Nationally syndicated radio announcer Peter van de Graaff and his wife, Kathleen, were looking for a change when they heard earlier this year that Caitriona Bolster was leaving her job at Eugene’s classical radio station KWAX.
“Caitriona and I had worked together for years, though we’d never met,” Van de Graaff said in a phone interview this morning. That’s because KWAX is one of the many stations around the country that broadcast Van De Graaff’s popular overnight program, “Late Night with Peter van de Graaff.”
“She mentioned they might be looking for someone.”
Van de Graaff, who is 54, has been working for WFMT in Chicago for nearly 28 years. “I was looking for a new adventure,” he said.
One thing led to another, and the couple visited Eugene in October. Van de Graaff interviewed at KWAX, and while they were here, he and his wife attended the Eugene Symphony concert at which Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducted two works by Alberto Ginastera.
“That was spectacular!” Van de Graaff said. “Hearing the enthusiasm of the audience.”
He and his wife both enjoy hiking and the outdoors, so Eugene was a good fit in other ways as well. They have no children, and that made the move easier to plan.
He will start work as music director at KWAX on about March 1, taking over the morning shift that Bolster used to announce. Afternoons will be devoted to recording his syndicated show and to curating – and, he hopes, expanding – KWAX’s collection of some 35,000 classical music recordings.
Both Van de Graaff and his wife are professional singers. He has appeared with symphony orchestras and opera companies around the country, and, since 2010, the couple has performed a dramatization they created called “The Life and Love of Robert and Clara Schumann.”
“We sing the music they wrote for each other,” Van de Graaff said. “And the reception has exceeded my wildest expectation.”
Combining a performing career as a singer with one as a radio announcer is, to say the least, uncommon.
Van de Graaff started out as a singer. “Radio,” as he says, “just found me.”
Though his parents were not musical, they arranged music lessons for their children, including his deaf brother, who for a while played cello. Van de Graaff went on to study vocal performance at Brigham Young University; while there, he began working at the BYU radio station. Soon, radio was not just a way to put himself through college; he liked the opportunity it gave him to explain his love of music to people.
At one point, he asked his voice teacher whether it was possible to combine the two careers, radio and singing. “Absolutely not!” the teacher said. “Performing is such a harsh mistress.”
But Van de Graaff has pulled it off, partly by taking on the job of recording the overnight show at Chicago’s WFMT, where he started in 1988. Recording his show in advance gave him more freedom to book live performance jobs, though he also used a lot of vacation days to perform.
On the air, he says, Van de Graaff wants to share his love of music and, on occasion, to introduce his listeners to something new. If, for example, he plays a Beethoven symphony on the air, he might also talk about what was happening in the world at the time the symphony was first performed and how, say, that performance might have sounded compared to its performance today.
Like all media, radio is confronting a lot of changes, not all for the good. But Van de Graaff is confident that quality in any medium will develop a following.
“They’ve been predicting the demise of radio since 1940,” he said. “But if radio is done well – just as if anything is done well – it’s going to find a market.”
And the Eugene radio market is a big part of why he wants to come here. “One of the reasons KWAX so intrigues me is I have a very strong sense that its listeners are extremely well informed,” he said.
His rich, deep, reassuring bass voice has a small cult following around the country; people love to fall asleep listening to him talk.
But Van de Graaff scoffed when I suggested that he’s a celebrity.
“An overnight classical radio announcer is not a famous person!” he said.