NORTHRIDGE — Bonnie Grice, one of the best known classical music deejays in the country, walks into a sound studio hidden among student housing at Cal State Northridge.
A few months ago, she might have been here to hear a local ensemble seeking a gig on one of her radio shows or to give a pep talk to students hoping for a career in broadcasting. But on this day, Grice--who is as controversial as she is well known--is not paying a visit.
She's here to work at her new job.
Grice, 41, is the newest staff announcer at KCSN-FM, a public radio station owned by CSUN. For Grice--who is perhaps the only classical music deejay ever to get a death threat because of a record she played on the air--it is not, at least in terms of station size, a step up.
KCSN-FM (88.5 on the dial) has a listenership of about 28,000 people a week, according to the most recent radio ratings. Its signal strength, a paltry 52 watts, is barely enough to be heard at the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley.
Until last month, Grice was at KKGO-FM, Los Angeles' only commercial classical music station, with an 18,000-watt transmitter and 631,000 listeners, according to the Arbitron Ratings Co.
Grice's tenure there was relatively short. For the previous seven years--until she was asked to leave during a series of events that stirred the most contention in local classical music circles in memory--she was at KUSC-FM, one of the flagship public radio stations in the United States.
But if Grice considers her new position a comedown, she's not letting on.
"A mike's a mike," she says emphatically. "Doing real radio is always talking to just one person, anyway."
Even though her new job is low profile--Grice began her daily afternoon stint on KCSN on March 4, without fanfare--it doesn't promise to be entirely peaceful. After only a few days on the air, complaint calls started coming in.
"The people who hate me really hate me," she says with a laugh while sorting through CDs she'll play on her three-hour show. "It's some sort of personal thing for them. I just want to tell them, 'Get a life.'
"Can you imagine anyone getting that worked up over a radio announcer?"
It is hard to imagine, when meeting her in person, that Grice--who laughs easily, is self-effacing and takes pains to be considerate of her mostly young, fellow staff members--was the lightning rod of so much contention.
When she goes on the air, she is subdued and welcoming.
"I'm Bonnie Grice with you at 3:04 p.m.," she says, her padded headphone wrapped over her cropped hair. She chats a few seconds about the unseasonably warm weather of the day.
"We'll try to cool you off," she says, and then punches a button on a CD machine to begin the lively "Classical" Symphony of Prokofiev.
Switching off her mike, Grice says of the music, "I don't think anyone could object to that."
Her music choices are what brought Grice detractors as well as devoted admirers in past jobs.
She was part of an experiment at KUSC-FM to inject into a classical format a significant dose of other musical styles, including jazz, musical theater, ethnic, New Age and even some pop. It was an attempt to bring a younger and wider audience to the station.
Most of the announcers adhered to the new format, but none with the enthusiasm of Grice. That helped make her the target.
"The death threat was a phone message," she says. "It was because I played an Ella Fitzgerald record."
Far more thoughtful criticism came from many longtime listeners who pointed out that there was so little classical music on their radio dial as it was.
There also was controversy, even among other staff members, because she was married to the KUSC-FM general manager (he was also forced out last year, and the format returned to all-classical).
And many listeners felt--and made their feelings known in a high volume of mail received not only by the station, but at The Times and other media outlets--that Grice was too talkative and mannered on the air, especially for a classical station.
The KCSN format is more traditional classical. "It's Western European, and it's fine," says Grice, although she doesn't sound entirely convinced.
And at KCSN, her tongue has been reined in by the format. Her chat is casual and sometimes opinionated, but it comes in short doses. Grice says she doesn't mind this, either.
"I can do what I am called upon to do," she says. "At KUSC we were trying to do something different, but that was then and this is now."
KCSN general manager Rene Engel, who met Grice when they were both announcers at KUSC, said he feels quite comfortable with the more straightforward classical format he inherited at KCSN.
"My area of strongest musical interest is classical," he says. "It's also representative of the academic nature of our community."