“This is a community of the air…” Classical host Ralph Graves reflects on 1,500 episodes on WTJU

Every Wednesday morning, well before sunrise, Ralph Graves puts the keys in his car in Orange and drives into Charlottesville. He’s been doing so for 32 years. At 6 a.m., Ralph pots up the host mic in WTJU’s on-air studio. It’s time to begin another edition of “Classical Sunrise.”

He has never repeated a piece of music intentionally. You can even see every work he has played and when. Be forewarned: the document is 544 pages long.

Over the years, Ralph has served as WTJU’s Classical department director. For the last several years, he has been the program director of WTJU’s 24/7 local classical service CharlottesvilleClassical.org.

I sat down with Ralph for a Q&A on the occasion of his 1500th on-air show.

NATHAN MOORE: You’ve been hosting classical programs on WTJU since July 11, 1991. First of all, I’m sorry I missed the anniversary that you just had. What drew you to WTJU back then?

RALPH GRAVES: Thanks! I’ve always loved radio and the concept of working with voices and sound. One of my childhood heroes was Stan Freiberg. I hosted a Sunday morning classical program on WJMA in Orange, Virginia from 1984 to 1990. I missed it, and volunteering for WTJU filled a need I still had to broadcast.

The concept of your WTJU programs has always been to never play a piece again that you have already aired once. Why do that?

That no-repeat concept started when I began “Artsong” on WJMA back in 1984. That was a three-hour weekly program. I did it to avoid playing the same old thing over and over (which was kind of what the general manager wanted).

He had in mind soothing Sunday morning classics — just the greatest hits, please. I wanted to show the listener that there was a lot of great music worth hearing beyond the classical Top 40.

I was still exploring the genre myself with my newly-minted Master’s in Music degree from UVa. A record collector friend and I would play “stump-the-chump” on a regular basis. We’d play a recording and challenge the other person to identify the composer.

It very quickly moved past the greats into the obscure as we tried to outdo each other. And I discovered a lot of great composers I’d never heard of before.

These were all discoveries that I shared with my audience. When I arrived at WTJU in July 1991, I simply continued that programming philosophy. And the personal journey of exploration continues!

What’s something unexpected that has come from your hosting on WTJU?

When I arrived, I was just here to share the music. I didn’t expect to become part of a community of music lovers. But I have, and it’s become the greatest reward for me!

There’s the community of other like-minded volunteers in WTJU’s classical music department itself. While we all share a deep love of the genre, our approaches to the music are as individual as ourselves.

I discovered a lot about classical music from my record collector friend. But I’ve learned even more from all the classical volunteers I’ve shared the airwaves with.

Tim Snider said that he could turn on a WTJU classical show, and after hearing just a few minutes of music identify the host.

I think that’s true. We all have our biases and our blind spots. And because each host programs their own show, the music we share is as diverse as our personalities.

But that sense of community also extends to the other departments at WTJU. I’ve developed some fine friendships with the jazz hosts I’ve handed off to over the years. And with the other volunteers and staff at WTJU as well.

All the volunteers in all the departments are here for the same reason — to share our audio passions with others. That includes current events, podcasting, and building a community through audio.

And there’s the community of listeners, as well. Over the years I’ve had some wonderful conversations with listeners who’ve called in. Some called in quite regularly, some only occasionally. Some have passed on, but some continue to check in from time to time.

Every conversation is welcome, and each one strengthens a connection. The feedback and support the station receives during our marathons also reinforce for me that sense of community  

I thought I was just coming to WTJU to spin some CDs and share my love for classical music. I’m glad it turned out to be much more than that.

What’s an embarrassing moment you’ve had on air?

It happened during my very first show of my very first Classical Marathon. One concept was drilled into me.  Our fund-raising pitches were to positively promote WTJU. We were NOT to negatively talk about WVTF and WMRA. (At the time both stations were broadcasting classical music in the Charlottesville market.)

The reason was that then, as now, many of our listeners also supported these stations. To run the stations down could be heard as a criticism of that support. That might make those listeners feel guilty about pledging to those stations. It might even push them away from WTJU.

So high stakes indeed for not talking about our competitors. That was my foremost thought when I opened the mic for the first fund-raising pitch for my first Classical Marathon.  And I said, “Welcome to the Classical Marathon! Pledge your support now to WVTF!”

You’re also the driving force behind CharlottesvilleClassical.org, WTJU’s 24/7 classical music stream and local classical web resource. What impact do you hope to have with this site?

Right now it’s a showcase for our diverse classical programming. We simulcast our WTJU classical programming, of course. And then we rebroadcast that content later that day and throughout the week.  What I’m most excited about, though is the potential.

Like the other departments at WTJU, our share of air time is limited. We have 33 hours of weekly programming on WTJU. On Charlottesville Classical, we have an additional 135 hours to fill! And those hours can be filled with any and all kinds of classical programming. We already have three one-hour programs that show the potential.

Hinke Younger’s “Worldview” explores classical music outside of Western Europe. Ken Nail’s “Silverscreen Soundtrack Hour” presents great orchestral movie scores.  Shari Barbour’s “A Little Something for Everyone” is a heady mix of light classical, folk, and Americana.

At the moment, we’re filling the time with rebroadcasts of our programming. But the channel’s wide open!

If someone’s interested in doing a weekly one-hour, two-hour, or even three-hour program, drop me an email.

I think internet broadcasting is the future. And it’s a perfect place for what WTJU does best. That is, present the music that deserves to be heard (but usually isn’t), curated by the people who love it.

Usually in these Q&As, I ask someone what their “desert island discs” would be… that is, the top albums they’d want to listen to if stuck on a desert island. That question somehow seems wrong for you.

Not at all. Here are my desert island discs:


1. Alan Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountains
Gerard Schwarz; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

(Gerard Schwarz played the trumpet solo in the Reiner recording of “Mysterious Mountain.” He really understands Hovhaness’ music. Plus Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 66, Hymn to Glacier Peak” is my favorite Hovhaness symphony, with “Mysterious Mountain” being a close second)

2. Kurt Hessenberg: Symphony No. 2; Concerto for Orchestra No. 1
Leland Sun, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Cassandra Records 

(It’s hard to describe, but for me, Hessenberg’s second is the most perfectly constructed symphony I’ve ever heard. I always get a thrill listening to it)

3. Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress
Gerald Finley; the Royal Opera Chorus
Richard Hickox; The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

(RWV’s best work. At the end when the pilgrim enters heaven, the music never fails to bring me to tears.)

4. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (soundtrack)
David Munrow and the Early Music Consort

(As a teenager I fell in love with Renaissance music because of this production, and David Munrow’s performance)

5. Puccini: Turnadot
Eva Marton; Ben Heppner; Margaret Price
Munich Radio Orchestra and Chorus
Roberto Abbado, codncutor

(This was the first opera I saw live. And there’s so much more to this score than “Nessun Dorma” I”m not going to argue with anyone about performances. This is the just one that works for me.)

And some non-classical choices

1. Move On Up: The Very Best of Northern Soul

(This 3-cd collection has all the essential classics)

2. Don Ellis: Don Ellis at the Fillmore

(Ellis turned me on to odd meters. And while there are other albums of his that are near equals, an entire auditorium clapping in 7/4 time is just too much.)

3. Dream Babes Vol. 1 Am I Dreaming?

(All eight volumes of this collection of 60s Brit Pop Girls is worth having, but vol. one has Cindy Williams – from Wales, not the sitcom star — singing “Talk about Us” a beautifully poignant song I never get tired of.)

4. Cold Blood: Cold Blood
San Francisco Records 

(Lydia Pense in her prime — nuff said)

5. Alfred Newman: How the West Was Won
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
TCM Turner Classic Movies Music 

(This 2 CD set has every music cue. Alfred Newman’s best score)

What does WTJU mean to you?

What we do here is vital. This isn’t a radio club. It isn’t a bunch of self-indulgent music nerds. This is a community of the air that truly connects people through sound. We present the music and voices that simply aren’t heard anywhere else.

I’ve always been in favor of moving and transforming WTJU with the times — as long as we remain true to who we are. And I think we do. We’ve added services, and revised schedules and formats. And still — if you tune into the WTJU, you’ll know you’re not listening to any other station. 

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