Get to Know a WPR Staffer!
by Susannah Michaels
Stephanie Elkins joined WPR in 2007, as the Saturday afternoon classical music host. In 2008, she became co-host, alongside Norman Gilliland, of The Midday (NPR News & Classical Music Network, weekdays, 12 - 1 PM). Starting in 2009, through this summer, Stephanie has also served as our part-time marketing director, a position that had not been filled for the past 11 years.
How is it possible that one person has served in such varied capacities as classical music host and marketing director? Stephanie has a rich background in both music and the corporate world. Music was a part of her life from early on, in a household filled with instruments and music. She became a classical music host when an NPR-affiliate station was starting up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, near where she was living — they were looking for volunteer hosts with large CD collections who could pronounce foreign words. As for the marketing side, graduate work in economics led her to jobs in the corporate world, where she worked for many years. Prior to joining WPR, Stephanie combined her two areas of expertise — music and business — by co-founding, along with her husband, Broadjam, Inc., a company that serves independent musicians and the music industry.
RadioWaves: What are your musical roots? What style of music do you most enjoy listening to? What style do you enjoy playing yourself?
Stephanie Elkins: My mother and father were both brass players who majored in music education. They played and enjoyed a huge diversity of music, from Renaissance to Dixieland, and often improvised piano four hands in the evenings. I grew up with LPs on the turntable, from Anna Moffo to Switched On Bach and Dave Brubeck. My father was an audiophile who built his own speakers and taught me to savor great musical sound. (He was also a ham radio operator who let me sit behind the microphone and speak to people on the other side of the world.)
I started piano lessons at age seven, continuing until about 15. Playing the piano introduced me to the works of J.S. Bach, and I’ve been enamored ever since. The first time I was moved to tears at a concert was as a teenager during Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, with Virgil Fox at the organ and a big light show. And the first time I ever had a “transcendent” moment was while playing one of the Bach Inventions. I “woke up” at the end of the piece in a wonderful, peaceful state. As an adult I sang with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and recorded several CDs on the Dorian label with them. We sang the Mass in B Minor every year, a piece that moves me like no other.
I started guitar lessons at age 10 and learned a lot of folk music that my family could sing together. One summer in the 1970s, we went camping across the country in a VW bus, with guitar and four-part harmony the entire way. I still love to sing those great songs of the 60s and 70s, and I play guitar almost every weekend just for fun. I enjoy virtually every genre of music and have a surprising amount of country in my iPod — the kind with vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar and banjo. As far as classical goes, my heart is with choral, piano, brass and especially early music — the clarity and transparency of it really resonates with me (literally, I think!).
RW: How did you first start working at WPR?
SE: For years, I had been hosting a weekly early music classical show on WORT, Madison’s community radio station, when I happened to sit down next to Norman Gilliland during the Wisconsin Public Television Auction. I invited him to tune in to my show and never gave it a second thought. A few months later, WPR phoned me about hosting Saturday afternoons. I was thrilled, and it’s been wonderful to work with Norman, the music team, and lately, as marketing director, with the whole organization. The people here are passionate, dedicated, hardworking and very good at what they do.
RW: What’s your favorite part about hosting The Midday?
SE: When I walk in to the studio just before noon every day, it’s like entering an oasis, and I hope listeners share that sense. The music is uplifting, sometimes very serene. Norman is often hilarious both on and off the air — I can’t tell you how many times he’s had me in stitches just before we come on. The quiz is also a lot of fun — the committee works hard to develop a wide range of questions that can’t be easily answered with a quick Google search, but that aren’t too arcane. My favorite part of the hour is taking quiz calls. The Midday listeners are wonderful — courteous, kind and thoughtful, and even though it’s a quick interaction, I feel like I’ve gotten to know many of them.
RW: The Midday features several live interviews and performances a month. What's that like?
SE: It’s great fun! Sometimes it’s hard to believe these classical superstars and talented musicians are sitting right next to me — I feel like I should pinch myself. The interviews are spontaneous, which has yielded some special moments. There was the time that Sir James Galway (“Just call me Jimmy”) and his wife whipped out their gold flutes and played a duet, and in June pianist Sejoon Park played WPR’s Mason & Hamlin grand piano. It was really powerful to experience such artistry and skill from just a few feet away. Thanks to the web, listeners can now stream or download Midday interviews at www.wpr.org/midday.
RW: Your father was in the Army, so you lived in several foreign countries as a child (Germany, South Korea), and you also travelled as an executive and student (Malaysia, Australia, England, France, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Spain, Italy). What are some of the customs that you’ve incorporated into your life here, from those other places you have lived or visited?
SE: Every single community has its own cultural spirit, its own sense of self, and I’m grateful to have gotten to know a few. From the religious and ethnic melting pot in Malaysia to the Swiss and Norwegian communities near my home in Wisconsin, I learn from them all. Not surprisingly, most of what I’ve incorporated into daily life has to do with food: I use a mortar and pestle to grind spices, I love hot foods, curries and garlicky dishes, I keep saffron and anchovies on hand, and I’m always on the lookout for unusual cheeses. (It’s a blessing to live in Wisconsin!)
RW: Photography and painting in acrylics are two of your hobbies. Any big dreams or plans for those hobbies in the future?
SE: Yes! I just dreamed I was painting last night. I do mostly outdoor photography, and when the light is just right, I get utterly absorbed in it. My next painting project is to do some large pieces based on favorite photographs. I use vibrant colors and brushstrokes and try to make the paintings pulse with life. I’ve exhibited and sold many photos, but the paintings are still private. My dream is to spend some time painting in the south of France. For the time being, my easel is set up in the dining room of our little farmhouse in rural Green County — a close second! It’s a great feeling to put on classical music and paint.
[Editor's note: you can view Stephanie's photography on her website: http://stephelkins.com/]