ArtsATL > Music > Legacy Series: Lois Reitzes shares her passion for the arts on Atlanta’s airwaves

Legacy Series: Lois Reitzes shares her passion for the arts on Atlanta’s airwaves

Ask Lois Reitzes about the things she likes, and she will not equivocate. Her favorite exercise is reading, preferably while eating. When dreaming of an island getaway, she’ll take Manhattan. The top four things she cherishes all begin with the letter M: Mozart, Mel Brooks, Motown and the Muppets. She goes weak at the knees when talking about her dog Rex, whom she calls her golden “non-retriever.” And she radiates joy when speaking the names of her human family: Don, her husband of 42 years (“I was 22 when we married and thought I was an adult,” she says), daughter Jackie and son Michael.

Ask what she does, however, and the answer may surprise those who consider her the voice of Atlanta’s NPR affiliate WABE 90.1. “I don’t consider myself a reporter or a journalist,” she says. “I think of myself as a musician. It’s a big part of my identity.”

Since joining WABE in 1979 — the same year Morning Edition debuted nationally — Reitzes’ name has been synonymous with public radio. Behind the scenes, she has served as director of arts and cultural programming at the station. She produces and hosts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra broadcasts and Spivey Soirée. When her classical music series, Second Cup Concertwhich she hosted from 1982 to 2015, migrated from 90.1 to WABE’s Classics HD channel, die hard fans of the format went apoplectic. Feathers were smoothed in January of 2015 with the emergence of City Lights with Lois Reitzes, her signature weekday arts and culture program.

Lois Reitzes hosts a segment of City Lights at WABE.

Reitzes excels as a conversationalist owing to her innate curiosity and propensity to listen more than she speaks. Whether interviewing composers, comedians, poets, politicians, actors or activists, her questions make it clear that she has done her homework and knows the score. If you detect a smile in her voice, it’s because she really is smiling during most broadcasts. And if you think you are alone when swaying to the opening bars of the theme song for City Lights, Dave Brubeck’s Far More Blue, think again, because if the music swings, so will she. “We had security cameras at WABE, which routinely captured Lois boogieing down the halls,” says her former boss John Weatherford.

To this day, Reitzes is so attuned to whatever is playing within earshot, she admits to not being able to focus in the presence of what some might consider background music. As much as she loves to read (when preparing for author interviews, she reads every book from cover-to-cover), she can only do so in silence. No matter how scintillating a dinner party conversation or transcendental a meal at a favorite restaurant, if there is a melodic riff or chord progression to be analyzed in the form of ambient music, it will captivate her ear and command her full attention. It doesn’t matter what the music is. If she can hear it, she says she will be transported. And she does not discriminate. In her mind, the integrity of a piece of music, not its genre, is what determines its worth. “I’ll be in a supermarket, with that soft rock Muzak playing, and suddenly say: ‘BEACH BOYS! 1966!’ Meanwhile, Don, who is looking at cans of beans, will say, ‘Focus, Lois!’ But I can’t help it.”

There’s not a jaded bone in her body,” says Susan Booth, the Alliance Theatre’s artistic director. “Listeners may not know this, but Lois is an absolute fangirl of all things theatrical, musical, visual and dance based. She reads like any five voracious readers you know put together, sees everything she can here and everywhere she travels, and she still gets totally gobsmacked by the wonder of it.”

Lois Reitzes at age 4

A musically precocious child, Reitzes was born with perfect pitch and grew up listening to three full-time classical stations in Chicago when not listening to the R&B, blues and rock ‘n’ roll records favored by her older siblings and cousins. As a three-year-old, she once toddled over to the family piano and plunked out Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” Two years later, upon hearing a Mozart piano sonata for the first time on WFMT, she said to her mother, “That’s Hey There!” after recognizing the melody from the movie musical The Pajama Game. Her parents took note of her natural gifts and supported them at every turn.

Reitzes recalls frequent trips to The Chicago Symphony with her mother as the earliest and most formative of her concert experiences. She started piano lessons at the age of three and was studying in earnest soon after.

The most indelible musical memory, however, was imprinted when she experienced what Leonard Bernstein described as music’s power to “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

“My father died when I was 15,” says Reitzes. “I was sobbing into my pillow late one night when, suddenly, I reengaged with this lyrical, exquisite, sweet passage coming from the little clock radio on my bedside table. It was Mozart’s Serenade in G, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Movement 3. I can see myself lifting my head from a very wet pillow to pay attention. There was such breadth to this expansive, gorgeous, but very simple melody that it literally lifted me up. It was a balm that imparted reassurance. I still associate that music with healing, and a reminder that beauty has the power to ease pain in the world.”

Lois Reitzes at age 18

After earning her undergraduate degree in music from the Chicago Music Conservatory, she pursued graduate studies at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington. Reitzes got her start in public radio at WFIU in Bloomington, the same week she started her studies there. The studio was located on campus, and, looking back, Reitzes marvels at the chutzpah required for her to have wandered in “on a lark” and ask if there were any job openings. There weren’t, but she still managed to snag a part-time gig after the program director gave her an impromptu audition.

She believes the low register of her voice gave her an edge at a time when few women were on the air and the male voice was considered an asset in broadcast journalism. (Deep voices run in Reitzes family. Her father had what she describes as a “very smooth, Bing Crosby register voice.” Her big brother had a grown man’s voice by the age of three. By the age of five, Reitzes’s nickname was Tallulah — because she sounded like the smokey-voiced actress Tallulah Bankhead. And by the age of 10, she was singing with the boys in a children’s chorus.)

“I am so grateful for every moment,” says Reitzes. “I am so grateful to have gotten in when I did and to have trained when I didn’t even know I was training. My goal was to get a PhD in Musicology, which I never got. I don’t think I had thick enough skin to withstand the rigors of publish or perish. I probably wouldn’t have fared well in academia. And though I was serious about music, I’m not at all competitive, so I really wasn’t cut out for performance either. Here, I get to turn on my microphone and share my love of music.”

Reitzes and her husband Don relocated from Bloomington in 1977 when he accepted a job offer at Georgia State University’s College of Arts & Sciences, where he currently serves as associate dean for the social sciences. With visions of Gone With the Wind and Sherman’s march to the sea in her head, Reitzes’ first response upon hearing they’d be moving to Atlanta was, “We can have delicious fish and seafood, and maybe we can live somewhere with a view of the ocean.” Annoyed by his geographically challenged wife, Don asked, “Do you have any idea how long that march took? When’s the last time you looked at a map?!”

The point was moot because GSU’s offer was too good for him to refuse. But as luck would have it, WABE was hiring at the same time, so Reitzes applied for the job along with 123 other candidates. She wound up one of three finalists invited to interview for the position — only to learn that a colleague from WFIU, the station’s librarian, was competing for the same job. The librarian emerged victorious, and Reitzes, who was shattered, took classes at GSU, sold jewelry at Tiffany and toyed with the idea of a career in advertising while trying to figure out her next move. Eighteen months later, WABE’s program director called her after a previous hire had gotten married and moved to North Carolina, and asked, “Would you like to come on now?”

Ever since, she’s been paying her good fortune forward: sharing knowledge freely and bolstering new hires with confidence at every turn. Reitzes’ ongoing desire to meet listeners where they are and elevate their spirits influences her programming choices today. She has cried on the air only once, she says, shortly after 9/11. In an effort to strike a tone between elegiac and peaceful, but not morbid, she played spirituals from an a cappella recording that Robert Shaw had conducted. By the time the baritone solo sang My God is a Rock, she had to turn down her mic so listeners couldn’t hear her crying.

She needn’t have worried, though, because when listeners are moved to tears by something they’ve heard on her shows, many will call her at the station to talk about it. The sense of intimacy she has cultivated among others is so profound that they’ve sought Reitzes’ counsel in anticipation of some of life’s greatest milestones. She’s been asked to curate playlists for weddings and funerals. She was once summoned to visit a woman in hospice, simply to listen to classical music together. Expectant mothers have called to ask what she thought they should play during labor and delivery. (Her recommendation: “Let’s speed up this process with something up-tempo; bright, major key baroques like Vivaldi’s Four Seasonsconcertos; and Mozart with everything.”)

Even listeners who would never dream of ringing up Reitzes to ask for advice say they’ve benefited from her mere presence on the radio.

Rose Scott, who hosts WABE’s Closer Look, says, “There was a period when I was unemployed, at home, doing job searches on my laptop, trying to arrange interviews or hanging out in bookstores wearing my headphones, and I would have Lois on all the time. It was calming for me. We often call people like her an institution, because of their longevity. But Lois is more than an institution. She’s an ambassador for the station, and for the arts and culture of this community. And she is the only person on the planet who can get away with calling me Rosie!”

Booth calls Reitzes a cultural yente because of her peerless match-making skills, which have resulted in cross-disciplinary art crushes and collaborations. She is the namesake for a riot grrrl band called Lois Righteous, and when she was invited to make a guest appearance at Dad’s Garage, an improvisational comedy theater, she killed it.

“Lois doesn’t approach anything with a condescending attitude or judgment,” says Matt Terrell, communications director at Dad’s Garage. “When she participated in our “Story Spot” series, she had fun and showed a side of herself that most people don’t see on the radio. . . . She managed to weave in humor that was just risqué enough to make sense for our stage, but it was Lois Reitzes, so it was also classy.”

Myke Johns was a newly minted college graduate when he field-produced his first segment for Reitzes in 2007. “At that point, Lois had been behind the microphone at WABE for over 30 years,” says Johns. “For somebody with that level of experience to go out into the field with, basically, someone young enough to be her child and still have the respect to turn to me and ask, ‘Do you think we need anything else?’ demonstrated a level of trust and respect that was incredibly encouraging. She is one of the reasons that I’ve stayed in this job so long.”

As for the gravitational pull that has kept fans and guests in Reitzes’ orbit for four decades, Booth sums it up best.

“You walk into her studio, and she lights up like the 4th of July because she is so glad to see you. And before you’ve even taken your coat off, she’s talking about the last four projects you did and how they affected her and how excited she is by what you’re working on next. I used to feel particularly special when that would happen; now I realize it’s the gift she gives every artist she meets. She is the wise and doting fairy godmother of our cultural community . . . shining a very bright, very warm and nurturing light on our city’s artists.”

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