Lois Reitzes Celebrates 40 Years On WABE
You know you’re famous in Atlanta when you mutter eight words to yourself, and a complete stranger recognizes your voice. That’s what happened to Lois Reitzes in a Kroger supermarket.
“Decades ago, I just kind of talked to myself and said, ‘Where do you suppose they keep the rice?’ And this woman wheeling her shopping cart the other way said, ‘Oh, you’re Lois Reitzes!’”
At the time, Reitzes was surprised it only took one sentence to give away her identity. In hindsight, she understands the powerful connection she’s formed with listeners through the airwaves.
“We’re with people while they’re brushing their teeth, waking up, going to work, keeping them company in the car, as they’re nodding off at night,” Reitzes said. “We are part of their lives. And that’s such a privilege.”
It’s a privilege Reitzes has enjoyed since she started at WABE as a classical music host on Nov. 19, 1979.
It’s been the most profound experience. I always knew I was fortunate to get this job, but I had no idea how extraordinary it would become.
Now, Reitzes celebrates an incredible accomplishment: 40 years at the same radio station.
The Job That Almost Wasn’t
After Reitzes finished her graduate studies in musicology at Indiana University, she became a classical music host at WFIU, a public radio station in Bloomington, Indiana.
“That was my only other experience in broadcasting,” Reitzes said.
Meanwhile, her husband Don was working on his Ph.D. in sociology at Indiana University. He soon completed his dissertation, and landed a job at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
“We thought it was going to be for three years, and that was more than 40 years ago.”
Reitzes was initially excited because she thought Atlanta was on the Atlantic coast. “I said to Don, ‘We could have delicious fish and seafood, maybe we’ll have a view of the water.’ And he said, ‘Lois, when was the last time you looked at a map?’ I was not amused because you know, music students, what do we know from geography? So I’ve learned a lot since.”
It seemed like everything would fall into place immediately, because WABE had a classical music host position available.
“I think there were 125 applicants,” Reitzes recalls. “They flew in three people. I was one of them, and I thought, ‘Wow, this seems fated. How great if I could get a job here?’”
At first, she didn’t get the job.
“The person who was chosen was from WFIU, the affiliate where I worked in Bloomington. I was devastated. But a year and a half later, she left and the program director called me back and said, ‘Are you still interested?’ I came right in, and the job was mine. Even if I cried and was very sad the first time around, everything was meant to be.”
The Early Years At WABE
As Reitzes sits in one of the studios she’s used since 1979, she recalls some of the technological challenges of the past.
“It was the analog age and I had wonderful training from very sweet colleagues who taught me how to run my own board. It was all reel-to-reel tapes.”
Back then, WABE was not on the air for 24 hours a day.
“The station was on until midnight on weekdays and would resume at 6 a.m. I used to arrive at 5:30 when I started here, I had to turn on the transmitter, and take meter readings.”
With such an early wake-up time, Reitzes found a way to multitask each morning to be as efficient as possible.
“Fortunately, we lived very close to the radio station, so I didn’t have to get up until a quarter to 5. I’d take a shower, pack my breakfast, and then blow dry my hair when I got here during the first piece of music that was playing. I’d usually put on something that was about 20 or 30 minutes.”
Reitzes started at WABE the same month that NPR launched a national show known as “Morning Edition.”
She remembers the NPR producer Ellen McDonald would call from Washington, D.C., directly into the WABE control room if there was a change in the “Morning Edition” lineup.
“And listeners could call directly into the control room. How’s that for direct contact?”
Reitzes said the calls were usually from very appreciative listeners who wanted to know more and learn more.
“There was one man who liked to have breakfast with me, as he put it. He was elderly. He ate ice cream for breakfast. I learned how profound the intimacy of our media is from working those very early morning shifts. Lonely people would call up and want to share their stories. In the case of the elderly man, he fought in Europe during World War II and certain pieces of music would remind him of concerts he’d heard in Germany or in France.”
It’s that sense of belonging and connection with WABE that still amazes Reitzes.
“When we were in the music format and phone calls would come into the control room, I often had requests from people who wanted to know what music they should take into labor and delivery. I got to program I don’t know how many births in Atlanta. I programmed weddings, and it was very sobering to get calls from more than a few people who wanted to plan their own memorial service.”
Putting The ‘Class’ In Classical
In the early ’90s, Reitzes became WABE’s program director, overseeing the program schedule and supervising the station’s announcers. She also continued her run as the host of “Second Cup Concert.” Reitzes would often narrate concerts, including broadcasts of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and speak to various arts groups.
Known for her distinctive voice — and phrases like “Oh, that Beethoven!” — Reitzes was the ultimate teacher for generations of classical music fans.
But she also interviewed many notable people, from Norman Lear to Jimmy Carter.
“I was very flattered in 1995 when President Carter requested that we interview him about his first book of poetry,” Reitzes said. “The day before he was going to be on ‘Morning Edition,’ he wanted us to have him on first. That was pretty mind-blowing.”
Another moment Reitzes will “carry with her forever” is when she interviewed “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross.
“I think she is a brilliant interviewer and the consummate host. After I interviewed Terry about her memoir, she said at the end, ‘You really get it, Lois.’ And I thought, ‘I can die now. I can die!”’
“I think what’s so marvelous about Terry is how beautifully she listens, and to be a good host and a good interviewer, you have got to be a good listener.”
‘City Lights’ Shines Brightly
In 2007, Reitzes became director of arts and cultural programming, which is her current title. She also launched the daily interview show “City Lights” in January 2015, when WABE changed its format to add news and information programming into the midday lineup.
“It was thrilling because I got to interview more authors and filmmakers and actors and directors. But it was also very daunting. I had never spoken much more than 10 minutes within an hour.”
She saw it as an opportunity to stretch her connection to Atlanta’s arts and culture scene.
“I think it has been absolutely enlightening for me and I hope for the listeners. I like to think of the show as an arts and culture magazine. I love the way information is imparted. To be able to do it in longer interviews and features, and longer segments about books or theater or film or food is really exciting.”
Over the past 40 years, Reitzes has seen Atlanta transform into a literary hub. “We get so many great authors coming through on tour.”
And she’s quick to add that Atlanta really has evolved into a cultural capital of its own: from the movie industry to the symphony to its hip-hop scene.
But without the presence of Lois Reitzes, the cultural scene of Atlanta just wouldn’t be the same. It’s the reason so many people recognize her voice in public today.
There is one downside, though.
“I have to be very careful. I’ve learned the hard way that I better not say anything nasty in public.”