A Monthly Profile of Orchestra Fans and Family
In his rich, immediately recognizable baritone, Gregg Whiteside insists he never had any intention of being a radio broadcaster, let alone the voice of The Philadelphia Orchestra (the first orchestra with a commercially-sponsored national radio series, starting in 1929).
But he may not have had a choice. He grew up a passionate lover of classical music. He collected the Orchestra’s LPs. He saved up his allowance so he could take the train from Wilmington to their concerts at the Academy of Music.
And there was more: He loved listening to the radio. “I think it stems to my days as a kid, growing up listening to Phillies games on a transistor radio under the pillow. Those broadcasts let me see everything: the grass, the field, even the smoke rising from all the cigarettes in the stands. Radio is an intimate medium, and it spoke directly to me.”
Still, Gregg didn’t plan on becoming a broadcaster. It’s just that one day, as a 28-year-old man with a stint of newspapering behind him, he was listening to New York’s leading classical radio station, and realized he didn’t like it. “It was so boring! The announcers weren’t as passionate about music as I was. I told my wife, ‘I’m going to show them how classical music can be presented to an audience that cares about it.’”
He wangled an audition at that radio station. To the disdain of the audio engineer, he made his tryout broadcast conversational, relatable, and visual. The general manager called him the next day and offered him a job. His broadcasting career quickly went from adagio to vivace. Within a couple of years he was chief announcer and news director. Competing stations told their announcers to emulate his style. He became the voice of virtually every leading New York City cultural institution, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and American Ballet Theatre.
“It was a great run; very exciting. But the greatest thing was when I ended up back in the Delaware Valley, with The Philadelphia Orchestra [in February 2013]. This is a great orchestra, doing great things. It needs to be spotlighted. It needs to shine. I can give it a setting that helps it shine!”
Gregg is so committed to his broadcasts, he attends every single subscription concert. He plans the shows meticulously: studying the program; matching the soloists or guest conductors with his interviewers; working out the precise timing of the broadcast. And then, on Saturday night, he climbs into the radio booth at Verizon Hall and the magic begins.
“I don’t look at notes or read a script. I look at the stage, just like the rest of the audience. I paint a picture; I make it visual, not just musical, so the radio audience gets the whole concert experience. Most announcers, no matter how good they are, don’t like working without a script as a crutch. But I’ve trained myself to have the confidence to trust my knowledge of music, to know how it can speak to people.”
He lavishes praise on his broadcast team: Timothy Kastner, director of digital media and video production with the Orchestra; Joe Patti, production manager at WRTI; and interviewers Susan Lewis, Debra Lew Harder, and Bliss Michelson, all of WRTI.
“If I have those five people, I can do a broadcast every week. And I don’t think my part is as important as theirs. They make me sound a hell of a lot better than I really am. They are so fantastic, so talented; and I can certainly add to that list Makiko Freeman and Kate Schimmer of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s artistic administration, who are so helpful in setting up artist interviews for the intermissions. It makes me proud to be in Philadelphia.”
The broadcast gets plenty of fan mail. “I love the ones that say ‘you make it sound like it’s so much fun, we bought a couple of tickets to go see the Orchestra live. It was so great, we bought a subscription, and we have you to thank.’”
Gregg is optimistic about the future of the music he loves so much. “The death of classical music has been forecast so many times in my lifetime. Yet it always comes back. It elevates and transforms us. It humanizes us; it takes us out of ourselves.
“There are two sides of Gregg: the classical music lover, the purist; and the broadcaster who wants to open the door as wide as possible. Radio is like a door. I want to make it a way in for people on the fringe who may not know much about classical music, but are open to it, on the edge. I want the door to be big enough to make them feel comfortable. I want to demystify the music, and make it available to as many people as possible. I feel I can make this music accessible without alienating the more knowledgeable members of the audience. I know as much about classical music as anybody, but that doesn’t matter. This is radio.”