Happy to be back in the field John Nowacki, former deejay, is the new host of WFCR-FM’s morning classical musical show

Last modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Several years back, John Nowacki, who’d spent years doing classical music broadcasting, suddenly found himself wearing a different hat when the Connecticut station he’d worked for switched to an all-news format. He enjoyed some of that experience — he served as the local host for the “All Things Considered” program of National Public Radio — but eventually he left the station and tried his hand at voice-over and narration work for different employers.

But now, after a nearly nine-year hiatus, Nowacki is back in the classical music world, and in a prominent position at that: He’s the new host of the morning show on WFCR-FM/New England Public Radio, replacing longtime host John Montanari, who retired in December after 35 years at the Amherst station.

Nowacki, who lives in Hartford, Conn., and sings in a church choir there, says he’s not looking to compete with Montanari’s long legacy, and he’s already received a vote of confidence along those lines from NEPR General Manager Martin Miller. “Right at the start, Martin said to me, ‘I want you to be yourself,’ ” Nowacki said. “And that’s just want I intend to do.”

Nowacki, 59, figures to bring two distinctive qualities to his 9 a.m to 1 p.m. show: a sense of humor and a deep love of classical music. After being away from that music in the broadcast booth, he’s thrilled to have another opportunity to play and talk about it with listeners.

“I realize now how much I missed it,” he said. “And I think it helps that the station just felt like home right from the beginning — everyone treated me like a colleague the moment I walked in.”

Nowacki doesn’t think classical music’s audience is dwindling, even among young people; he’s intrigued by collaborations he sees among some of today’s classical musicians and players from other genres. He’s particularly intrigued, he says, in exploring new ways to reach out to listeners — through social media and blogs, for instance — that he’ll develop along with his show.

“Young people are interested in classical music,” he said. “People are getting that music from myriad places today, so the challenge for me is not to create any barriers to that. ... So if you’re listening to me and I sound like I’m wearing a starched collar, or drinking tea with my pinkie extended, just smack me.”

A native of Wisconsin, he has some 30 years of radio experience. But his entrée into the business came somewhat by chance. He had studied television and radio production at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, but after graduating in the late 1970s, he couldn’t find a job at a TV station, he says, since he didn’t have any direct experience in the business.

At the suggestion of a friend, he applied for and got a temporary position at a TV station at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he worked for six months; from there, he went to the campus radio station for a few months to work the soundboards, after which the station’s general manager asked him if he’d be interested in hosting a classical music show.

For Nowacki, the answer was an easy “yes.” Though he hadn’t studied music formally at college, he’d developed a love for the classical canon, including organ music, as a teen. While in high school in Milwaukee, he also was accepted into a city choral group, and the experience of singing with 300 people before a huge audience in his first concert “was probably the most memorable thing I’d done in my life — I got chills being part of that.”

He had continued his musical education while attending college in Milwaukee for two years, singing with what was then called the Milwaukee College Conservatory Chorus (later the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus) and discovering the music of Brahms, Stravinsky, Rossini, Dvorak and others. Later, he developed his radio programming skills at Oral Roberts University.

So by the time he was offered a classical music show at Urbana-Champaign, he says, “I was definitely ready. It turned out to be a perfect fit for me.”

He worked at a number of other Midwest radio stations before coming to Hartford in 1990, where he became music director and classical musical host at WNPR-FM. He ultimately spent close to 20 years there, aside from short stints when he left to work at other stations.

In a statement, Martin Miller, WFCR’s general manager, praised Nowacki’s programming and broadcasting experience, adding “We’ve already received very positive feedback about him in both areas.”

In fact, Nowacki, though officially hired last month, began doing trial work and fill-in slots at WFCR last winter when the station was looking for a full-time replacement for Montanari; at one point, he says, he was working five days a week before being officially taken on board.

“I had a blast,” he said, noting that he developed a quick bond with Walter Carroll, the station’s afternoon classical music host, during these early sessions at the station. “They liked the way I sounded. ... I wasn’t sure yet if I was ready to apply [for the job], since I hadn’t done it in awhile, but I was having a ball.”

But now that he’s in place, Nowacki says he’s gotten back into the rhythm of hosting a classical show: introducing new music to listeners, sharing information about the composers he’s featuring, the history of a particular recording and the profiles of the musicians playing it. He likes to prepare his programs several days in advance so that he can give a lot of thought to what to play and how to sequence it.

He likes other music as well — old rock favorites like Cream and Jethro Tull, some jazz and R&B, and medieval vocal music. He’s also interested in contemporary classical composers such as Jennifer Higdon. The new, larger quarters in Springfield that WFCR is moving to this summer would be an ideal setting for interviews with artists like her, he says.

Indeed, Nowacki’s looking forward to the move to Springfield — it will make his commute shorter, he notes — because he sees the city as a good place for building up the arts community in the lower Connecticut valley.

“I like the idea of [WFCR] having more of a presence in Springfield,” he said. “It’s a good way of extending our reach.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.