Copyright © 2002 - 2020 Chopin Society of Atlanta
A Good Companion

Interview with John Lemley, a radio personality and master of ceremonies of the Chopin Society of Atlanta’s concerts and its annual gala

By Bożena U. Zaremba

Bożena U. Zaremba: Some pessimists envisaged that radio would not stand the competition of visual media like television or video. The success of radio stations like WABE Atlanta proves them wrong. Why?

John Lemley: Radio, if done well, offers companionship that TV doesn’t. Somehow it is more intimate. In my own work, I have discovered that the best way to communicate with the listener is to think of only one person. That takes a little effort in the beginning, because in the announcer’s head the first realization is that there are hundreds, thousands of people listening. But if I start thinking of one person and talking to one person, it is not so overwhelming for me, and for the listener, it is much more intimate; the listener feels as if I am talking just to him or her, which at the moment I am. Most of all, radio allows listeners to use their imagination more than they can with television. With radio, you get to paint your own picture in your head of the subject or the person who is talking to you.
Exactly. Many people, including myself, are surprised when they meet you in person for the first time. Usually, they expect you to be much older. Do you find this amusing?

Absolutely. I’ve almost had painted in my head (through various comments) exactly what I must look like. Most people assume I am well over middle aged, short, bald, with glasses, wearing perhaps a tie and a sweater. Maybe in twenty or thirty years, I will match that image [laughs]. I experience the same thing with radio personalities I listen to. It can completely change your perspective.

Is radio in any way threatened?

I think radio, as we know it, may be facing the biggest competition in its existence with satellite radio, which is popping up all over the place. More and more automobile makers are including it in their vehicles and offering the buyer a year’s subscription in the beginning, which is enough to get them hooked. Satellite radio is a wonderful thing; with its niche programming, it offers a much greater variety than any city’s broadcast offerings.

But at the same time, it’s limiting.

It is limiting. So we are trying to offer something that satellite radio can’t, which is local content and local presence: having announcers that the listener knows are living in the same city, keeping listeners informed of art events that are coming up, presenting interviews with artists who will be appearing in that city that very night, as well as local weather forecasts.

Is “Star Gazing Tips” part of that policy?

Absolutely. “Star Gazing Tips” started really as just a way for me to spice up the weather forecast and was planned as a one- or two-time thing. But due to public demand, I incorporated it into my program on a daily basis.

You hold a BA in Musical Theatre Performance from Birmingham-Southern College. Why didn’t you pursue a career in theater?

I came darn close to doing so! From the very earliest moments that I can recall, I always wanted to perform. When I came closer to college age, I felt that musical theater was what really interested me the most. I enjoyed the way it combined acting with dance and singing. However, weeks before my graduation, I realized that I had no interest in living a performer’s life. I truly needed more normalcy, more of a regular schedule.

How did you end up in radio?

I started working as an administrative assistant at Birmingham Music Club, which gave me insight into the business side of the arts organizations. During that period, I started doing voice-overs and little commercial spots for the Music Club, and these were recorded at the public radio station in Birmingham, WBHM. Soon I realized that I really liked this public radio environment, and they equally seemed to like me. After a while, I was offered a part-time, irregular position, as a fill-in for announcers who were out sick or away on vacation. Later I replaced Dick Deason, long-time classical music announcer, and host of All Things Considered, who retired from on-air work. And that’s how it all started.

At Atlanta’s WABE you host two music programs—Bach’s Lunch every afternoon, and, on Sunday afternoons, Tapestry, devoted to choral music. Are you free to decide on the musical and verbal content of your programs?

Within certain parameters. The program director sets those parameters, and they change some over time. We have two excellent independent consultants who take kind of a stand-back, objective view. They’re constantly listening; they immerse themselves in the current data about public radio across the country. They offer a lot of advice on how we might tailor our presentation to meet current listener tastes. These days “less” is better as far as what an announcer says on air. In old-days radio, you would talk for ten or fifteen minutes about a piece of music before you even began to play it; now it’s more like ten or fifteen seconds. Within these parameters, each announcer chooses his or her own music and decides on what to say or not to say on air.

In what way is your education helpful in your profession?

First of all, especially in the early days, the actor in me came in very handy because I had to act like I knew what I was talking about, whether I did or not. I sometimes still do [laughs]. Occasionally someone will ask me how I know all that I know about classical music, and I very quickly tell them that I don’t. You don’t really need to know all the answers; you just need to know where to find them. I have amassed a nice, well-thought-out collection of reference books. I especially like the Lectionary of Music by Nicolas Slonimski, which I use all the time. He had such a wonderful way, in one brief paragraph, of boiling down the plot of a Verdi opera or talking about how a Mozart’s symphony came into being, in common, simple language, even though he was an accomplished musicologist.

What are the most important qualities a good radio presenter should have?

First of all, I think a radio presenter should foremost be a good companion, someone who enjoys the company of others and can provide good company. This is more important than any knowledge or technical skills.

Is this a reason why you recently became a host of the in-depth news program, All Things Considered 1 ?

For several months after the departure of previous ATC host Terri Ozanich, Lois Reitzes [WABE program director] and Earl Johnson [WABE’s general manager] just weren’t having a lot of luck finding the right person to host the program. There were a lot of candidates with strong news backgrounds, but no single personality who would draw the listener in. They were looking for someone who would offer companionship, not necessarily for a newsperson or journalist. So Lois asked me if I would be interested, and I said, “Yes.”

How is it different from hosting a classical music program?

The pace of All Things Considered is so much quicker. At the top of each hour, we have about four minutes to present headlines, weather, sometimes traffic, and the underwriting. The first few weeks I felt like a sixteen-year-old in rush-hour traffic driving for the first time. I am glad that I still have that one hour of classical music daily, where I can just relax and take things at a slower pace.

Besides working for public radio and television, you host local art events, among them concerts organized by the Chopin Society of Atlanta.

My collaborations with the CSA and Piotr Folkert have probably been the ones that I’ve most enjoyed since coming to Atlanta. I think Piotr and I met in 1999 when I introduced a performance he gave at Spivey Hall. We became friends immediately. Soon after that, he asked me if I would be interested in serving as a host/narrator for a program that he would be doing honoring the anniversary of Chopin’s death. I was quite honored and had no fear, initially, of doing the program until he came in one day with the script. The script was beautifully written in every aspect. What frightened me were all those Polish names. And I said: “Piotr, I am afraid I am going to butcher every one of these names!” He assured me that with a little practice and maybe drawing on my acting skills, I could bring it together. I must quickly admit that my Polish pronunciation is awful, but the audiences have been very kind, and I think for the most part they know of whom I am speaking.

You were also wearing a costume of the period.

That’s right. I wore a very hot and heavy costume from the Chopin era. Thankfully, the air conditioning was running quite well. I was reading the script from this beautiful, very valuable desk, rented from an antique store, and on its corner was this huge candelabrum. One of the vents was blowing cold air directly onto the candles, and they began to melt rapidly, with cascades of wax pouring onto the table! Anyway, I was genuinely surprised when Piotr called and asked that I also host the program on Bach’s music. I thought either that he was the kindest gentleman on the face of the planet or maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought. And then there was the jazz program. That was a lot of fun too, and something completely different. I also enjoyed the concert “Reflections on Chopin” with Adam Makowicz and Piotr; it was fascinating to hear first Piotr play Chopin’s original piece and then the jazz interpretation by Adam Makowicz.

November 14, 2005

John Lemley was a narrator of the “Celebrating…” series, presented from 1999 to 2003. To learn more about John Lemley, visit

1 In 2015, John Lemley left Atlanta’s NPR station. From 2015 to 2018, he was the host and producer of “John Lemley’s City Café,”
   on 1690 WMLB, Atlanta's “Voice of the Arts” radio, which went off the air in May 2018.

Photo by Jeff Roffman