Allegro con Brio - Los Angeles magazine
 

Allegro con Brio

The Dr. Demento of classical music, Jim Svejda titillates and provokes listeners, making KUSC a national treasure

1/1/2011

“Jesus meets Bonanza,” says Jim Svejda, describing the CD he’s sliding into his car stereo. A xylophone zings. The sound of galloping horses fills the BMW 328i. Svejda speeds up. A clarinet launches into “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” He takes both hands off the steering wheel and wiggles them in the air to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s campy 1962 recording. Svejda’s jaw drops into a smile. “Isn’t it nuts?” he says.

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He ejects the disc and slips in something more serious. The third movement from Piano Quartet no. 1 by Bohuslav Martinu, the late Bohemian composer, has the qualities Svejda loves most in classical. “Abstract, distinct, nobody knows what the hell it is,” he says. “It’s utterly haunting.” But this new version, by a Czech quartet, trickles from the speakers. Svejda’s face clouds behind his amber prescription sunglasses. “Bad sign already,” he says. “It’s thin.” A piano sounds a few chords. “You’re joking!” he says, raising his voice. Before the strings have a chance to kick in, Svejda cries, “Oh, Jesus, this is unendurable.” He jabs at the stereo. “Can you say ‘mannered and précieuse’ ?” He chucks the CD over his shoulder into the backseat. “Well, they were commies until not long ago,” he says, “so you can’t blame them.”

Jim Svejda has expressed his strange love of “serious music”—his term that includes film scores, classical music, and jazz—weeknights on KUSC-FM (91.5) for half his 63 years. Since 1978, he has helped turn the former student station at the University of Southern California into the nation’s premier public classical outlet. He added a weekend broadcast in 1983. KUSC’s weekly audience of 814,200 puts it among the top five public stations in the United States. Its stature, along with Svejda’s iconoclastic style, has made him one of the preeminent announcers in classical radio. Along with L.A.’s shiny concert hall, sexy young conductor, and lucrative film studio work that attracts famous composers and conductors, Svejda has transformed the city into what he considers to be the global center for orchestral music. “He is classical music personified,” says Brenda Barnes, president of KUSC. More than that, he is eccentric enough—a ball of contradictions—to attract new listeners to a genre many worry is in decline.

*****

DJs on classical stations are called “announcers” rather than “personalities,” maybe because so few have any. Svejda, however, is so flavorful that he has earned “love to hate him” fans who chafe at his hamminess or his taste. An announcer’s job, Svejda says, is to provide a little bit of context and then “get out of the way.” In reality he calls attention to himself with wacky banter. He informs listeners that a composer was a syphilitic or a Nazi. Often he underscores the eroticism of a movement. Last October he played a romantic symphony by Sergei Rachmaninoff. “Sergei…it’s just too much! Take me away!” he swooned in an accent that, despite efforts, still sounds Midwestern. Low, resonant, straining here and pausing there, his voice has become clearer thanks to sessions with the vocal coach who works with all of KUSC’s talent. “I get this uncontrollable urge to light up right now. Great music has two great themes: God and sex. This is not about God.” Describing another piece as “brazen,” he said, “I mean that in a good way. Does brazen have a downside? There’s that expression ‘brazen hussy,’ which I have always thought of as…you don’t need to know.”

If he’s not saucy, he’s silly. Soliciting donations during last fall’s pledge drive, he took bids on the rubber chicken attached to his key chain. “Herbert for $200?” he cried indignantly. “Are you nuts?”

Barnes filled in for Svejda while he was on vacation last year and immediately received five e-mails from listeners who said versions of “Thank goodness it’s you and not him.” But, she adds, “there they were at 6:59 waiting for him to come on the air. They listen to every word he says so they can quote him when they complain. Only Jim has this group.”

If there’s a stereotypical look for a classical music lover, Svejda has it: the understated clothing—he’s always in head-to-toe black—the salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, dark gray hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. But on the air he is as gushy as a boy in love for the first time. “Jim has a young following because he is able to make classical music cool,” says Michael Medved, the conservative talk-radio host who is a close friend. “His message is that music is fun. He is a great believer in what animated Beethoven and Brahms, which is the idea that ordinary people can thrill to this music.”

*****

Svejda’s name reveals his ancestry. Pronounced SHVAY-da, it means “the Swede” in Czech. The location of his hometown gave him an antagonistic streak. New Buffalo, Michigan, sits across the lake from Chicago. “Every summer,” he jokes, “men would come over from the city and steal our women.” He hated the Cubs. His father, who weighed trucks for the highway department, was a classical music aficionado who took his son to concerts. “I was a jumpy kid,” Svejda says. “This was one of the only things I would sit still for.” At 11, he took up the oboe, which he practiced for eight hours a day. He possessed the aural equivalent of a photographic memory, which has sharpened over time. Needing no more than a few hours’ sleep at night gave Svejda the opportunity to pursue other passions. He collected nearly every baseball card in the 1957 Topps series. He cannot count the films he has seen more than 100 times.

In the late 1960s, Svejda attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He holds degrees in philosophy, history, literature, and—almost—African studies. He took part in draft protests to meet girls. “That was the reason most males of the period did political stuff,” he says. “The prevailing myth was that the women were similarly liberal in their sexuality. Which proved to be an utter myth. At least for me.” In all-or-nothing fashion, he gave up the oboe. He would never be truly great, he decided, so there was no point in playing.

“I don’t have a voice for radio,” Svejda says. Yet he chose a career in broadcasting and landed a paid job at WONO in Syracuse, New York. There his unorthodox style was born. The station’s 26-year-old owner, Henry Fogel, rejected stuffiness for a more personal and passionate approach. He and Svejda thought it would become the norm for classical stations. (It didn’t, of course, but Fogel’s other innovation, the radio pledge drive, did.) Svejda moved on to the larger WCRB in Boston, then to San Francisco to make radio documentaries about composers. He missed being live on the air, so when KUSC called in 1978, he came to Los Angeles. It took him only a week to get over his preconceived notions of L.A.’s superficiality and embrace its “crazy experimentation.” He dated so many women of different ethnicities that his mother suggested white ones must have seemed exotic. He even learned passable Chinese.

On his weeknight show he frequently interviewed conductors, composers, musicians, writers, and directors. He also condensed selected recordings from the show for The Record Shelf, a weekly one-hour program. Syndicated nationally, it heightened both KUSC’s profile and his own.

As he grew in importance and boosted the station’s ratings, Svejda’s life took a series of unexpected turns. A self-described “standard-issue ’60s radical,” he swung politically to the right, even though he continued to work in public radio, which most conservatives would like to defund. Now a registered Republican and a fan of Rush Limbaugh, he says life experience extinguished liberal guilt he had felt about the disenfranchised. “I think everybody should get exactly what they think they deserve,” he says, “and just shut up about it.”

Svejda transformed spiritually, too. His parents were raised in Christian households, but in the 1990s he attended orthodox Jewish services. “I’ve always been an orthodox agnostic,” he says, which means, “I don’t know, and I wish I did. But Judaism is so civilized and so logical and so totally admirable.”

*****

At 42, Jim Svejda marked a decade at KUSC and entertained no notions of leaving. Los Angeles would be his home. He was writing a new edition of The Insider’s Guide to Classical Recordings, his 900-page book. KUSC was close to passing a half million listeners per week. And then Svejda had a heart attack. His skin was blue when he arrived at the hospital. He recalls being vaguely aware of people trying to save him. “I saw the lights and hovered from above,” he says. “I had a sense of sitting on a big stone wall and having this irresistible urge to lean over and jump off to get to the other side. There was also a sense of absolute euphoria.” After bypass surgery, he quit smoking and drinking, but he did not cut back on work.

The next year, 1989, after he had helped build the nation’s number one public classical station, KUSC switched format. Intended to reflect the diversity of the city and attract young listeners, “the New Sound” was a mix of classical, rock, pop, jazz, and hip-hop. One announcer resigned a week into the experiment. Svejda stayed, though he refused to play the Beastie Boys, or even the Beach Boys, alongside Beethoven. (He equates rock music with finger painting.) He stuck to his “serious” music and was not invited to participate in fund-raising. “I went in every day expecting to be fired,” he says. Listeners—and funding—declined for seven years. Bottoming out, KUSC hired Brenda Barnes to return the station to an all-classical format and entice back its audience. “We had Jim Svejda,” she says, “which was critical.”

With Svejda at the nucleus of a hopeful staff, the fans returned, and the station’s annual budget climbed from $2 million to $6.5 million. Approaching retirement age, he produces more hours of programming than any of the station’s 29 other full-time employees. He edits out every “um” uttered in recorded interviews and takes vacations only when his boss forces him to. “He’s never satisfied,” Barnes says. “Nothing is ever good enough.”

Although Svejda is one of the world’s authorities on classical music, the fact that he cannot master it is what drives him. “It is so big that you will never understand it all,” he says. “Listening to it makes people smarter. It’s been proven. But, like aspirin, no one knows why it works.”
Photograph by Dustin Snipes

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  • 18
  1. Cornelia Schulz posted on 07/09/2012 02:07 PM
    I adore Jim Svejda, have for years! But to find that he is a fan of Rush Limbaugh!???
    How is this possible. It places me in an impossible quandary... I'm not sure that I will recover.
    1. Younger Cato posted on 07/25/2012 05:22 PM
      @Cornelia Schulz People are different. It's called tolerance.
    2. JeannieB posted on 11/05/2013 08:32 PM
      @Cornelia Schulz Cornelia, I totally agree. He just seems so -- so erudite and INTELLIGENT! I can't believe he'd stoop to the level of Limbaugh.

      But I guess it's everybody for himself these days.

      I still like Svejda.
  2. Alejandra Fraga posted on 11/13/2012 09:11 PM
    I just tunned to KUSC and I heard a very relaxing and very soothing voice of a gentleman that was making a fantastic comment on a composer. I am impressed with his knoweledge about classical music. I just found out about Jim Svejda and I already love the man. Like other listeners, I just also hope he is not a fan of Rush Limbagh!!! Oh no, please! We are in the 21st century and in a very diverse conuntry we're the Latino vote actually made a difference making a decision about who would be president!
    1. Patricia posted on 12/31/2013 06:23 AM
      @Alejandra Fraga What a perfect stranger, whom one only knows as a voice on the radio, thinks about any politician or political commentator should have nothing to do with how you think he does his job. As for your political aims, please get over yourself. Given the last two elections, I wouldn't be too proud of your 'difference' in influencing the election results. Also, you don't seem to spell correctly. And the 'diverse' country you mention also includes people who vote against your favorite.
  3. richard schiro posted on 12/10/2012 11:33 PM
    Mr.Svejda is exasperatingly interesting..by that I mean,NO HUMAN BEING ON EARTH COULD SPEAK the way Mr.Svejda does in a artifice free manner..I always do a joke a la the way Mr. Svejda speaks on ordering his breakfast with high pinched erudite nasal tones on the eggs,crisp diction on the bacon,build up to toast and then the proverbial pause...topped off... with..marmalade jam(the conductor!).. as fascinating as Mr. Svejda's comments on music/composers are..NO HUMAN BEING ON EARTH COMES INTO THIS WORLD TALKING LIKE JIM SVEJDA!!
    1. Jeannieb posted on 11/05/2013 08:35 PM
      @richard schiro Well, it's true: Jim Svejda did NOT come into the world speaking like he does now. He has had months of speaking lessons -- learning how to speak in the dialect of a cultured European. He never wants to let his Midwestern twang show through.

      But I love hearing it. Even knowing that it's an affectation.
  4. Nelson Donley posted on 03/08/2013 12:34 AM
    I've been listening to Jim Svejda since the early 1980s, when I became an avid listener of The Opera Box and The Record Shelf. Since that time, I have collected over 500 of those programs, which I listen to again and again. People often ask me where I acquired so much musical knowledge, thinking that I must have majored in Classical music in college. I have never taken a single course in music-- didn't have to, thanks to Jim. Another thing I've always loved about Jim is his way of explaining recondite subjects in a way that is easy for the novice to comprehend. Jim speaks with such a dignified, eloquent voice; a voice that compliments the music he plays. Jim is the Milton Cross of FM radio and I will always be grateful for his marvelous work as critic and musicologist. Simply put, he is the best.
  5. Vic Dvorak posted on 04/09/2013 08:50 AM
    Jim Svejda is an incredible gem - I have been listening to him for more years than I can remember - His knowledge of music is amazing and his presentation of it is always interesting and I always learn something new! We are so lucky to be able to hear him via the internet! Thanks so much!
  6. Claudia Donaldson-Selby posted on 07/10/2013 11:07 PM
    I have lived in LA for a year now and have been irritated so much by Svejda's accent after living in Johannesburg,London, Washington DC and hearing the traditional names and pronunciation of composers and music that I scream at his mad accent. But I love him too much to turn him off! I am so pleased his favourite piece is Elgar's B minor Violin concerto - that is mine too.
    I listen to you all the time and the later it gets the better the music.
    Thankyou Jim
    Clauxxxx
  7. Dan Frezza posted on 07/19/2013 11:59 AM
    A very belated thank you, Mr. Svejda, for “unlocking” Ravel’s Tzigane for me decades ago. I had never liked it until you featured it on The Record Shelf and mentioned its strong element of parody. You then played a recording by a violinist (I think Perlman) who understood that and ever after I have enjoyed it very much – at least when played by violinists who “get it.”
  8. Chris Pulse posted on 08/19/2013 03:13 PM
    I find Svejda arrogant and am sick of his denigration of others like Wagner. Wagner left us with great music and though some may find what he did in his personal life something we wouldn't approve of the same can be said of Svejda. When Svejda leaves what will he leave us with. There have been others that he denigrates and he is, let's just say selective in his history. The point is that Svejda criticizes others who's shoes he never walked in. But above all Svejda is there to play the music and if I want a history lesson I will go elsewhere.
  9. Kevin Gray posted on 10/09/2013 10:11 PM
    I too have been listening to Jim since the 80s. I find him extremely entertaining. Arrogant? No, opinionated, but not arrogant. I have never known someone to be arrogant and still be as fun to listen to as Jim. And what is wrong with a little education with the music? I have learned a lot from him. Thank you, Jim. Don't change a thing!
  10. Patricia posted on 12/19/2013 02:54 AM
    I knew Jim Svejda before any of you in LaLa Land knew how to pronounce his name. I worked with him at the now-defunct WONO, when he had decided not to pursue a PhD in English. (Wise choice.) He trained me my first night on the air - for about one hour he sat with me, showed me the electronic ropes and then said, "You're a natural," and left - leaving me along with 2000 years of Western music on recording and tape, and a feeling of absolute panic. While I still cannot forgive his lack of love for the music of J.S. Bach, his sense of humor about pretty much everything almost makes up for that deficiency. I'm happy he has parted company from the Lib Left - they are so immutably serioso and bereft of brio. I hope he remains healthy and on the air forever: it's good to learn his voice still sails into the broadcasting ewigkeit.
  11. Erik Story posted on 03/03/2014 09:16 AM
    He sounds pompous, overeducated, and conservative. As much as I hate myself for it, I can't help but absolutely love this guy. Thank you, Laurie Pike, for your informative article on this L.A. treasure.
  12. Jane R. posted on 03/14/2014 09:16 PM
    Went with Svejda to a seder,
    A pretty girl there,
    He tried to persuade her.
    She put a stop to his tricks,
    Leaving him alone
    With a compact disc.
    1. Jane R. posted on 03/19/2014 06:44 PM
      @Jane R. First (and last) Variation.
      I once found Jim Svejda
      attending a fancy seder,
      Chatting up a pretty girl there,
      but seemingly dreaming
      of her favors.
      From what I could tell though
      that lass found him a bore,
      Like selections on a compact disk
      Too short for amour.
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