John Pitman has been working at All Classical Portland since 1983, back when the station was little more than a small FM booth inside a converted classroom. After taking a radio station class at Benson Polytechnic and working part-time at the AM station, John realized that radio was what he wanted to do in life. He currently works as Music Director at All Classical, responsible for choosing the music we hear, and fills in as on-air host when needed.
I spoke with John Pitman about his first time on the radio, how he first got into classical music, and the particulars of being All Classical’s Music Director.
What was All Classical like 30 years ago?
Well, it was a very simple setup thirty years ago compared to what we have now. A very small staff, and a lot less equipment. We didn’t even have a studio at the very beginning; we were just out in a room. It was sort of like, if you went down the halls here, where the rack machines are and all that noise, and just sat there for eight hours, that’s what it was like. It was noisy. There were a lot of distractions and, because we’re in a high school and KBPS AM, which we were affiliated with at the time, has a broadcast course, every 40 to 45 minutes a troupe of students would come and go. Those were the kind of things that went on all day. And then a few months after that they built an FM booth. And we were there from ‘83 to ‘92. So just about the first nine years of the station was in this converted classroom.
And what did you do?
At the very beginning, I was not on the air; that didn’t happen until about three years later. I was playing the tape recorded programs that we had. And we had a lot, many many more than we do now. We were much more reliant on outside material to fill our broadcast hours.
Do you remember your first time on air?
I do actually. What I remember most is waiting to leave my house. I was about twenty years old and still living at home. I didn’t drive yet, so my mom would drive me down to the station every day. It was the first day where I was going to have a really significant amount of time on the air. I was quite nervous about it, but I had all my music selected and I can remember sitting in the living room and feeling like ‘I think we need to go now.’ So my mom drove me down here and I had to wait around for a while before I finally went on the air. It was very intense. I think it was like, if you have ever performed on stage before, unless you have no nerves at all, you get this kind of sense of time standing still. In one sense it seems like you’re there forever and in another sense it just flies by. I can’t really explain what it’s like, but it certainly doesn’t feel like time is passing in a normal sense when you’re on the air.
What kind of feedback did you get?
In order to get on the air, you have to make a recording as though you were on the air. Fortunately, you can just go into a studio and make an aircheck, as it’s called. I had already done that, handed it in, got some feedback from the program director, and he gave me one or two tips. One of them was don’t over-pronounce the names and the other was just basically don’t over-elaborate your explanations of what’s going on.
Did you have a ‘Radio Voice’?
Oh yeah, I think so. I think it was very different from what it is now and very different from my conversational voice. Back then you went by most of the announcers that you tended to hear, either the program director, or broadcasters from other networks. By and large, it was very formal. It wasn’t really as conversational as it is now. It was very professional, but very formulaic. There was a very particular way you went about saying whose piece it was and who performed it.
Do you think it’s better to be conversational?
I do. It’s easier for the listeners to approach the music in the first place. And that’s what we want them to do; we want them to connect to the music. It’s nice that they connect to us, and it’s nice to hear from them in emails, and from postings on Facebook, and meeting them, no doubt about that. But we’re there to connect them primarily to this great music, so that they’ll appreciate it, and love it, as much as we do.
Growing up in Portland, do you remember what radio stations you listened to?
I actually didn’t listen to the radio that much as a kid. It was coming to Benson and finding out from a couple of friends that a) there was a radio station here and b) there was a radio station class that you could take here, that got me more interested in radio. Then in 1983 I graduated and was working part-time on the AM station and they said there’s an FM station going on in August and would I be interested in continuing on and working there. So after two years in the class and three months working on the radio, the radio bug had definitely bitten me. And I immediately said yes, absolutely.
So what do you do now, as music director?
I receive the latest releases from all the different classical labels, and I do what I call “auditioning” them, deciding, first of all, is this music we want to play on the air, is it performed well, and is the recording up to our standards. The other part of the job, is going back into the existing library and finding things that we’re not yet playing on the air. I know a lot of what we have on the shelves, but there are thousands of CDs that I still have never listened to.
So you’re the Decider?
Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell; I decide what goes on the air. But I don’t have total autonomy. This is a collaborative effort with John Burk, our program director. He has developed a very clear vision of the sound of the station, so working with the set of ideas that he has actually informs my decision about what to recommend to add to the playlist.
Do the other hosts ever give recommendations?
Yeah, all the time. Because they’re interviewing visiting artists, or in the case of Christa Wessel, receiving local recordings, they’ll recommend from time to time something that they’ve come across. They’ll say, you know, ‘give this a listen.’
What’s the best part of working here?
Getting to listen to all that music!
How did you get into Classical music?
I credit my dad. He was a serviceman in World War II. He went into the service loving Glen Miller and the big bands, Boogie-woogie and things like that – popular music. A fellow serviceman was into classical music, which got my dad into classical music. And after that he just plunged head long into classical music for the next couple of decades. The only group that ever distracted him was the Beatles. He was crazy about The Beatles from the time they hit the scene until they broke up, and then it seems like once they broke up, he wasn’t interested in any other pop music, he just went back to classical. My dad played me Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms records, and he also took me to my first concerts. My first Oregon Symphony concert was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and my first opera was The Barber of Seville.
So it was actually my dad and my next door neighbor, an Italian American who loved opera and had old 78 RPM records. He would put these records on and play for us these singers – I mean, Caruso and Gigli and these golden age singers. So by the time I got into KBPS, I knew who Toscanini was, I knew who Caruso was, and how to say some of these names. And I understood the form, too. I understood that there were four movements in the symphony, and three movements in the concerto.
But you never studied music?
Not ever seriously, no. I took clarinet for part of a year around sixth grade, but didn’t stick with it. My dad tried to teach me piano. We had a lot of fun at the piano, but I didn’t get very far. Finally, in the mid 90s, after I had been at the station for some time and had kind of settled into a routine, I thought, well I’m kind of interested in learning a new instrument. Tania Thompson had started taking cello lessons, she was our original live announcer, and she recommended a couple of guys who might be good teachers. I chose Jerry Bobbe and took lessons for about three years. I kind of plateaued. I still have the cello with some vain hopes of getting back into it, but other interests diverged me from that.
I gained a huge amount of respect and appreciation for real musicians, serious musicians, almost from the first time I drew the bow across the strings. I thought, oh my gosh, I can’t believe how hard this is. I hadn’t even done anything yet and it was hard! That was a really good learning experience for me because now I feel like I can listen to music and have a better appreciation and understanding of what it’s like to learn the language of the music, and stick with it. And also an appreciation for people who have musical talent.
If you weren’t working at All Classical, where would you be?
Well, it’s a very good question. I majored in electronics here at Benson and up until I got the job in radio, I thought, well, it will be something in electronics but I don’t really know what it will be. Maybe it will be, you know, soldering circuit boards or something like that. I didn’t really have a clear idea then what it was going to be.
What is your favorite Non-Classical Music?
The Beatles, thanks to my dad. I went through a phase in the early 90s, my last foray into what was then the music everyone was listening to, and that would be the Seattle grunge scene – Nirvana, and Pearl Jam and those guys. But then when Kurt Cobain died, I kind of lost interest after that. I love jazz, the jazz of the 40s, primarily. I appreciate Miles Davis. I think Duke Ellington is a genius. And I like world music. I like music of different cultures. Latin American music is a big favorite of mine.
So no Top 40?
Okay, in the 80s, my formative years, I was listening to, you know, the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and stuff back then.
What is your favorite Classical music, if you had to choose?
My favorite? Mozart. Even before you’d finish your sentence it was Mozart. Orchestra wise, I’d be happy with anything by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, or The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. I never get tired of listening to those orchestras. I could also go for a long time listening to Beethoven and never get tired of him.
Do you have a favorite era of recordings or conductors?
I’m continually interested in what the latest conductors are bringing out. There are a lot of really dynamic, young conductors right now. I’m really happy that we have conductors right now who aren’t just the Americans, the British, and the Europeans. I’m happy to see South American conductors. I’m really happy to see women conductors, not just getting attention for the novelty that they are women, but because they truly are good conductors – JoAnn Falleta, Marin Alsop, a couple of examples.
And, finally, what is your dream Jeopardy Category?
Classical Music, of course.
And, embarrassingly, Star Wars…something else from my formative years.