Music News & Reviews

Retirement from WEKU might not be the end of long radio career in classical music

Michael Carter will retire this week as music director at WEKU-FM 88.9 and WKYL-FM 102.1. Eastern Kentucky University eliminated his job to cut costs.
Michael Carter will retire this week as music director at WEKU-FM 88.9 and WKYL-FM 102.1. Eastern Kentucky University eliminated his job to cut costs. Lexington Herald-Leader

RICHMOND — Shortly after 9 a.m., Michael Carter is guiding his radio audience through a transition from Handel to Bach.

He delivers a forecast (rain clearing out in the afternoon), reads a promotion for a sponsor and plays a preview of a show airing later in the day, all while switching CDs in the player immediately to his right.

It's second nature to Carter, 67, who has played classical music for radio audiences in New York, Philadelphia, his home state of Alabama and finally in Richmond for WEKU-88.9 FM and WKYL-102.1 FM.

WKYL is where that career will come to an end, at least temporarily, when Carter retires after his show Friday.

"I will be retiring, and it was not my choice," he says as Bach plays on the air. "My position was eliminated as of the end of the fiscal year, so I had to go."

Carter's job is one of a number eliminated in cost-cutting moves at Eastern Kentucky University, WEKU program director John Hingsbergen says. Carter chose to take a buyout and retire.

That will leave Central Kentucky, at least temporarily, without a local radio host playing classical music.

Carter, Hingsbergen and the public radio station's manager, Roger Duvall, all leave the door wide open for Carter to return in a part-time position after a mandatory 90-day period between retiring and rehiring.

But it definitely brings to an end what Carter calls "the best job in the world."

He has been on the air at some of the most distinguished call letters in classical music radio, New York's WQXR and Philadelphia's WFLN. But when he came to WEKU in 2005, it was as music director.

"Not only did I get to pick the music that went on the station, I got to play it," Carter says. "And that is what I wanted to do for years, so I got it."

That fulfilled a dream that started when he was 13 and asked for an AM/FM radio for Christmas.

"I got one," Carter says with a twinkle in his eye. "I went to my room and plugged it in. I was sitting there, turning the dial, and all of a sudden I hear this piece of music that just grabs me like this, by the ears, and almost pulls me into the radio. I thought, 'Wow, what is this?'"

It was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 40. He saved his allowance and bought a recording of the piece.

"That was it," Carter says, laughing. "That was the beginning of the end."

He had a hard-to-top experience early in his career when he was working in Michigan and Aaron Copland came to conduct his opera The Tender Land with the Michigan Opera Theatre.

"I nailed the interview," Carter says. "He was very down-to-earth, he was very laid-back. I ended the interview by asking, 'After all the books are written on 20th-century music, how would you like to be remembered?" And there was not hardly a pause between my question and his answer when he said, 'Just one of the boys.'

"The man was overflowing with modesty, and he was arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century."

Carter's radio career took him through some of the East Coast's cultural capitals, including Philadelphia, where his was thrilled to work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and New York, "where you could find a concert every night of the week."

Still, his biggest experience was ahead of him.

Interviewing Copland, announcing classical music and all that take a back seat in Carter's career to co-hosting the live broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic's performance with conductor Gustavo Dudamel at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in September 2010.

"I'm sitting there watching perfection on the podium and in the orchestra, and the concert was just phenomenal. ... It was like I had died and gone to musical heaven," Carter says, recalling that night. "I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever hear the Vienna Philharmonic live."

He had thought he would end his radio career in 2015, with retirement, but EKU had other plans, the latest in several changes in the radio landscape since he arrived.

In 2010, WEKU switched from a format of primarily classical music to one of news and talk during the day. That a move, Duvall says, was made to reverse a trend of declining listenership and donations, and he says it has done that.

But a year later, the station executed a plan to lease a new frequency, Lawrenceburg-based WKYL, and made it a mostly classical station with Carter as the music director and the only local on-air voice. It is not a perfect replacement; the station's signal does not reach across the region and can't even be heard clearly in Richmond.

Carter also produces and hosts Kentucky Center Stage, which airs on WKYL and WEKU and features performances by the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, other local groups and national touring artists who come through the area.

Through the summer, daytime listeners will hear Alan Brandt's show from Louisville's WUOL from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by the Louisville public radio station's Daniel Gilliam from 1 to 5 p.m., Hingsbergen says.

"So we will at least have a Kentucky presence on the air during the day," he says, and the EKU stations are working to strengthen collaboration with the Louisville classical outpost.

But there is hope of bringing Carter back. The most he would be allowed to work would be 15 hours a week. Hingsbergen says he does not know whether Carter would be working as a daily host, on Kentucky Center Stage, other projects or some combination.

But for now, Carter has one more week on the air which will culminate in Friday's "open mic" show, which Hingsbergen says will feature local notables dropping by to reflect on Carter's career and wish him well.

Carter says he plans to end the program the way he always does: "'Thanks again for the loan of your ears,' and good-bye.

"Close shop and walk out."

On Air

Michael Carter's final week of hosting his shows Morning Classics and Lunchtime Classics air 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 24-28 on WKYL-102.1 FM.

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