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The world's gentlest alarm clock: Robert J. Lurtsema

Meet Robert J. Lurtsema, the radio host who gives his listeners pause. After pause. And then some. The host of WGBH-FM's "Morning Pro Musica" program is famous for the relaxed pace of his delivery. In fact, after the frenetic tone of commerical radio, it takes a bit of getting used to. The first time I listened in there was such a pause in the middle of one of the newscasts tht I thought my clock radio had shut itself off. But no, it was just Robert J. searching for le mot juste. . . .m

Now that the NAtional Public RAdio satellite is carrying "Morning Pro Musica" to a nationwide audience, listeners from Florida to Oregon will be thumping theri clock radios, fiddling with theri volume dials, and wondering generally about power failures as Lurtsema carries on at his own pace.

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But there is method i all this. If Robert J. sounds a little slow early in the morning, well, a lot of us are a little slow early i the morning. If he finds very little of significance on the teletype news wire when it's time to give the news, he'll say so.

He knows his listeners would rather wake up to Mozart than to wars and rumors of wars, or reports of how much the dollar has deteriorated while they were asleep.

From 7 to noon sevendays a week,he presents clasical music, occasional live performances and interviews, and his individualistic, low-key newscasts.

His concern for continuity on the program is such that since he took over as regualr host on OCt. 23, 1971, he hasn't missed a single day except for vacations. And his listeners are prepared for those weeks in advance, first via subtle hints and then explicit announcement that he will not be there, and that someone else will be waking them up in the morning.

He has a very specific sense of his audience, and gets bast amounts of listener response, pro and con, all strongly felt.

The day I visited him in the studio, he followed a Mozart piano piece with a composition for soprano and piano by contemporary composer George Perle. A few minutes later his associate producer, Leslie Warshaw, reported that an irate listener had called in to say that building up the audience with the Mozart and following it with that awful Perle piece was a truly dastardly deed.

The listener had complained, "It sounded like a dying calf, and there are enough dying calves in the real world. My wife has been vacuuming, trying to drown it ut, but she hasn't been able to vacuum loud enough."

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Lurtsema knows that besides the people who catch the first hour of his program and then dash off to school or the office, there are a lot of people who are with him five hours a day, almost every day. He mentions homemakers, artists, photographers in their darkrooms, shut-ins, and others, "people who have a seven-day-a-week schedule." To them, he is a regular morning companion. "It not that they like me or not, but that it's the same person there every day."

If he plays the wrong record, or if he gets the date of a composition wrong, or if a record gets stuck and it takes a minute to correct it, Lurtsema makes a point of apologizing on the air.

"It's all part of the rapport with the person you're talking to," he says.

He uses the singular "person" purposely.

People in an audience at a concert hall feel part of a group, he says but an individual radio listener does not.And so to address a radio audience collectively tends to make the individual listener feel excluded, as if the announcer were talking to some group out there somewhere.

"The moment someone comes on the radio talking to 'My fellow Amurricans. . . ,'" Lurtsema says, imitating Lyndon Johnson, "you've been excluded. I don't want to exclude anybody. I can't imagine ever using a phrase like 'all you people out there in radio land.'"

Robert J. had four years' experience as a regular listener of "Morning Pro Musica" before he joined the station. A serious artist, he liked to tune in the mornings while he was painting. He happened to hear the station was looking for a weekend host, asked for the job, and got it.AFter a few months he took over on weekdays as well.

It's the only job he's ever had that has lasted more than two years. He got into radio during a four-year stint in the Navy soon after high school, but he's also been a trapeze artist, diving isntructor, and construction worker, among many other things -- and has acted, sculpted, and painted. and he augments his "Morning Pro Music" salary with other television and radio work, including narations and commercials.

He's an eternal student, and "Morning Pro Musica" is just another school -- only the semester has lasted a little longer than usual. "Everything I learn is like opening a door that leads to 40 other doors. . . . I'm just a student, and I'm delighted to have the opportunity that I do to share the learning process."

There is nothing haphazard about this sharing.

"The succes of any classical-music program is determined long before it ever gets on the air. . . . It's all in the planning. Each program is like a chess game; there are a myriad number of moves, and each mvoe affects all the other moves."

He will build a program around a holiday or a composer's birthday or focus on the music of one country.

"I'm trying to bring people together by getting them fa "cycles," long-running features such as the BAch cantatas he has been playing every Sunday since 1971.

Lurtsema assumes that except for a few "icy-shower types," most of his listeners "like to ese into consciusness gradually in the morning." And so the progrtam's gentle first hour tends to BachM Mozart, and Haydn, pieces that seem to grow naturally out of the recorded birdcalls that open each program. Modern composers, and "heavy" music such as that of Mahler, are generally held off until later on in the morning, when everyone, including Lurtsema, is wide awake.

Robert J.'s listeners might be forgiven for assuming he is a trained musicologist. But actually he had no formal music training whatever until he had been doing the "Morning Pro Musica" for several years.

One day when he was interviewing a bassoon quartet that plays only one concet a year because the members live so far apart, he told them he'd write a piece for their next year's performance.

He was joking. But his lack of musical training was exposed when he kept turning the pages at the wrong time at a piano performance by Donald harris, then executive vicepresident of the New England Conservatory. He finally admitted he couldn't read music.

A few days later, Mr. Harris and Gunther Schuller, then president of the conservatory, offered him a scholarship.

Since he couldn't play any instrument, he majored in composition. There was a lot to learn, to put it mildly.

"But I've always felt there is a basic creative urge, and if you express it in one way you can express it in another. I'd always felt that I couldm write music.And I welcomed the opportunity to find the answers to music questions that had cropped up doing the show -- things I should have been able to answer."

And so with the patient help of his professors, he did very well. Not only did he get his bassoon quartet written in time (and later adapted part of it as the theme sonf for Julia Child's PBS program), but also wrote a score for a documentary film about mornarch butterflies.

Much as he enjoys talking about music and his program grammer. He takes the news seriously, but his priorities are clear: "It's a music program, and of curse the music should be of primary importance. The news is a convenience for listeners to keep them from having to goto another station."

He delivers the news ad lib, which is not to say he makes it up as he goes along. With a wooden ruler he tears off pieces of yellow copy as it emerges from the wire-service ticker and arranges the little slips in order on the desk in front of him. As the last of the recorded birdcalls that open each day's program fade away, he makes his lat-minute news judgments.

Then, when he starts in with "a look at some of the items in the news" -- a touch of understatement rare in broadcasting -- he's usually paraphrasing rather than jsut reading wire copy. If this method makes for some of the famous Lurtsema pauses as he searches for the right word, so be it.

His treatment of the news is a good deal less reverent than that found elsewhere. His analysis of the Reagan-anderson debate in late September was: "The debate is history now -- or at least yesterday's news. . . . They both tried to sound as though they disagreed with each other on most issues, but more importantly they tried to sound as if they disagreed with President Carter on all issues."

This kind of comment comes as a surprise to those who think Federal Communications Commission regulations require newscaster to sound like automatons.

Earlier this year, WGBH tried to replace the news, as "edited and reported by your 'Morning Pro Musica' host," woth th emore conventional Natioanl Public RAdio newscast from Washington. But so heartfelt were the protests from his listeners that after two months the station restored the more eccentric Mr. Lurtsema.

He insists that every editor or broadcster is faced with the same sort of news-value judgments that he is. But he takes exception to the "violence, violence, violence," which, he complains, dominates the wire services. To make his point, he hands me the previos day's wire-service news summary, in which half of the 20-odd items deal with one kind of explosion or another."And I try to look fro something positive, something encouraging in the news, perhaps that hasn't been much reported elsewhere," he adds.

Going national has put him under some constraints, such as the need to be more or less on time for the 8 and 9 o'clock newscasts, and building in cues to allow stations to "break away" for local neews and weather. But he's glad that so far all the NPR stations carrying the program have opted for picking it up live, even though tht means birdcalls begin quite early in the Western states. But then, so does the Mozart.

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