'Music takes people within and beyond'
By Mary Stamp
For most of KPBX's 40 years, Verne Windham has been there, sharing his love of music.
In 1980, KPBX came on the air in Spokane as a full-power station connected with National Public Radio (NPR), which nationally replaced the National Educational Radio Network in 1970.
"I listened to it," said Verne, who came to Spokane in 1971 to play French horn with the Spokane Symphony.
Without realizing it, helping with pledge drives beginning in 1982 became his audition for a music program he had proposed.
"In May 1984, no one wanted to work during Bloomsday, so I did my first shift," he said.
He started part time, substituting as the classical music announcer. That eventually became a full-time job. From 1988 to 2018, his work included various jobs at the station—librarian, music director and program director in charge of all programming. In 2018, he shifted to part time as music director.
Verne left the symphony in 1988 when he began working full time at KPBX.
"I have always been comfortable talking about music, not just playing it. I love talking about it to make people fall in love with music," he said. "I'm so crazy about music I want everyone to be crazy about it."
While KPBX began with an emphasis on classical music, it now includes a broad range of music, Verne said.
"Our world of music expanded from the three pillars of classical, jazz and folk music, to include ethnic, world and popular music. Music does not have rigid barriers," he said. "The artistic aspect of classical music is the core of our repertoire, but art changes, and there are brilliant composers also in jazz and pop music."
Verne believes music is important because "we as humans need to look within and beyond ourselves for meaning and purpose that takes us away from the mundane and shows us an infinity of things beyond the day-to-day consciousness in which we live.
"Music reminds us there is so much more to life. After reminding us, it suggests pathways and answers," he said, quoting Victor Hugo: "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent."
He said music speaks without words. It does not define pathways or answers, but "we just listen to music and are changed."
Music was part of his family in Moscow, Idaho, where his father was a postal worker, who played the French horn and was choir director at what is now Emmanuel Lutheran Church. His mother played piano and was church pianist. Music was central to his family's life.
He studied from 1964 to 1968 at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and played in the U.S. Army Band in New York City from 1968 to 1971, when he came to Spokane to be the principal French horn player with the Spokane Symphony.
Verne also taught French horn at Gonzaga University, Washington State University in Pullman, the Music Center at the Holy Names Sisters' Fort Wright College, and other local institutions.
In 1983, he met Susan, his second wife, among musicians gathered at a bar after a performance of the opera "La Traviata." She came to Eastern Washington University to study piano and found her voice as a singer.
Since 1986, Verne has also been choir director at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ. In high school, college and the army, he directed Lutheran church choirs.
"In the UCC and Lutheran churches, most church music is classical," he said.
"My faith and faith community keep me grounded and engaged in growing spiritually, he said. "Music can fill that spiritual role for anyone."
Verne still has a live morning program, including theatre interviews when they were possible, and has a hand in the station's literature programs—The Bookshelf, airing at 6:30 p.m., and the daily Poetry Moment at the beginning of his program. He is impressed with the talent of Spokane's poets and theater. Literary programs are now primarily produced by colleague Chris Maccini and classical music by Jim Tevenan.
Over the years, much has changed. The station now has 11 full-time and 10 part-time staff.
"We lost six paid positions over the last 10 years as people retired and we restructured without replacing them," he said.
"We are now able to do more with less because of digital editing. It's many times faster than cutting a magnetic tape with a razor blade and reconnecting it with plastic tape to remove an 'um'," Verne said.
Many who began in public radio in the 1970s and 1980s are now retiring, so Verne is pleased that there is a generation shift bringing in "brilliant young people who like the medium."
During his career, the NPR system has also grown and offers many more national programs. When he started, KPBX broadcast just four hours of NPR shows. Now they need fewer local shows. Many NPR programs are purchased, but some are free—"labors of love, made from a sense of mission and desire to communicate," he said.
What used to be one broadcast station, KPBX, now has three broadcast streams, KPBX, KSFC and KPBZ, all now part of Spokane Public Radio (SPR) and all part of the National Public Radio (NPR) network, though people often still refer to the parent company SPR as KPBX. Broadcasting locally at 91.1, the original station KPBX reaches farthest: north to the Canadian border, into parts of Eastern Oregon and Montana, and west into the Methow Valley in the Cascades.
KSFC 91.9—acquired 25 years ago from Spokane Community College—broadcasts news, public affairs and commentary locally and a bit north and into Coeur d'Alene.
About 15 years ago, SPR acquired Whitworth's college station as well. Now designated KPBZ 90.3, it airs a random mix of programs, many from independent producers, assembled by the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), and is heard locally. The three stations broadcast 24 hours a day and are available by streaming on the Internet.
KPBX has had five station managers in its 40 years. Several of its news producers have gone on to work with NPR in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
Verne said the public radio content expanded from two hours of NPR news along with the music in 1970, when it was considered specialized, elitist white upper middle class.
News coverage grew after the first Gulf War when it went to 24 hours. It began broadcasting BBC news and other news and entertainment programming, drawing more listeners.
"People craved more news, and overnight we provided it," Verne said.
Originally, public radio did not carry sports, but now that it draws a greater breadth of listeners, many are interested in sports and popular music.
News coverage has grown to the point that NPR provides one of the largest news organizations in America, larger than AP, NBC and others, Verne said.
The privately and publicly funded nonprofit media outlet delivers breaking national and world news on business, politics, health, science, technology, music, arts and culture.
Its drive-time news broadcasts, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are among the most popular radio programs, he said.
"As NPR has gained a larger, more general audience, it has held the same mentality of bringing information to people and serving people," Verne said, "as opposed to commercial media that deliver people's ears to advertisers.
"Half of our support is from the public—listeners. So we need their trust and loyalty. Government support, originally 15 percent, is now only 11 percent support. Federal grants initially helped build buildings and provide equipment," he said. "Our underwriting is a mild form of advertising, providing 20 percent of support with grants."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2020