News Column

WTJU's 'Gamut' marks 1,000th show Wednesday with three-hour fund drive

May 19, 2013


May 19--If all goes as planned, Ralph Graves will roll out of bed about three hours before dawn on Wednesday.

It'll still be dark when he leaves his home in Orange and drives into Charlottesville. The sun still will be tucked beneath the eastern horizon when he walks into the WTJU 91.1 FM radio station on the second floor of Lambeth Commons at the University of Virginia.

At 6 a.m., Graves will go on the air, and for the next three hours he will broadcast the 1,000th edition of his classical music show, "Gamut." During the impressive run, which started July 11, 1991, he has never repeated a piece of music intentionally .

Through the years, Graves has missed only a few shows. A couple of snowstorms kept him off the air, and he missed two other shows when his vehicle was disabled after hitting deer on his way to the station.

Aside from weather and unfortunate encounters with deer, Graves' cheery voice and music selections have soothed Wednesday morning waking hours and commutes for countless listeners. And along the way, the volunteer disc jockey has shared his knowledge about the composers and their musical creations, which span a period from the Middle Ages to the present.

The 58-year-old father of two grew up in Fairfax County and was introduced to classical music by his high school band director. His musical tastes had been concentrated on rock 'n' roll until the teacher revealed to him and his bandmates the wonders of the classical genre.

"Our band director exposed us to some great classical music," said Graves, who plays piano and percussion instruments. "I specifically remember playing the finale to Dmitri Shostakovich's 'Symphony No. 5,' William Walton's 'Crown Imperial' and Gustav Holst's 'Suite for Band.'

"But what really did it for me was when PBS aired 'The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth.' The soundtrack was done by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort.

"They were playing music of the Renaissance on Renaissance instruments. If you like 'Stairway to Heaven,' it's like that, only more so. That's when I really fell in love with classical music and started to listen to it."

Graves remembers tuning into a commercial radio station that aired classical music. It was not the pleasant experience he was expecting.

"The tone of the announcer told me very quickly that if I didn't understand what he was saying, I had no business listening," Graves said. "Well, I didn't listen, and I decided right then and there that if I ever had a classical music show, I would try to be inviting.

"I want classical music to be fun and exciting. And I want people to know that even if you don't know a thing about classical music, it's OK. Just give it a listen, and we'll have fun together."

After receiving a degree in music from James Madison University, Graves went on to earn a master of arts degree at UVa, majoring in composition. In 1984, he was able to combine his love for radio and classical music when he became a part-time announcer at radio station WJMA in Orange.

Graves' background in music led to his being asked to do a classical music show that aired every Sunday. He called the program "Artsong," which in the vernacular of classical music denotes a short song, usually just for solo voice and piano.

Soon after starting the show, Graves decided that he wouldn't repeat a work until he got through his extensive private collection of classical music. He had amassed a large part of the collection while working for a classical record label that was part of Nimbus Records in Greene County.

When "Artsong" ended in 1990, so did Graves' job at the station. He said being off the air made him miserable, so when WTJU gave him his present on-air slot in 1991, he couldn't have been happier.

WTJU is owned and operated by UVa. When it first came on the air in 1957, it played only classical music, and it was run completely by students. Since then, it has expanded its musical format to include music in genres from Americana to zydeco.

Except for four full-time employees, the station depends on about 130 volunteers to provide its listeners with around-the-clock programming. Although some of the DJs are UVa students, most are people living in Charlottesville and the surrounding area.

Something that sets WTJU apart from most other radio stations is that the DJs are allowed to play whatever music they want as long as it doesn't violate Federal Communications Commission rules for decency. This autonomy ensures that the DJs will be playing music they're passionate about.

The radio station became the center of an uproar a few years ago when a new general manager tried to do away with this established tradition. The trouble began soon after longtime station general manager Chuck Taylor retired and Burr Beard was hired to take his place.

"Burr had a particular vision for the station that included dropping classical music as a whole," said Nathan Moore, current general manager at WTJU. "And he was going to implement set playlists, where DJs play from a rotation of songs.

"Right now, and we have been forever, very much a station where DJs have enormous creative control over their shows. So this led to an enormous uproar, both from the core of volunteers and also from the many loyal listeners who have kept the station going for so long.

"Pretty quickly, Burr, and the bosses at UVa, realized this was a problem, and they held listening sessions for the community. And they had an online forum where people could supply comments both about the specific plans at that time and where they thought the station should go in the future."

After six months on the job, Beard left for personal reasons. Several months later, Moore was hired, and things returned to the way they were -- with a few positive exceptions.

"We've been working to engage more with the students and also with the community," Moore said. "In the last couple of years, we've really been working well with UVa, and that relationship has gotten better and better.

"And we've certainly done a lot of technological updating. We now have a remote broadcasting kit that we use to do live remotes from places around town, like the City Market.

"We have a new studio board and a new transmitter, which expanded our power substantially. And we revamped our production studio, which has enabled the whole public affairs department to grow."

Moore said the controversy reintroduced the station to the community. It caused people to tune in, and many of those listeners liked what they found, which has reflected positively during fund drives.

During Wednesday's airing of the 1,000th "Gamut" show, a mini fund drive will be held during the three-hour program. The goal is to raise $1,000.

Listeners certainly will hear some great music, as well as a very enthusiastic announcer.

"The first thing I wanted to do with my show is let people know that classical music isn't a museum artifact," Graves said. "That it's a living, breathing art form.

'And, so, I always try to feature living composers. And I wanted to show people there's more to classical music than they might think.

"This is why I play a good number of selections from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which is normally outside the scope of what the average station programs. Another thing I try to do is show that there are more composers out there than you know about.

"You never know what piece is going to be the one that really speaks to a person. And that piece of music might not have been created by one of the great composers."

In 2010, Graves was airing classical pieces that literally had been composed mere hours before. In February of that year, composer Robert Ian Winstin set for himself the task of composing, performing and recording a new classical work for each day in the 28-day month.

Graves got permission to air the works. That month, "Gamut" was broadcasting compositions that were less than six hours old. As he points out, "That's about as contemporary as you can get."

Everyone is invited to drop by the WTJU studios Wednesday morning to help celebrate the milestone with Graves. There will be bakery goodies for the fans, and those who can't make it can offer comments via telephone by calling 207-2120. As many comments as possible will be aired during the program.

"Ralph is a fantastic programmer here at the station," Moore said. "And he's super dedicated not to just his show, but to the whole station.

"And 'Gamut' is such a cool show, and a feather in our cap that he's been here doing this for a thousand episodes. And it's really one of the best examples of our mission to explore all kinds of music.

"He is literally exploring something new every show."

After Graves leaves the air at 9 a.m., he rushes to his day job at Crutchfield, where he writes music-related content in the creative department. By then, he already has been up and active for hours.

"It's amazing, but no matter how tired I am, when 6 o'clock rolls around and I open the mike, I'm on and ready to go," Graves said. "I love the music, and I love radio.

"I think, collectively, all the departments at WTJU serve the underserved. In our classical department, we're playing classical recordings that quite simply you're not going to hear on any other classical station, because it's outside that very narrowly defined genre of safe classical music.

"You'll find that to be true for rock, jazz and the other musical genres you can hear on the station. Whatever kind of music you're passionate about, if you tune into WTJU, we're going to take you deeper into the music."

Those interested in donating to radio station WTJU 91.1 FM can do so at, or by mailing a check to WTJU, P.O. Box 400811, Charlottesville, VA 22904.


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