The first time listeners hear Mara Zhelutka's show "Music of the Spheres" or Mira Bai's "Divine Songs," they're often not even aware that they're listening to the radio at all.
Instead, they're in that blissful, early-morning state between sleep and wakefulness, when it's too early to get up but too late to fall back into deep sleep. Dimly, they hear that delicate, ethereal music . . . songs drifting, commercial-free, one into another . . . and those voices--loving and hesitant, refreshing yet calming. No wonder many think they've died in their sleep and gone to heaven.
What they're actually hearing are two locally produced public-radio programs that have built remarkably strong and loyal audiences, considering that "Music of the Spheres" airs from 6-8 a.m. Sundays on KCRW-FM (89.9) and "Divine Songs" airs from 6-7 a.m. Wednesdays on KPFK-FM (90.7).
The success of the two shows is all the more remarkable considering that their formats and hosts couldn't be more different from the gimmickry and high-energy jocks associated with much of morning radio.
"Music of the Spheres" showcases compositions and songs from the medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods, while "Divine Songs" features recitations of poetry, philosophy and inspirational literature by its host, to a background of natural sounds and New Age, acoustic and classical music.
Officials at both stations report that the shows regularly receive a flurry of phone calls following each broadcast from listeners scrambling to know what they heard--or thought they heard--that morning.
Both shows also routinely surpass fund-raising expectations during their station's subscription drives--even though, because of the early hours that they are broadcast, their audiences are not regularly or intensively tapped for money. KPFK recently campaigned for pledges for the first time during "Divine Songs"--and the station raised $700 in just 15 minutes, said Marcia Caldwell, KPFK's production director.
The success of the two shows probably can be traced, in large part, to the genial, gentle nature of their hosts. Both are women in their early 40s who somehow sound as if they are much younger, and yet with a gentle experience beyond their years--as if you're once again hearing the voice of your mother as a young woman, lulling you to sleep in the cradle.
Zhelutka, who began broadcasting "Music of the Spheres" in the mid-1970s on Humboldt State University's radio station, has been airing the show at its current time on KCRW for three years. She admitted that she often receives compliments for her voice, but that she's really interested in keeping the focus of her show on the music.
Her show's title refers to the belief, conceived by Plato, that each planet in the solar system sounds its own specific note, and that all of them together create a "divine harmonic." This inspiration helps set the mood for her show, Zhelutka said.
"I do try and select pieces that have a soothing effect, a sense of morning brightness," she said. That may mean something from 16th-Century Spanish folk music followed by English consort music, then a vocal piece for troubadour, then something from the Baroque period.
When listeners do get to hear Zhelutka's voice, it's often stepping carefully but faultlessly over the mine field of syllables that make up the names of her selections--names like Tropaire de Saint-Jean Chrysostome or Furioso Alla Spagnuola. Zhelutka, who studied both history and music in college and who now works as a consultant on classical recordings and other projects, prints her own guide to help listeners learn more about the compositions they're hearing.
"These aren't the massive choral pieces enjoyed by the royalty or the church at the time, but the music of the people. It's very lyrical and contemplative," she said.
Something similar yet quite different is going on at KPFK on Wednesday mornings. There, early risers can catch the hypnotically calm, impossibly slow voice of Mira Bai as she reads from the writings of Japan's Sujata, the Bible, Swami Muktananda's Play of Consciousness, the writings of Gandhi or Mother Teresa, even poetry by Bai herself--all set to music, some of which is composed by her producer and husband, John Henderson.
The show's title, "Divine Songs," is borrowed from an album of the same name by Alice Coltrane, whose writings and music also are often featured. The point of the show, says its host, is to "promote peace and equanimity in our disarrayed society."
Indeed, the hour often closes with Bai encouraging her audience to join her in meditation, so they might visualize a sense of peace within themselves and the whole world.
But Bai bristles at the suggestion that her show is merely New Age fluff. "I'm not a hysterical optimist. I'm simply trying to put together a show that is inspirational and makes it easier for people to face the day," says the host, who spends the rest of her work week as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
The show has been airing at the same time on KPFK for five years; before that, Bai hosted a similar show in Houston. "California seems to have a lot more people interested in a balanced life and seeking the divine," she said.
"So many people tell me that they're so unhappy in the morning. Having someone read them poetry reminds them of when they were children," she said.
Both Bai and Zhelutka say they recognize that they're broadcasting to an audience that may be more asleep than awake, but both said they consider this something of an honor. "It's wonderful to think that I'm a part of their dreams," Zhelutka said.