to join you, wherever you are. Thank you for all the years together."
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bob Levey: Good morning, Dennis, and thanks very much for joining us today on "Levey Live." May I begin with a bit of shameless praise? You are the best. The absolute best. You are great on the air, great off the air. Ain't never been a voice or a personality like you, kid! So why in the world did you give it all up last November?
Dennis Owens: Domestic pressure! It was pointed out to me by She Who Must Be Obeyed that I may be reaching a point in my life where I should consider more readily what I would like to do privately and not be constantly attending to a program that for almost 22 years has required getting up at 3:30 a.m.!
I didn't give it up for health reasons. I love doing the work -- really love it, so it was really a DOMESTIC consideration.
Of course I will be around part-time ... I can't let go completely, and for the moment, don't want to!
Bethesda, MD: For Bob and Dennis:
Don't both of you guys belong to one of the greatest labor unions in the country? Nevermind, I already know the answer.
Dennis Owens: We certainly do, GW ... and we pay the dues to prove it!
Bethesda, Md.: Mr. Owen,
Thank you very much for making our mornings of road-clogged commuting more enjoyable and thought provoking! You are without a doubt one of the most unique radio personalities that I ever heard. Your depth of knowledge causes me to wonder about your educational background and training. How on earth did you ever amass the vast knowledge that you spewed across the airwaves for so many years?
Again, my thanks to you for challenging our intellect during our mindless drive to work!
Dennis Owens: You are very flattering and flattery will get you anywhere with me. However, a lot of the knowledge came through the help of the Assembled Ears. I received so much material over the years, besides anything I researched, that the talent, if I might dare to use that word, was the presentation of it all in a personal way. That's a weak explanation but I hope it gives you an idea.
Bob Levey: What do you think of Howard Stern?
Dennis Owens: Howard Stern, actually, is a very good talent at what he does. What he does, does not suit ME at all. But I always remind everybody who doesn't like ME that you have the opportunity of turning the dial to what you do prefer. Same thing for Howard!
Del Ray: Dennis, I'd just like to say thank you and
we AE's miss you of a morning. Classical
music and your voice and personality
were always a pleasant and calming part
of drive time, often enabling me to accept
what I could not change with a better
grace and arrive at work almost as fresh
as when I left the house. No small feat,
sir. You have more friends than you know.
Dennis Owens: Dear Del Ray,
That's very nice of you! I want to assure you and the other AEs that I always considered it a responsibility to try and do it right. I'm glad that I succeeded seemingly, enough to keep you all under control. Ha Ha!
Bob Levey: In 1999, a newspaper profile described you as the "white-goateed Dennis Owens," and said you have a "rich, quivering baritone."
Yeah, I know, newspapers sometimes overdo it. But how would Dennis Owens have rewritten those two phrases?
Dennis Owens: I don't even recall the article. That I have a beard described as a goatee -- is true.
That it is white -- is also true.
I'm not evading your question, but I literally cannot describe my own voice! I really don't understand what exactly it is that other people hear. I just accept their favorable reaction. And I'm very grateful for that. That's really all I can say.
Bob Levey: How would you rate Washington as a radio town? As a classical music town?
Dennis Owens: Washington has become as good a radio town as you can find in the country today, since the Communications Act of the mid-90s. There is now incredible uniformity across the country ... As far as classical is concerned, Washington is UNIQUE. Classical music succeeds here on the radio in a way which is not duplicated anywhere, and that includes New York!!!!!!!!! The only other successful radio presentation of classical music that I admire is not even in this country. It is CLASSIC FM in the UK!
Takoma Park, MD: Dennis,
Thank you for all the years of listening to you as I was getting ready for work. I couldn't believe you were leaving us! James Bartell though has definitely picked up the slack. Your shows are totally different in style but I continue to love listening to James with his soothing voice and all his sound effects! And every once in a while...I'll hear you again and it makes my day!
Dennis Owens: Thank you for being a faithful AE ... I will be back, especially this summer, and look forward to all the NIFTY ENCOUNTERS we will have!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Bob Levey: In a column last November, I bade you a fond farewell, and quoted your parting line, delivered on WTOP. You said:
"Classical music is like sex. You never know how long it's going to last, and it's embarrassing if you clap at the wrong time."
Can you imagine that saying aboard a T-shirt on the Ocean City boardwalk some day?
Dennis Owens: Yes. I can imagine that being a T-shirt utterance, but only if I have control over the distribution of same. Chortle, chortle!!
Washington, DC: Does VerStandig Broadcasting deserve any recognition for the longevity of your career after VerStandig’s resurrection of a sinking WGMS in the mid 80’s?
Dennis Owens: No. VerStandig radio had nothing to do with the resurrection of WGMS. That occurred in 1972 under the leadership of one -- Jerry Lyman, who was still at that time, part of RKO General Broadcasting.
Bob Levey: I'm tipping my hand here, but whenever I listen to "morning zoo" shows, I'm amazed at how "forced" they sound and how peanut-brained they think their audiences are. Over the course of an hour, all they talk about is TV shows, rush hour traffic and hockey. Yet they get the big ratings. Why? How?
Dennis Owens: It's a wonderful question. The answer is lengthy. We don't have time for it here. But if you want to contact me on e-mail, via the station, I will attempt a more full answer.
Long Beach: Have you ever done any work with Tim Page? His chats are the best, along with
Levey Live, of course. Perhaps you could sit
in with Mr.Page some time in the future?
Dennis Owens: You ask so many fun questions -- pity we haven't got time to really go after them. Thank you for your -- intellect!
I have never worked with Tim Page. But I'm sure it would be a fun time, if we ever did.
Bob Levey: Why don't more people listen to classical music? It would seem to be the perfect soother for the travails of rush hour traffic, no?
Dennis Owens: The reason people don't listen to classical, as a majority, although the listenership in Washington is uniquely large, is probably to be blamed mostly on the PRESENTATION! The number of time listeners have told me that classical music elsewhere on the radio is so BORING -- you would not believe. The presentation of the music has done more to hold it back than the music.
Mozart lives!!!! And if you don't believe that, think, for example, of the success of the movie Amadeus.
Bob Levey: Commercial radio is poised on the edge of a revolution--or maybe a bust. Very soon, most new cars will give you access to satellite radio, through which you'll be able to tailor your listening to your tastes a little more than you can with over-the-air stations. That's the plan, anyway. How does Dennis Owens think it will fare?
Dennis Owens: It will be a slow evolution. WGMS has a listernership of approximately 400,000 listeners a week. XM radio, for example, has to build a listenership of millions to be successful. And they are just now claiming much less than that. I think, however, it would be marvelous competition if it really gets going, and would improve the quality, variety and presentation of terrestrial radio.
fairfax VA: What do you think of WGMS playing just movements of works more often now, even during the overnight hours when there is plenty of time to play the entire piece? Also I never hear composers like Mahler or Bruckner anymore.
Dennis Owens: I am stepping into a hornet's nest going near THIS question! There are such conflicting points of view about this. From a radio point of view, it makes a lot of sense. From a concert hall point of view, it is blasphemy!!! Again, you're asking an individual to account for the decisions of radio management. You really should try directing that very good question to the program director at WGMS.
Lawrenceville, GA: I really hope that you can record a book on tape for your listeners who love to hear the sound of your voice. Have you ever considered it?
Dennis Owens: Another marvelous question. I am very keen to do this. I have had lots of close-in encouragement, but breaking through to the people who could make it happen has been a slow process. I'm still hopeful, and still seeking away the cross over into the wonderful world of books on tape.
LA: What are the associative triggers for
your listeners, when you have a regular time
slot? What have some of them told you? I'm sure the simple smell of coffee in
the morning brings back memories of you talking on the radio to many people.
Dennis Owens: When I stopped, in late November, it produced a HUGE amount of e-mail and written mail. You would be staggered, amazed, intrigued if you could view all the things that were said to me! There's no one thing, but I will say, that the listeners found an identity with me that was as close to a personal friendship as one can get with a radio program. They listened with their hearts and their minds and appreciated that I thought they had enough savvy to catch EVERYTHING that was being said! And that proved to be one of those unique things that can happen only in radio!! TV viewing is too passive ... radio still leaves a sense of communication.
Lawrenceville, GA: Do you sing? It would be a great pity if you don't.
Dennis Owens: No, I don't sing!!! But my background is Welsh, and the Welsh are known for singing AND speaking!! So while I cannot be a Pavarotti, I do make a sincere attempt to be a reasonable Anthony Hopkins or dare I say Richard Burton!!!
[Gawd, am I being arrogant or what?]
Washington, D.C.: What have you enjoyed most about being on the radio for so many years?
Dennis Owens: When one is allowed to do a radio show, there is a wonderful opportunity to release one's ego in a constructive way. All of us satisfy our egos in various ways through our work. I just was lucky to finally find the medium of radio for which I must be eternally grateful.
My favorite thing you said...: ...made me a fan for life.
"Some of you drink from the fountain of knowledge. Others merely gargle."
Dennis Owens: Dear Fan for Life,
If I'd known I could have won you over with one remark like that ... I would have done it sooner.
Bob Levey: To whom--and to what--do you listen when you're in the Owens-mobile?
Dennis Owens: I'm into books on tape a fair amount because of not having the time to READ the book. I like intelligent talk shows which occur mostly on FM rather than on AM radio. For music, I dodge between classical and get this -- oldies!
And you should know something, I was in that format, oldies, when it was still newies, back in the early 60s, long before I turned my attention completely to classical.
Alexandria, VA: Instead of Books on Tape, why not go down the hall for an hour and take over the Newsdesk at WTOP. You have such a great voice, that listening to it tell the news would be a very great pleasure.
And then you could make fun of the weather frogs every 10 minutes!
Dennis Owens: I have been down the hall ... I have seen the news thugs. I have exchanged verbally with them in riotous fashion. It would be good, but I have been told by the Chief News Thug that I could become too disruptive.
But I might look into it!
Vienna, VA: I'd like to comment on your answer to another caller about Howard Stern. It is true that one can simply turn the dial, but that does not do anything to uphold FCC standards of decency or change the fact that he violates those standards every day as a DJ....and gets away with it. Your station does not violate those standards...in fact it plays some quite sophisticated music. So then, why should HE get away with it, and why should the answer to those who object to his program be "just simply turn the dial?"....this just does not make sense. Why have obscenity laws if they are not going to be enforced?
Dennis Owens: This is a heavy-weight topic, where in everybody wants to have a very loud say. I will say, very quickly, that the FCC might be the answer, but it seems they have withdrawn from being too strict. And an individual, like myself, is only one more opinion in the sea of discussion on this topic. And I suppose the best thing, if we cannot have forceful official control -- and perhaps don't even want it -- is self-censorship. The choice is yours is probably an unsatisfactory answer, but our climate of freedom is a cherished thing which produces much argument.
Bob Levey: Full disclosure: I worked for WTOP radio for 4.5 years during morning drive, when Dennis Owens was right down the hall at the sister station, WGMS. I NEVER SAW THIS MAN DRINK A CUP OF COFFEE! How could you have resisted, Dennis? And how could you stay awake all those mornings without it?
Dennis Owens: I always drank tea, as it should be! Actually, occasionally, in an idiotically loose moment, I have been detected sipping, gasp, coffee. But I sought treatment, and I'm not able to keep myself successfully under control.
Kingstowne, Virginia: How concerned are you that the audience for classical music continues to age, and that young people, say under 35, have no interest in it? What will the classical music landscape look like in a few years? Will anyone be listening to Bach or Handel?
Dennis Owens: That's a good question. The outlook, in general, is dismal. More so because of the presentation of the music than because of the music itself. The music has survived through the centuries, through war and peace, it will always be there. And people will find it. Let me give you an expression, which I think says a lot to a younger person: "At some point around the age of 35, more or less, something horrible happens to YOUR music, and -- Mozart is waiting."
I didn't start off in classical radio. I presented pop music, easy listening, and other formats. In fact, I began in country and western!!!!!!
And I found -- Mozart WAS in fact waiting when I was ready.
Silver Spring, Md: Please excuse me for intruding on this love-fest, but I hope you can stand some constructive criticism. When you were on the air, I would have preferred it if you had played more soothing Mozart and Brahms and talked less. Your observations about life's banalities were about as erudite as one of Bob Levey's 800 word brain dump columns.
Dennis Owens: One can never be satisfactory for everybody. That's why there are various radio programs. You base what you do by gauging the reaction of the audience, making adjustments, and dealing with those who understand and want what you say or write. I'm sure there are movies, books, and other things that you wouldn't touch, but would absolutely delight others. And that's quite reasonable. If Bob and I got nothing but adverse response, we'd know it. And we'd do something about it. I learned from a performer a long time ago, you cannot embrace everybody, therefore just go for the people who understand and appreciate what you're doing.
Alexandria, VA: One of the great things were your Quips, Quotations, and Questions that Savage Beast put on the Assembled Ears page for those of us who just couldn't wake up at 5:30 AM. Any chance those pages could reappear when you are sharing your wisdom? I listen to WGMS at work, but sometimes work takes me away from my desk and radio.
Dennis Owens: I want to answer you because others have wondered about that. When I'm doing a fill in, people hear things in the way we used to do it all the time.
It will not be possible to offer that page due to the behind-the-scenes set up. I regret this. But I will keep my comments on file for a few days, and you can contact me via e-mail if you want something you've heard.
Thanks always for your support.
Bob Levey: At the Dennis Owens farewell dinner (which I attended), Senators and diplomats sang your praises. Did you pitch the WGMS morning show to Big Personages such as them? Or did you envision Average Joe and Average Jane whenever you opened the mic?
Dennis Owens: The program was never geared to a segment of Washington. It was just for people at large. The key things was to make it more fun and interesting than one would normally hear in the classical format. I was able to prove that a lot of people wanted a personality touch to the classical format.
There will always be a core segment that will want nothing but music, and barely a word in-between. But I never sought out anything other than good listeners, listening in savvy way. And I hope it won't sound too arrogant, if I dare to say -- it worked!
Bob Levey: Any comment on the Dixie Chicks flap, whereby stations were denying them airplay because of a political remark that one Chick made about Bush?
Dennis Owens: Oh those poor Dixie Chicks. They dared to have an opinion, and somehow it didn't match other opinions. And one is a spectator once again to an idiotic clashing of opinions. And you know what? It really doesn't matter.
Bob Levey: Many broadcasters of your, uh, vintage, buy a small station near the beach and become ad salesman-newsman-morning host, all rolled into one. Any chance that Washington's loss will be Fenwick Island, Delaware's, gain?
Dennis Owens: I will say, if one steps away from a successful radio program to have more time for a private life, I don't think it would ever include the trials and tribulations of running a radio station in today's radio climate. I have colleagues who do it, and I admire their fortitude!
Bob Levey: Many thanks and happy trails to Dennis Owens. Be sure to join us one week from today when our guest on "Levey Live" will be the celebrated mystery writer from the Southwest, Tony Hillerman. Our visit with him will begin at noon Eastern time on May 6.
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