SAN DIEGO — In a field dominated by baritones and bass-baritones, J.D. Steyers' voice is a rarity.
Steyers at 46 is not a singer but a veteran radio announcer, a classical music disc jockey, whose mellow, tenor-like voice and penchant for on-air whimsicality set him apart from the more serious-sounding deep-voiced announcers that dominate the medium.
But Steyers seems made for radio. He loves to talk; always has.
When he was a child, his grandmother asked if he had been vaccinated with a Victrola needle.
It's an image that fits, and the vaccination, whether real or imagined, seems to have taken. Steyers' voice has been on the air waves in San Diego since 1972, when he went to work for KFSD-FM (94.1), San Diego's only classical music station. Until recently, the rotund announcer behind the thick eyeglasses has been KFSD's morning drive man, his dulcet tones greeting drowsy commuters.
Unlike rock 'n' roll radio, where announcers sometimes rant at a feverish pitch, classical stations evoke a mood of politesse and restrained elegance. But there is room for personality, and Steyers created an on-air persona years ago.
Today you still hear vestiges of that consciously created radio personality--the educated, slightly precious voice with the Middle Atlantic accent. Gone is the side-of-the-mouth "Eastern megalopolis" accent he acquired growing up in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Now he says people always think he is English or Canadian. The word "suited," in his mouth, comes out as "syooted."
For his radio image, Steyers used his university stage training to create a mood from his own life as an academic, relaxing in his home after a day of teaching, "playing records in the den or music room" for a guest, perhaps a student. "I used to imagine my oldest daughter sitting there at times," he said.
Steyers keeps his comments about the music brief, limited to a few significant facts, totaling no more than two minutes in each broadcast hour.
"I throw in a little humor once in a while partly because I am incapable of doing otherwise and partly because I enjoy that sort of thing," he said.
Steyers earned a master's degree in drama at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and planned to work in theater, not radio. Because he felt there was no way to support his family through theater, he taught for several years in Pennsylvania before moving to San Diego in 1971.
But the theater was still a part of his life. He once formed his own troupe and has acted in several plays. In 1979, he played Bob Cratchit in "A Christmas Carol" for the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
When teaching jobs in San Diego dried up, he was able to get hired at KFSD, having been an announcer in high school.
Steyers says he handles with aplomb the myriad foreign names that are part of classical music because of his knack for languages and the college course on foreign languages for actors that he took years ago.
When he announces a symphony by Soviet composer Rodion Shchdrin, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, the words spin off his tongue as if he were a native speaker of Russian.
Steyers says he may have picked up his offbeat sense of humor while growing up in a funeral parlor. His father was an undertaker.
Although the humor can get him in trouble, he can't resist the chance to put a whimsical spin on what might otherwise be dusty musical esoterica. Last week, he played a piece featuring a theorbo, a 17th-Century bass stringed instrument, which in the Steyers' lexicon became "a kind of fuzz bass lute."
Of his understated humor, he said, "I think most people miss it, it goes by so fast."
Once during a live San Diego Symphony broadcast, Steyers explained that composer Edvard Grieg had inserted changes suggested by Liszt into his Piano Concerto. But after Grieg's death, scholars removed the Liszt alterations, which they considered inferior to the original Grieg. Steyers then introduced the San Diego Symphony, playing for the audience's listening enjoyment the "un-Liszted version" of the Grieg Piano Concerto.
He now announces on the evening shift. It's a change he says suits him better than the morning slot, which began at 5 a.m.
For a while the man with the puckish sense of humor says, he was getting a reputation in the morning for being very rude to people who called in: "I didn't mean to be, but I was always pressed for time." In the morning, announcers have to cue more commercials and more pieces of music. "Time is always a factor in the morning," he said.
Most listeners who call want to chat, Steyers said, but he can't explain the assumptions he says people make while listening to the radio.
"I've come to the conclusion that radio strikes kind of deep," he said. "It seems to get to people's feelings. Almost everybody who calls feels like they know me. They make all kinds of assumptions about my personality and opinions. They all think I agree with them. They all think that my favorite music is the same as theirs."
Steyers says he loves "all good music." His favorite composer is not one of the historic greats, he says, but the 20th-Century Englishman, Vaughan Williams.
"And this will surprise you. My favorite living composer is Philip Glass," a minimalist composer whose works are rarely heard on KFSD.