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Spinning the On-Ramp
Playing it by ear at KWAX with Caitriona Bolster
by Suzi Steffen
Caitriona Bolster chanced into the perfect job.
The morning host of the UO’s KWAX 91.1 FM didn’t plan to become the calm, sometimes faintly amused and always engaged voice listeners hear between pieces of classical music. Her work, however, lets her share her childhood dream with others.
Born in Ireland, Bolster grew up in a small town that she describes as having “little in the way of culture.” Her mother conveyed what she could, playing Irish radio and the BBC. “The BBC was very scratchy when we could get it,” Bolster says, “but it’s where I got my musical training.” At lunch, she would rush home from school to hear concerts. “If they were playing the William Tell overture, I was ecstatic.”
|Photo: Todd Cooper|
Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t worried when KWAX (that’s pronounced K-W-A-X, not kay-wax, in case you’re wondering) began its “Listener’s Choice” programming 20 years ago. “People said, ‘You’re daft, nobody turns their station over to listeners!’ They thought it would be the Pachelbel Canon or William Tell day after day,” she says. Both of those popular pieces do get requested, but Bolster doesn’t mind, for two reasons. First of all, thanks to the UO’s music school and Eugene’s abundance of professional music opportunities, listeners request an impressive mix. In addition, she says, “Everybody needs an on-ramp.” Familiar music provides that path.
Bolster’s path took her to college in Dublin and grad school in musicology at Yale, where she later worked on projects like the Yale Oral History of American Music. She moved to Arlington, Texas, with her then-husband in the mid-1970s, and soon she started looking for something to fill her time. “I stumbled into [public radio station] KERA and offered to help catalog their records — and I was hired as the classical music director,” she says, laughing. With no radio training and large, clunky tapes to cue, she toughed out learning her way around the studio. A few years later, she moved to Eugene. After working as the general manager of the then very new Mozart Players, she started at KWAX in 1986.
Years later, the work remains a combination of familiar and new. On listener request Fridays in the unassuming KWAX building nestled near the new Slocum Center, Bolster and cohort Rocky Lamanna share broadcast duties and take requests. One recent Friday morning, as Lamanna broadcasts the phone numbers, Bolster is answering calls from Boston, Mass. (David, who wants to hear a Korngold violin concerto); Dallas, Ore. (Kevin, after an Arvo Pärt string quartet but willing to accept a Shostakovich piano trio instead) and Eugene (Carola, whose request for British composer George Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow” sets Bolster on an English pastoral theme later in the morning). Those all mix with earlier requests from around the state and even one from a listener in New Zealand — and one from a home-schooling mom who wants her three kids to hear The Empire Strikes Back’s Imperial March.
Sometimes, listeners don’t know an exact description. “They sing it to me, and sometimes I can identify it,” Bolster says. Maybe they like what the syndicated overnight host played at 2 am, so she searches that info out online. This Friday, everyone has specific ideas. Bolster finds the necessary CDs by standing on rolling steps to search the tops of the tall shelves. She considers how to fit the music into the station’s time limits. She cuts the requests off at about 21 per week “entirely playing it by ear.” The music has to fit in by 5 pm. “There have been times when I’ve been at the computer searching our library for a faster version of Beethoven’s 7th.”
The station, supported in part by the UO and in part by listener donations, nets a broad audience. On the KWAX website (www.kwax.com), a map shows online listeners dotted around the globe from Taiwan to East Timor, from Russia to Saudi Arabia, from Korea to Costa Rica. The U.S. represents as well: In the latest fund drive, Bolster says, the station saw donations come in from 26 states.
Zipping from her office (where photos of contributors’ cats from a popular fund drive “cat challenge” line the shelves) to the combo library/studio room, Bolster speaks cheerfully about the state of classical music. That’s despite the closure of Eugene’s classical music store, Musique Gourmet, and a decimation in the ranks of newspaper classical music critics across the country over the past year. “When I hear people crying and moaning, I don’t like it,” she says. During her 22 years at the station, she’s seen the station’s audience grow, watched the demographics change and appreciated a constant stream of support. She regrets the loss of critical voices in print, but she recently started reading the blog of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross (www.therestisnoise.com), and she says a wealth of online voices adds to the discussion. Though she prefers CDs to downloads — “I want the liner notes; I want the booklet,” she says — she isn’t averse to the advances in technology that have made broadcasting easier.
Whether it’s cutting tape or cuing up digital downloads, one thing Caitriona Bolster keeps in mind about her dream job: She never knows who’s listening. She has heard from listeners who were depressed, for whom a single piece of music changed their lives. She has heard from those whose gateway classical music piece she happened to play one day. And she’s heard from people who say their loved ones listened to KWAX as they were dying. That means she makes an effort to welcome everyone to the station, using her voice. “Even if I’m having a bad day, what matters is that I’m there every day, that people feel I’m a friend.”
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