The past 45 years of Jim Cunningham’s professional life have been largely devoted to breaking down stereotypes associated with classical music.
“People have a kind of impression of what classical music is, but it’s not always correct,” Cunningham told the Union Progress. “The assumption is that you have to know a lot about it to really love and enjoy it. You don’t, though. You just have to find something that really speaks to you.”
Cunningham is Classical WQED-FM’s artistic director and has been helping Pittsburghers on their classical music journeys since 1978. While he’ll be marking his 45th anniversary at WQED-FM in October, the station itself turned 50 years old on Wednesday and will be celebrating all year with a specialized programming lineup of interviews, concerts and blasts from the past half-century of WQED-FM content.
The Union Progress had a chance to speak with Cunningham and WQED-FM music programmer and announcer Anna Singer about the station’s constantly evolving efforts to provide yinzers with a wide variety of classical options and ensure the Steel City understands the global reach of its own classical music scene.
“It really makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” Cunningham said. “It makes you happy. It calms you when you’re stressed out. … It’s an organization that’s still happening and sends Pittsburgh’s reputation around the world.”
WQED-FM officially launched on Jan. 25, 1973, under the watchful eyes of manager Jack Sommers and WQED board chairman Leland Hazard. The latter wanted to provide Pittsburghers from all walks of life with an easy means of accessing classical music.
“You should be able to have Shakespeare without selling soap,” Cunningham recalled Hazard saying. Hazard was known for his colorful way of speaking, and Cunningham said that you can still find recordings of his musings and blown-up quotes attributed to him throughout WQED Studios in Oakland.
Cunningham first arrived at WQED-FM in January 1974 as an intern on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” When he wasn’t on set watching Fred Rogers cook spaghetti marco polo with Julia Child, Cunningham would sneak away and immerse himself in the inner workings of WQED’s radio department. Those experiences inspired him to begin what has been “an extraordinary run” at WQED-FM a few years later.
He considers himself “the most spoiled guy in broadcasting” with how many opportunities working at WQED-FM has afforded him. That includes getting to travel with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as it performed all over the world. How many local radio hosts can say they’ve broadcasted live from the Berlin Philharmonic and joined BBC announcers to supply commentary on the PSO’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London?
Now, WQED-FM still mainly focuses on “providing companionship to listeners who love music,” Cunningham said. The biggest change he has observed involves how far radio technology has come since the 1970s. Cunningham remembered having to use razor blades to cut reel-to-reel tapes before the advent of digital editing.
Its listenership, though, has remained stable from the jump. Cunningham estimated WQED-FM still draws 80,000-100,000 listeners every week with an increasingly growing online audience. Not too shabby for a radio station that has trafficked in an extremely specific brand of music and cultural journalism for 50 years.
“You’re never really conscious of time as it moves along because every day has its deadlines,” he said. “It’s a beautiful tribute to the listeners who have supported the station over all these years. … It’s always a challenge to keep it going, but it’s been very powerful.”
Those efforts certainly had a profound effect on Anna Singer, WQED-FM’s music programmer who also serves as an announcer. The Sewickley native was a teenager when WQED-FM first launched and would wake up every morning to its classical stylings. She did some phone-banking for WQED-FM in the 1980s before officially joining the station as a substitute announcer in 2000.
Though she mostly now works out of WQED’s main offices, Singer recalled how easy it was to interview classical music titans when they would leave Heinz Hall after rehearsals and pop over to WQED-FM’s Carol M. Byham Studio in the Cultural District. That’s where she interviewed legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch and many, many others.
One of the most gratifying aspects of her job has been hearing from folks from outside the Pittsburgh metro area who love classical music and appreciate how she, Cunningham and the rest of the WQED-FM team have continued to keep them informed and entertained.
“It is such an amazing thing that we have literally been the voice of the arts to so many ensembles and groups,” Singer said. “We have so much here in Pittsburgh. To be a part of that is so very cool.”
The station’s big anniversary is being commemorated with everything from dusting off 50 years’ worth of “Voice of the Arts” interviews to bringing back WQED-FM’s Bach, Beethoven and Brunch series to doing remote broadcasts from various locations around Western Pennsylvania.
Cunningham thanks WQED-FM listeners for supporting the station during the COVID-19 pandemic, and for showing they’re invested in an organization full of Pittsburghers who “are trying to make the world a better place.” Singer is excited that she still gets to “play beautiful music that I love for people.”
“Thanks so much for being loyal fans for 50 years,” she said. “Let’s make it another 50!”