LA VERNE, May 11, 2017 — After three decades of being the stylish, endearing and uniquely creative host of classical radio shows in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles again, Dennis Bartel, now 63, has finally been silenced.
Actually, it is only his physical voice that has been stilled. He left Classical KUSC (91.5 FM) in January to face a future battling Parkinson’s disease. Instead of getting to hear his witty words introduce us to the symphonic magic and magnificence of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, we morning commuters have been asked to go searching for a new musical companion to fill our drive-time void.
Ostensibly, Bartel’s departure in January was to spare the listening public from the possibility of an on-air gaffe or faux pas – words delivered haltingly or with hesitancy – an unseemly and unacceptable affront to supposedly sophisticated and unforgivingly critical listeners in the all-too-slick, competitive world of L.A. drive-time radio where DJs spin out their glib offerings without a hitch.
Yet Bartel has taken his new job status (technically, he’s on disability) with a vigorous acceptance. “I’m like an uncaged bird,” Bartel said from his La Verne home where he and LaVerneOnline spoke candidly for more than four hours.
When Bartel says — looking back at his second KUSC stint (2007-2017) — that he saw “the writing on the wall,” he was speaking literally and in the future tense. That’s because portrayed on that wall is a successful dual career in which he has excelled at both broadcasting and writing.
“I will be able to write for a year, if not more, and not have to worry about income,” Bartel said about his current status. “That’s a writer’s dream.” He will no longer be handcuffed to a career that he pursued more or less just to put food on the table.
Also gone will be the inhuman, sleep-deprived regimen of waking daily for the last 13 years at 2 a.m. so he could be in a downtown studio, ready to go live with a new show at 5 a.m.
Again, Bartel isn’t some hack who suddenly fancies himself a writer or believes he deserves some sort of literary license or grace period because of his recent medical diagnosis. He’s been legit from the start. Over his career, he has published more than 300 pieces, including a novel, a collection of short stories and award-winning magazine pieces for Harper’s, Playboy, Hustler, Time-Life, Doubleday and others.
So he sees his medical fate not so much as a rescue or redemption from broadcasting beneath a 30,000 watt-powered antenna, but a resumption of what he has always done. “I’m not a writer first,” he explained. “I am only a writer.”
Since his diagnosis, he’s already produced a 27,000-word piece and another that runs 10,000 words.
Even in his best writing days, he was turning out no more than 300 pages a month or about 10 pages a day. “I’m doing that pace now,” he said.
So then, what was his phenomenal broadcasting career all about? Just a flirtation or a dalliance? Well, as all good narratives go, this one is complicated.
For getting at the truth, it’s best to start at the beginning.
YOUNG, TALENTED RISK TAKER
At Norwalk High School, Bartel was class president and an excellent athlete. He also was a bit of an odd duck. While classmates listened to popular radio stations of the day, like KRLA or KFWB, he shifted down the radio dial to KMPC, a radio station given to playing standards by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.
At USC, Bartel ambitiously majored in telecommunications and American studies, the latter to give him a foundation for potentially writing about his own unique American experiences. At age 19, he also landed a spot on the student-run USC radio station, playing rock and progressive music.
When the station moved its antenna atop mile-high Mt. Wilson and staffed itself with professional broadcasters, a search went out for a classical musical host. Bartel applied despite no classical musical training. He had never even played an instrument.
“I couldn’t find middle “C” on the piano,” Bartel said.
But he found his way into a job. “I wanted to be on the air,” Bartel said.
To keep from losing it, he headed to the library. “Once I had the job, I started reading and listening to everything I could get my hands on,” he said.
In the studio, he kept his musical program simple.
“Early on, I just picked things to play that I could pronounce,” he said.
Two composers who passed that test for him were Igor Stravinsky and George Gershwin. In the studio, he played two of their pieces back to back. The two compositions couldn’t have been more different.
“One was a somber piece that tore your heart out, and the other lifted you right up,” Bartel said.
The sharp contrast immediately elicited a phone call from the station manager.
Instead of scolding the new disc spinner, which Bartel feared, he praised him.
At the same time, Bartel was pursuing a fine arts degree in writing at UC Irvine while also editing two literary journals.
After being on the air for five years, Bartel began to tire of entertaining listeners with informative and interesting anecdotes. So he went off script, sort of. He proposed and secured funding for a radio series on California writers consisting of one-hour audio profiles. The series took him around the country interviewing the likes of Henry Charles Bukowski, Christopher Isherwood and Josephine Louise Miles, the first woman to receive tenure in the English Department at Berkeley.
As for Bartel’s living situation, he was no less adventurous. He lived in an ashram on Ocean Avenue in Long Beach. It was the “happy, healthy, holy” retreat. Although reared as a chapter-and-verse-spouting Southern Baptist, he was seeking alternative religious experiences that could lend honesty and verisimilitude to his writing. Part of his daily regimen included waking up to a 3 a.m. cold shower followed by two hours of yoga. He got to skip morning religious services, however, because of his a.m. radio duties.
“I had to find a different excuse on weekends,” Bartel said.
Bartel somehow also found time to explore other faiths, not just mainstream denominations like the Methodists, Presbyterians and Unitarians, but the Scientologists and Hare Krishnas.
“The Hare Krishnas pass around this pot of fire with the flame coming out of it,” he said, all aglow from recalling the experience. “And all the time you’re jumping up in the air yelling, ‘Hare Krishna.’
“I was amazed no one ever caught fire.”
His experimentation with the Hare Krishnas got even weirder, though.
“At the end, everybody throws packets of C&H sugar at these garish idols, creating a fire on stage. It was a real spectacle,” Bartel said.
Bartel got so involved in his religious explorations that he married a Sikh woman, who introduced him to ashram living. The wedding took place at 6 a.m. in South Central Los Angeles.
“It was the only time, I ever wore a turban,” Bartel said. “It was tied tight and quite a thing to see, especially for my parents and grandparents. They had to sit on the floor with head coverings. I had never seen my grandfather sit on the floor in my life.”
Eventually, Bartel’s religious ardor cooled. He didn’t see himself as a lifelong Sikh, and with that realization, his marriage dissolved.
Instead, he found Mark Harris as a mentor. The USC professor had written “Bang the Drum Slowly.” Bartel eventually followed him to the University of Pittsburgh and obtained a teaching fellowship to instruct undergraduates on the Panthers campus.
“They gave me a pretty big load teaching-wise, but they pretty much left me alone to write,” Bartel said.
When money began to run out a year later, Bartel called the local classical radio station for work, a fallback plan that would be oft-repeated throughout his career, a pattern sidelining his literary aspirations while putting food on his table.
“Maybe I was too good [on the radio] for my own good,” Bartel said.
The Pittsburgh public radio station, WQED, which employed Fred Rogers, famous for creating, hosting, and composing the theme music for the educational preschool television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” also put Bartel to work. The two became good friends.
“He was as genuine as he was on the air,” Bartel said about the cardigan sweater-wearing Rogers.
Despite Bartel’s ideal situation, he began to wonder again whether he was being genuine and honest about his own career. He was loading himself up with teaching and broadcasting obligations and neglecting his writing. He also perceived that he was becoming a literary lightweight by writing too many pieces about the arts. So after hearing some crime statistics about contract killings, he pitched a leading Pittsburgh magazine about writing a story on murder for hire. The trouble was he didn’t know any contract killers at the time.
Eventually, a small-time drug dealer whom Bartel met through a friend promised the young writer that he could put him in touch with a couple of wiseguys serving time in the state penitentiary for their homicides. To secure the arrangement, Bartel agreed to share his writer’s fee and byline.
Bartel, accompanied by his “friend,” didn’t get anywhere on the first interview. In fact, the friend only got in the way. In the interview with the second murderer, however, Bartel went in alone. His friend had been unable to pass through the prison’s metal detector because the part-time house painter had lead residue on his clothing.
For four hours, Bartel interviewed the convicted killer, who for the first two hours of the session maintained his innocence. Then the murderer opened up about how he was writing his own novel, citing a scene that matched the inculpatory evidence of the inmate’s own case.
The contract killer described how he had lain in wait, dressed in fatigues, in some bushes by the front door. When the victim showed up, the assailant fired his rifle, but missed. Attempting to get away, the victim pounded on the front door, pleading for his wife to let him in. When she turned on the lights exposing her hunted husband, the killer shot him dead.
After the murderer shared his story, two hefty guards carried him off, but not before the killer turned and told Bartel, “You’ll be hearing from me.”
Bartel’s piece ran as the cover story, with the murderer’s menacing, vengeful face filling up the entire page.
Once the sensation of the award-winning story died down, Bartel didn’t think much more about the article until he and his new wife began getting phone calls in the middle of the night – each time followed by a deafening silence and an equally chilling dial tone.
Then one day jogging around a reservoir near their home, Bartel noticed a large Goodfellas type in a jogging suit, but the suspicious character didn’t show a bead of sweat to indicate he might actually be there to work out. The next day, the intimidating over-sized individual reappeared.
Before Bartel could realize what was happening, the large, threatening man slugged him in the chest. “I thought he punched my heart out,” Bartel said.
When Bartel was able to pick himself off the ground and think straight again, he remembered how the contract killer in their fateful interview had also revealed another piece of critical information: “I don’t always kill people; sometimes I just send a message.”
Message received and processed: “Write about the underworld at your peril!”
Despite the literal assault on his health, Bartel was on a roll. He wrote a piece on eastern mystical leaders for Harper’s magazine, titled “Who’s Who in Gurus” and another story for Playboy on Werner Erhard, the founder of Erhard Seminars Training, better known as est.
Then he was tapped to edit a leading alternative newspaper, like our L.A. Weekly, that quickly found an audience after Bartel helped expose a massive real estate scandal.
Life was good! The writer, who had a talent for broadcasting, was finally emerging as a serious professional writer. He was finding his voice. He knew the streets – and the sources they produced — as well as anyone. His characters were becoming more complex. His dialogue was getting sharper.
In the news and top of mind with the public, Bartel was suddenly hot property, an edgy writer with a classical radio resume. That reputation didn’t go unnoticed by WJHU Baltimore, a Johns Hopkins University-funded radio station that promised him complete artistic control — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — if he took the reins.
“Hire the staff and come run the station however you like,” he was told.
Thinking he would be a fool to pass up such an amazing offer, he began inventing reasons why he had to leave Pittsburgh. Some of his stories, he told himself, had created enemies, like the one on conductor Andre Previn, who had decided to leave the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the sunny climes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Had he forgot the time that orchestra members marched in his office to protest? “They screamed at the top of their lungs for 15 minutes, ‘Don’t you run that story!’” he recalled.
He also convinced himself that Pittsburgh was making him claustrophobic. The ubiquitous mill towns outside the city only served to feed his increasingly negative narrative.
He ended up taking the Baltimore job. “Looking back I don’t know if I should have,” he said.
But the Baltimore station delivered everything it had promised.
“We soared past the competition that first year,” Bartel said. “We had a state-of-the-art studio and were the envy of the east coast. I was on the air, with no management over me.”
In addition, Bartel began teaching graduate students at Johns Hopkins.
However, with so many new responsibilities thrust upon him, his writing again suffered. He simply couldn’t carve out enough time in the day to do what he professed to love the most.
Finally, with his second marriage breaking up “quite sensationally,” Bartel bolted for Israel on an arts fellowship. It was 1992, the post-Desert Storm period. Bill Clinton was about to be elected the new U.S. president. From Israel, he promised the Baltimore Sun newspaper he would send stories “that wouldn’t be covered by the American press.”
During this fertile, but also fragile, time, Bartel was approached about writing a biography of Aaron Copland, the dean of American composers who had died in 1990.
Charles Scribner’s Sons, known for publishing American authors including Ernest Hemingway, had also secured the rights to a novel Bartel was writing. Meanwhile, another set of short stories Bartel was working on would be pushed back while the novel was in development.
Eventually, tiptoeing around delicate publishing egos while trying to satisfy two bosses, Bartel saw both projects unravel.
Back in the United States with his new soulmate Erin, a Baltimore photographer whom he had married and now planned to have a family with, Bartel was looking for steady work. Classical radio station WGMS in Washington D.C., with its powerful station and being so close to Baltimore, seemed like the logical place to send his impressive resume.
“I would have never dreamed of going there when I was young,” Bartel said.
The next 14 years at WGMS would be Bartel’s golden years. For the first 10 of those, Bartel occupied the evening slot, an ideal situation that allowed him to teach, write and tend to his growing family during the day.
WGMS was a top 5 station, reaching No. 3 at its height in the D.C. area, making Bartel a household name. “It was the biggest audience I had ever played for,” said Bartel, whose broadcasting venues outside the studio included frequent appearance at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap, a popular performing arts center in nearby Fairfax County, Va.
D.C. audiences were attracted to Bartel’s easy irreverence and wordplay. Nothing was sacred. He had a whole new inventive way of introducing the classics, the way Jim Cramer on CNBC’s “Mad Money” talks about finance or the late Los Angeles sportscaster Jim Healy covered sports by featuring a cacophony of sound effects, which became the real stars of his show.
Bartel’s vast repertoire include a voluminous library of sounds and original recordings, each with 80 tracks, going back to the beginning of radio. Drawing on his years of experience and expertise, he played them like a concertmaster not only to entertain, but also to educate and expand his audience.
Bartel made it look easy because he was always over-prepared. But on two nights, no amount of preparation would have been enough. On September 11, 2001, a Tuesday, he showed up at the station for his regular 7 p.m. to midnight shift, offering listeners a calming, reassuring voice in the wake of Al Qaeda’s attack on the Pentagon that claimed 184 lives. Then on Saturday, with the public’s emotions and nerves still raw and running high, he gave a pre-concert lecture for an orchestra at Gorge Mason University and delivered a speech that drew a standing ovation.
“It was within spitting distance of the Pentagon,” Bartel recalled.
About 10 years into his show, Bartel switched to the morning slot on WGMS, where his fame and celebrity continued to grow, marked by an increasing number of personal appearances. The new schedule played havoc with his teaching and writing, not to mention his sleep, having to wake up at 1:30 a.m. each work day.
After roughly three years, this maddening schedule came to end in 2007 when the powerful station, over the protest of thousands of listeners, changed to a new format. The final classical selection played on the station was the closing chorus, “With Tears of Grief,” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
A few hours after WGMS Classical went off the air, Bartel was hired to return to KUSC as the classical radio station’s morning announcer. He was finally coming home, with a generous severance package from WGMS.
Bartel’s summer arrival in 2007 was greeted with great fanfare, along with the hiring of Rich Capparela, who would anchor the afternoon show.
Bringing his trademark diversity of sound and manic antics to the morning show, Bartel led a ratings revival from 0.9 to 3.1. Meanwhile, the station’s overall rating rose from 0.9 to 2.4.
But Bartel’s show also received push-back from purists who thought classical radio should be just that, classical, without all the bells and whistles.
“I went along,” Bartel said. “My ego wasn’t in radio. I figured I’ll do whatever they want me to do. They wanted me to talk less. In fact, they even said to me, ‘We don’t want you to be interesting.’”
In January of 2017, Bartel left the radio station on disability.
Today, Bartel plays music for his family. It’s actually quite a demanding audience with complex and eclectic tastes.
There is Colette, 18, a senior at Bonita High school who will be off to USC in the fall. There is Celia, 16, a straight A sophomore at Bonita. Then there are Charlotte, 13, and Cayden, 11, and his wife Erin.
If Bartel couldn’t find middle C on the piano, he more than made up for it, naming all of his children after the third letter of the alphabet.
As for the music played at home, the entire radio dial is in play, from rap and pop to bebop and hip-hop. The selection turns to classical when there’s homework to be done.
“Sometimes, I’ll find something crazy,” Bartel said. “Have you heard of Ornette Coleman? He’s way out there. You don’t even think it’s music.” Coleman was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s.
Often, after the family retires for the evening, Bartel performs some of his best work, returning to partly completed scripts or taking up new ones.
Free of the broadcast studio, he is trying to revive and reinvigorate his suppressed literary voice. He is searching for a bolder, more authentic and uninhibited voice that resonates like the seven chakras from the perineum to the cranium, from the most base to the most high, from the most profane to the most sacred — a jarring and at times X-rated journey encompassing the psychological, physical, energetic and spiritual aspects of the human experience.
Facing the possibilities and realities of this new chapter in his life, Bartel is “High’d Up,” the name of his 2015 novel that Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon described as having “the sunny, effortless air of true literary art, casting sharp and profound shadows.”
Bartel’s departure from KUSC and his new battle with Parkinson’s diseases have cast recent clouds on his life, but as for the shadows they cast, Bartel strangely welcomes them.
If they expose to him new truths, the dual careerist won’t be silent.