Art Waves

 While I have your ear . . .

. . . I want to tell you about my five years on the radio.

The WLIU headquarters, on the former Long Island University campus that is now Stony Brook Southampton.

In September of 2004 I got a call from Bonnie Grice, the host of a morning radio program on WLIU, Long Island University’s NPR affiliate, broadcasting to eastern Long Island and southern Connecticut at 88.3 FM. She had recently interviewed me on “In the Morning,” a one-hour talk show covering the regional arts scene, and I had also been a guest on another of her programs, “The Song is You” (an American version of the BBC Radio 4 staple, “Desert Island Disks”), a mix of music and conversation.

Bonnie’s call started on a flattering note. “You have a good radio voice,” she said, “and you’re not afraid to say what you think.” Well, maybe that last part wasn’t so flattering, but I took it as a compliment. She then asked if I’d like a gig on the morning show, doing commentaries on the visual arts.

At the time, I was writing a column for The New York Times’ Long Island section, covering all the museums, commercial galleries and other art venues east of the New York City line. I explained to Bonnie that, as an ethical matter, I couldn’t comment on the same things I wrote about for The Times, and was pleased when she said that wasn’t a problem. She was not primarily interested in exhibition reviews or profiles of individual artists. Also, while it seemed appropriate to focus on the broadcast region, I wanted to be able to range farther afield–especially into Manhattan, where I never ventured for The Times. That too was fine with Bonnie.

My other caveat was the use of the first person. I explained that ever since I started writing for The Times in 1978, I had been required to adopt a rather distant tone. It seems to me that an art review is by nature subjective, but for some editorial reason, as a freelance “stringer” rather than a staff reviewer, I wasn’t allowed to express an opinion directly. Recently that policy had begun to relax–by then I’d had a regular Sunday byline for more than 25 years–but from the outset I wanted the broadcasts to be first-person. As far as Bonnie was concerned, the more personal the better.

Bonnie Grice
Bonnie Grice in the WLIU studio.

So I became the first of the regular commentators on “In the Morning with Bonnie Grice.” My initial contribution, aired on 30 September 2004, was in fact a review, but in addition to discussing the two exhibitions at The Drawing Room in East Hampton I told listeners how I felt about the gallery itself. A couple of weeks later I really hit my stride with a jeremiad against the “my four-year-old could do that” school of art criticism. I said, in essence, this is what I think of that attitude, and why I feel that way.

True to her word, Bonnie broadcast my reports on Manhattan exhibitions and art events, as well as doings from around Long Island and New England, and even field trips to far-flung locales like Chicago, Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Key West. She let me review art-related books, plays and movies, and encouraged me to weigh in on art-world issues and controversies. Times articles by other critics and reporters also prompted a number of my commentaries.

At first Bonnie just introduced my spots with a few words about the subject, but after the show expanded to two hours, from 8 – 10 a.m., it was suggested that the segment should have a title and some theme music, like Joan Baum’s “Baum on Books,” Louisa Hargrave’s “Wine 101,” Mike Botini’s “Nature News & Views,” and Bob Beuka’s “Movie Talk.” Since we were on the air waves (and sometimes I liked to make waves), we decided to call it “Art Waves.” As far as a theme was concerned, I had no hesitation in picking Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” an all-time favorite of mine, and most appropriate for a radio station that focuses on jazz programming. So “Art Waves,” piped aboard by Monk’s masterpiece, settled into a regular slot on Thursday mornings at 8:40.

And so it went for five years, until the Great Recession hit and cash-strapped Long Island University (which earlier had jettisoned the Southampton campus that houses WLIU) decided to get out of the radio business. With the station’s license up for sale, “In the Morning” went off the air in November 2009. As WLIU’s management struggled to find the money to buy the license and become independent, my “Art Waves” commentary of 20 August argued for the station’s importance as a community resource and a valuable service for all segments of the population. After several years operating as WPPB, 88.3 FM, the station is now WLIW, still at the same location on the dial and still Long Island’s only NPR affiliate. Owned by The WNET Group, it is a sister station to PBS member television station WLIW, and features programming from American Public Media, NPR and Public Radio International.

Thanks to WLIU and its dedicated staff, including Bonnie, her associate producer Kathie Russo, engineer Kyle Lynch, and especially Wally Smith, the general manager, for inviting me to make “Art Waves!”