'Like the air I breathe'

by Jean Inaba ’80, communication media

Jean Inaba lives in Denver, Colorado, where she is a host/producer for CPR Classical, the classical service of Colorado Public Radio.

My cousin Roy’s violin was way too large for me, but I learned to play on it when I was six years old. By the time I was in academy I was learning pieces that I actually wanted to play, like Mendelsshon’s Violin Concerto. Getting into the Walla Walla Symphony as a ninth grader really opened up my horizons.

In college I thought I’d maybe go into public relations, and I was interested in becoming a theater major. But then I discovered KGTS and thought to myself, “well that looks kind of fun.” I got a job there my junior year. And I got bit by the radio bug.

Two days after my WWC graduation I left for a public radio job in Sioux City, Iowa. I didn’t know anything about public radio, I just wanted to work with classical music. Having two years of radio experience prior to graduation made a huge difference. Now, more than 40 years later, I’ve worked at six public radio stations, counting my job at Colorado Public Radio and including 16 years at public radio’s “mother ship,” National Public Radio in Maryland. I know a lot more now than when I started.

In classical radio, a list of top favorites regularly rotate on playlists. In public radio, announcers are just themselves, not different radio personas like you might hear in commercial radio, and having a good handle on the classical repertoire is key to your success. As a longtime performing professional, I might already know what a certain composer or a specific work sounds like. This gives me a leg up on how a broadcast could be put together.

I write everything out, a practice I started when I was on air in Washington, D.C. The trick is to make it sound like you’re just talking to people, not reading. There’s a fine line you walk to be a successful on-air communicator. I have a very specific way of presenting some information about music, the composer, or the piece about to air. The trick is to leave somebody who doesn’t know much thinking, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” while not insulting the intelligence of a musician who knows a lot.

I’ve also learned a lot about technology along the way. Everything is done on the computer now. We used to use reel-to-reel tape, and the splicing block. We used to literally cut the tape with a razor and connect the ends with splicing tape. Now, production and mixing is done on a computer. Software handles music libraries, announcing, mixing and production. Announcers can now edit voice tracks in a way that makes them sound perfect, but sometimes I leave in the mistakes to make things sound more live. Now production is as simple as a key stroke on the computer!

When young people ask me about getting into radio, I encourage them to get experience in radio before they graduate from college. And I tell them to be ready to work hard. Radio is not a Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five job. Shifts might run well into the evening, or you may not work regular weekdays. Think about it—It doesn’t matter what time of day or night it might be, or if the weather is really bad and the roads are impassable. Every time you turn on the radio, somebody is there.

Ironically, when I leave work, I don’t listen to classical music. I do, however, perform classical music with orchestras and I play a lot of chamber music for recreation with friends.

Classical music is alive and well, and today’s composers are writing new music for listeners. They think about what will inspire people to buy tickets, to come into the halls and listen. Often conductors will sandwich a little-known work between two popular audience pleasers to get people into the hall. I always tell people that listening to classical music is like going to an art museum—you may not know a lot about it, but you can still take it in and enjoy it.

For me, classical music is like the air I breathe—it’s absolutely essential to who I am. I have had the opportunity to experience classical music from the inside as a performer and from the outside as a listener, and I am grateful.

At work
Hear Inaba bring life to classical music in these snippets:

Ear candy
Five of classical music expert Jean Inaba’s favorites

  • String Quartet No. 23 in F, K. 590, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1790)
  • Symphony No. 7, Ludwig van Beethoven (c. 1811)
  • String Sextet No. 1, Johannes Brahms (1860)
  • String Serenade, Peter Tchaikovsky (1880)
  • Flute Concerto, Christopher Rouse (1993)

Posted July 1, 2021


Jean Inaba is a host/producer for CPR Classical, the classical service of Colorado Public Radio.
Inaba performs classical music with orchestras and plays chamber music for recreation with friends.