For the just-now-invented “Most Remarkable New San Francisco Classical Radio Voice of 2021” award, I nominate Maggie Clennon Reberg. Joining KDFC Oct. 7 as weekday Morning Show host, the Michigan native made an indelible stamp on live radio while working for the last six years at classical music station WFMT in Chicago. In a phone conversation, she told me she had never before set foot in California until the day she arrived to find an apartment and begin the next chapter in her life.
Obviously, entering the Bay Area classical-music scene as a first-timer isn’t what makes Reberg remarkable. Plenty of radio folks, voice-over artists, and mezzo-sopranos with solid performing careers in opera, musicals, and classical-theater productions — Reberg is all of those and more — come to California each year. And on vastly more trendy, fits-into-quirky-Bay-Area themes, Reberg tells me she arrives sporting 12 strategically placed tattoos, has a “portable” spouse who came along for the ride no questions asked, is just “a regular jeans and not stuffy radio friend,” not a stereotypical classical-music wonk. And she loves all music from Bach to Elvis to the Beatles to less-known, under-recognized works by women composers to works by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ composers to pretty much everything. Although she had a rich, rewarding performing career and plans to go “knee deep” into her new job with no intentions of returning to the operatic stage, Reberg, when pressed to name a role that might tempt her back onstage, mentions actor Judi Dench and a classic role she loves: Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Now that I’m a woman of a certain age, I would dare a Shakespeare company to cast somebody my age in the role of the Fairy Queen. I think that would be a bold move and I’d be very good. I was good in the past, and I’d be good now.” She reminds me of Peter Hall’s “wacky crazy” 1968 film in which Dench played Titania painted green and nearly naked. “KDFC wouldn’t be happy if their morning show lady did something like that, but what did I say to you a few moments ago? Never say never. Green and topless, that’s the way I want to go.”
Despite Reberg’s hints of outrageousness, she carries solid credentials, a firmly established track record of attracting and keeping a large, diverse, national radio audience, and a an approach based on an astute core philosophy. As a radio host, she tells me she is “highly tuned” to audiences and “always thinking about the person on the other side of the transmission.”
Where will you make your home base in the Bay Area?
Currently I live in Oakland. I have every intention of following the advice of my new boss, [KDFC President] Bill Lueth. He said think of this as your one-year apartment rather than your permanent home. I had never set foot in the San Francisco area, not once in my entire life until the day I got off the plane to look for an apartment. I had gone through the whole interview process, accepted the job, uprooted my life, and I’d never been to California before. Welcome to my midlife crisis!
I looked in San Francisco and realized very quickly I couldn’t afford to live over there. The very first apartment in Oakland, it was like I won a lottery. Within five minutes of walking in I told the guy to get the broker there right away. I’m right by Lake Merritt and I just love it.
You have one child; what would you like to tell me about your daughter?
I have a 23-year-old daughter named Grace Reberg who’s currently, God help her, an opera singer, too. I tried like hell to get her to do something else but it didn’t work. She’s in grad school at the University of Houston. She’s the exact same voice type I am. Currently she’s singing the title role in Julies Caesar, so she’s a bigger-size mezzo voice.
I’m surrounded: I’m married to an operatic tenor, Erich Buchholz. He’s absolutely portable. When we first started discussing this opportunity in California he never, not for one minute, had hesitation. He was all for it. He’s an adventurous sort. No pros and cons like I did.
Describe your childhood environment in terms of music and dance. What music do you remember hearing, what ballets or dancers did you admire, who did you most often experience art with?
Because I started dancing so young, classical music was a permanent part of my life, like the grass in my backyard or the clothes I put on. I’d feel unnatural without it at this point in my life. I remember my mom taking me to see dance a good 10 years after I began my studying. I didn’t experience dance on the stage until I was deeply entrenched. The good thing about that is that I was old enough to get enthused and appreciate it a lot.
A thing that segues into my love of opera [happened when] I was a teenager, still dancing, didn’t even know I had a voice inside of me. The Met [Metropolitan Opera] you know, used to tour. They came to Masonic Temple Theater in Detroit. Our neighbor gave my mother and me her tickets. That theater, it’s a palace, it’s massive. I experienced those voices in that dramatic setting and had a sea change in the kind art I thought I’d be creating. I don’t even remember the stars’ names, but I thought to myself, this is real. This is the king of the theatrical experience. It’s got everything: dance, tremendous music, people using their bodies as instruments. This is for me.
Your early radio experiences: What did you listen to in the car or at home?
When I was at home, I listened to classical music with my records. In the car with my parents, I listened to the popular music of the day. I love all music. Thank God for my mom and dad for introducing me to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other British bands that were so great. My mother couldn’t tolerate Elvis. but we listened to everything else. I don’t know why she didn’t like Elvis; I love him.
What was in your early album collection?
The thing I fell in love with when I had my own collection is going to sound so dumb. It’s the Brandenburg Concertos. It’s one of the first things I purchased myself, and they continue to be some of my favorites. I say it’s dumb because it’s mainstream predictable in the vast canon of classical music that’s out there. But how can you even dare to criticize Bach? It’s like sacrilege. Those pieces just seem ubiquitous. People who don’t think they know classical music, if you play the Brandenburgs for them, they would say, “Ah, I’ve heard that somewhere before.”
Is there a role or work you performed many, many times that never grows old?
[Handel’s] Messiah. As a singer, I would earn a third of my yearly income in the winter months singing in Messiahs everywhere. I could do one every day: I think it’s one of the most perfect things ever written. I should be sick of it, but I don’t think I ever could be.
While hosting the classical music morning show, what did you learn at WFMT that will inform your work at KDFC?
For the first years at WFMT, I was a fill-in. I had the unique opportunity of working every single shift, including overnights, multiple times. There are no surprises, no shifts I haven’t done before, so I’m perfectly armed for the next step in my radio career. Lucky for me, mornings are my favorite.
What you really have to think about is what your listeners are doing while they’re listening and program and present accordingly. I would never do the morning shift the same way I would do 8-to-midnight, because it’s a different audience. It might be the same people, but they are engaged with music in different ways. A morning commuter in the car, a mom trying to get breakfast on the table and kids out the door, a person listening at work who wants to stream on their computer and doesn’t want to wear earphones. They just want a little bit of music in the background so as not to disturb their co-workers, but enough that they can hear it. There are nuances and it all has to do with who’s on the other side of the radio.
During the pandemic, with many people work remotely at home, are you noticing changes in how audiences relate to radio?
It’s changed everything. The most remarkable thing to me was how important we became during the pandemic because people were so isolated. People can get their music any way they want to: CDs, playlists, Spotify, whatever. What they can’t do during a pandemic is have human contact to the degree they were used to. We became a lifeline. If you look at radio across the board, Neilson Ratings and other ways people measure that stuff, everybody’s streaming: Terrestrial signals and use of the apps went sky high. We never had such ratings. It was because it was human contact when in some cases people were just not leaving their houses for days. You can only make so many phone calls and sit on so many dumb Zoom meetings. Sometimes it’s just nice to sit in a room and hear a familiar voice. It’s the simple pleasure of listening together because radio is a communal experience. People think it’s just a one-way street, but it’s not.
And the emails! People reached out to us more directly than ever before. I have formed real, true friendships with listeners who have shared things with me that their families don’t know and I would never repeat. Saturday and Sunday mornings were my big shifts in Chicago and it was like a breakfast date with a circle of friends.
I have to say, and I’m sorry to report this to my former colleagues in Chicago, a grand number of those people have come with me. Through the magic of streaming and the apps, a lot of my circle of listeners have simply followed me out here. I’m making new friends out here too.
Radio listening is in some ways more private than in past decades because we’re using headsets. It’s no longer families gathered around a radio. Does that enter your approach to hosting a radio show?
I’ve never thought about that because when I picture my listeners overall, I picture them individually. If I picture the families I know listen to me on the weekends, I never picture them isolated with headphones. It makes me sad to picture that. As to gathering around the radio, a disturbing fact is how few people actually have radios in their houses. They have them in their cars and on their computers, but actual terrestrial radios in homes? They just don’t own them, especially with young people. That’s why the digital, online presence is so important.
But we’re still going to have people doing the modern-day equivalent of gathering around radio. I used to do a request show on Saturday mornings. It was based on families listening together. Whatever shapes a family takes, that show was hugely popular and there was no reason for it to be. People would tune in and wait for their request to come on like the good old days.
In the time it takes to write the email, type out your request and who you want it dedicated to, wait until the day you think it’s going to be on, you could have found that piece on YouTube and listened to it together a thousand different times. This is music the old-fashioned way, that’s why radio is magic; because it makes people focus right on the moment. People can have music instantly, but they would wait weeks for their piece. They’d call the grandparents and say, “They’re going to say the grandkids’ names on the radio!” They loved it.
What have you’ve noticed about classical-music radio audiences during your time as a show host?
They’re unique. Classical-music people are super passionate about their music, they feel a sense of ownership. And we are finally, after a million gazillion years, starting to make headway against the stereotype of classical-music people being stuffy, elitist, and snooty. Classical music belongs to everybody. There are some people who don’t want it to be for everybody because it makes them feel superior or smart or some nonsense like that. Radio stations like KDFC are one of the main reasons those stereotypes are falling away.
Take me for example, I am not an elegant person. I’m educated, but I am not wealthy, not Ivy League. I don’t put these composers on pedestals, I don’t worship them like gods. They’re just people like everybody else. I present the music with as much humor and humanity as I can because it’s just music. It can’t hurt you. It can only enhance your life. There’s no reason to be stuffy or those other bad things. It’s just beautiful music.
When I first got into radio in Chicago, my supervisor encouraged me to do as much listening as I could. He said, “There’s this radio station in San Francisco and they really get it. They are doing it right. I’d like you to listen to them and see what you can incorporate into your own broadcasting. Here’s this lady named Dianne Nicolini; she’s a good announcer. Look at her and feel her vibe and see how much of that you can make your own.” And look what happened. Here I am.
There are four highlighted sections in the announcement of your joining KDFC. These are longstanding features and I’m hoping you’ll tell me one noteworthy thing you find interesting or challenging about each.
Off-to-School Request at 7:15 a.m.
I love the fact that it’s like the show I had in Chicago. It’s family oriented. It’s with kids in mind and designed to make the commute more enjoyable or to motivate the kids and get them going out the door. I try to make it as welcoming as possible by framing it. What’s your go-to piece of music in the morning? What composer comes to mind? Who would I pick for Off-to-School? Leonard Bernstein.
Morning Mindbender Quiz at 7:45 a.m.
It takes a mystery composer or composer’s birthday or something like national wedding cake day and we use a piece of music as a clue, along with words or phrases as hints. It’s easy to come up with ideas and the best thing is you can make it relate to the person’s day. If it’s National Hot Dog Day, you can say here’s a musical clue and maybe something for your lunch today.
The Blind Date Mystery in History at 8:30 a.m.
This might be one of my favorites: A piece of music, we take the year when it was composed or premiered onstage. We look at the interesting things that happened that same year. We give three historical clues and then play the music. The idea that someone’s going to guess what it is, it’s possible sometimes but the clues in general terms are just a way to have fun while listening to the music.
Mozart in the Morning to kick off the workday at 9 a.m.
It’s exactly what it is: we play a masterwork by Mozart, a piece in its entirely. What I mean is rather than a couple of moments or sections, [we play] any one of Mozart’s symphonies or concertos or big works. I tell a juicy Mozart story about what he was doing at that time in his life. He wrote these six piano concertos, boom, boom, boom, in a row when he was all of 17 years old. That sounds lofty and fantastical, but he had these stupid patrons and royal people breathing down his neck to crank out as much work as possible to make themselves look good. He worked hard. It was a happy accident that everything he was slaving at to earn a living and take care of his family was miraculous.
What will you bring to the program in terms of guests, selections and general format? What areas of classical music do you know are underrepresented and areas where you might shed light?
I’m proud of KDFC and the work they’ve done acknowledging it’s been dead white guys for far too long. If people are going to care about classical music, they need to see themselves represented by it. They need to see people who look like them and who come from similar backgrounds making this kind of music. Otherwise, it’s not relatable and who cares? They’ve done an amazing job in the last year of presenting female composers, composers of color, and LGBTQ composers, and leveling the airplay as much as possible. There’s room to improve and I’m proud to be at a radio station that is leading the pack. There will never be an hour on my show where I don’t play a female, Jewish, BIPOC, or any other [category of] underrepresented composer in music. I am personally committed to that.
Do you feel an obligation to make classical music “fun” or more accessible to attract younger audiences?
Rather than call it an obligation, I’m going to call it a labor of love. I love this music. It’s been a part of my life forever. I want to help people come to it as music they can enjoy no matter who they are. It can be theirs if they want it.
There was a public radio survey done a couple of years ago and one of the questions focus groups answered was, “What is the one thing that keeps people away from classical music concerts?” The prevailing answer was “These are not my people, I don’t understand the music, I’m not smart enough, I don’t fit in here.” Utter nonsense, which goes to my life’s work of getting rid of this stereotype of classical music being exclusive. The way to get over that is to present the music in a way that says there’s nothing special about the music in a concert or on the radio, there is nothing special about me or special about you, but the one thing that unites us is that we both love Richard Strauss. Or take your favorite composer. Take what you like, leave the rest. You are lucky to be operating within a realm where the choices are so vast.
What do you most hope to learn through the experience of working in the Bay Area market?
I’m learning how different my outlook is when every day I’m in a place of natural beauty. The Midwest is fine, Michigan was beautiful in many ways, but I’ve never seen natural areas like I’m experiencing here. I’m close to the Bay and the ocean, and I’m starting to change my perspective on almost every single thing I think about because I’m living in a beautiful natural environment. Californians are so lucky. Yeah, it’s expensive and there are homeless people, which is everywhere, but Californians are very lucky and I want to be one of them. Well, I am! I’ve lucked out in this endeavor and I feel that in every way.
Will you get back onstage as that green, topless Titania or another role?
I consider myself retired from the stage. I have no desire, which I say with a bit of sarcasm. If never set foot onstage again it wouldn’t bother me. I’ve had a great career and I have wonderful memories. I’m knee deep in my next thing and I want to give it full focus, but what did I say before? Never say never!