One man wrote a critical letter to June LeBell after hearing her interview with choreographer and former artistic director of New York City Ballet George Balanchine. The man said she sounded slightly intimidated and star struck. LeBell wrote him back, saying, “When the day comes that I’m not intimidated and star struck by George Balanchine, then I shouldn’t be on the air.” He apologized after that.
In the 30 years LeBell interviewed famous musicians and arts leaders on New York City’s WQXR, only two made her star struck: Balanchine and Walter Cronkite. Though it has been more than 10 years since LeBell, the first female announcer on a commercial classic radio station, has been on the air, she announced at the beginning of February that she’s making a comeback as host of a new Sunday afternoon program on WSMR beginning in October.
LeBell, who is the Observer’s music reviewer and food columnist, says the new show will be like one of her former New York programs, “Salute to the Arts.” She’ll book, host and produce the program and invite performers and musicians from around the world to speak about their talent. She’ll start the series with Marilyn Horne — her longtime friend, former co-host and world famous mezzo-soprano opera singer.
The two have known each other for more than 30 years. The relationship led them to collaborate on a radio program produced by the Marilyn Horne Foundation. The program, “On Wings of Song,” featured a broadcast of live recitals for an audience.
It may be fitting that Horne is the first guest on LeBell’s new program, but she’s got a lot more great guests in store as well.
“Since I contacted my whole list of email friends and I went on Facebook, I’ve gotten calls from a whole bunch of people who want to be on the program, which is fine by me,” she says.
Although LeBell has a pretty face more suited to broadcast television than radio, she has the perfect radio voice. In fact, voice is where it all started. LeBell first studied voice at The High School of Music and Art (the school “Fame” was based on) and later studied voice at Mannes College of Music and at Hartt College in Connecticut, from where she graduated.
For two years she sold shoes for Pappagallo shoes. The owner, who was a huge supporter and lover of classical music, only hired young, pretty, classically trained singers. He built a stage in the store and had a practice room downstairs that the girls had to reserve. The first year, each singer gave a recital in the store, but when The New York Times wouldn’t review the performances because they weren’t in a major concert hall, the owner booked Carnegie Recital Hall. It was exciting, she says.
“I wanted to be a classical singer, and I started realizing I had a good voice and I was a very good musician, but I didn’t have the size voice for a major opera house and I wasn’t going to have a major career,” she says.
LeBell was working at Lincoln Center, first giving tours and later managing visitors’ services, when someone approached her about the WQXR job. The hiring agent told her the station was looking for a minority announcer. Not knowing that they were approaching her to guage her own interest (she didn’t realize minority meant woman), she recommended her black friend, who had an almost identical resume, audition for the job. Her friend trained at the station, but ultimately was more interested in performing than hosting a radio program. LeBell then asked the hiring agent if she could host the program — he replied that was what he wanted in the first place.
“I realized I could use everything I had ever learned as a singer on the air,” she says.
She could talk for long periods of time without getting a sore throat; she could pronounce the terminology; she could have her friends on the show; and she could use her musical knowledge.
For the first seven years, she worked as a relief announcer, filling in when people couldn’t host. In 1980, the station gave her her first full-time shift. It was the kind of job where she worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. But she loved it — every day was different.
LeBell hosted a variety of programming. “Today in New York” was a three-minute program discussing events happening in New York. There was the hour-long program “Salute to the Arts.” “Kitchen Classics” took place 30 minutes a day, five times a week and featured recipes from famous musicians who love to cook and eat. She hosted live chamber music concerts and other live broadcast series. She booked guests, programmed the music, hosted and produced the programs without any help aside from the on-air engineers.
LeBell, who says she wasn’t outgoing when she was young, says it was a great job for a shy person because she could ask all the questions she wouldn’t normally feel comfortable asking if it weren’t her job.
“You could ask questions you could never ask at a cocktail party,” LeBell says.
But it was her love for music and passion for people that ultimately pushed her to venture out of her comfort zone.
“Spiritually, God put us on this Earth to do something, and it wasn’t to be shy,” she says.
June LeBell interviewed five to 10 people a week, 50 weeks a year for 29 years. The following list is a sampling of the famous people she hosted on her show:
Chef Julia Child
Composer Aaron Copland
Conductor Zubin Mehta
Met Opera baritone Sherrill Milnes
New York City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise
New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow
Daughter of Leonard Bernstein Jamie Bernstein
Cabaret pianist/arranger Alex Rybeck
Jazz pianist Dick Hyman
Violinist Itzhak Perlman
Met Opera Music Director James Levine
FOR THE RECORD
June LeBell says she will continue her Musical Conversations series with Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning. In some cases, she’ll even use portions of her SILL programs on the WSMR 89.1FM program.