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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Samson Marks A Decade Of Colorado Spotlight On CPR | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

When Charley Samson wandered through the doors of KVOD in the 1960s he had no idea he had stumbled upon his future career.

CHARLEY SAMSON HAS BEEN ONE OF COLORADO RADIO'S MOST RECOGNIZABLE VOICES for more than 40 years. In addition to his public radio post, the multi-talented Mr. Samson authors program notes for several local orchestras and is a pronouncer for the Colorado Spelling Bee.

“A neighbor and I walked across town to the Ruby Hill station and I said, ‘I want to see Ben Bezoff, if he’s here,’ because he had a classical show at the time. These two college kids brought us in and one of them pointed to this gigantic tape machine and said, ‘Meet Ben Bezoff.’ These guys were in radio and television school at DU and they let me hang around. I ended up getting an FCC license when I was 16. The stupid part is: I always regarded it as a semi-skill, something to do while you were in school. I was always interested in music history, but it took me a very long time to admit this is what I do for a living. ”

The familiar voice of commercial, and later public radio classical music in Denver – for some 40 years – Samson has spent a lot of time in school, first at St. Vincent de Paul and Mullen High, and later at just about every academic institution of higher education in the state. “I’ve been to CU Denver, Regis, DU, Metro, and UNC,” he says. “I even got degrees from some of them. I got a degree in English from Regis University, and was working radio jobs on the side from the time I was 18. I worked at the CU audio-visual department and then there was KRNW in Boulder. Those were the days when nobody had FM, so you could get an FM station for a song. The first couple of people I worked for got a station and a program and recorded anything they wanted to hear. They completely didn’t care if they sold any ads.”

Eventually KVOD offered him a part-time job that he was, at first, reluctant to take. “I was a big jazz guy and worked at KTGM – Keep Tuned to Good Music – the first incarnation of the jazz station KADX. We were pushing the middle-of-the-road format to jazz. But the word jazz was commercial death. I had taken classical piano lessons and liked classical music, so I eventually accepted the position at KVOD in 1970 and stayed until 1989.”

KVOD offered Samson creative license unheard of in commercial radio. “I have to say the old KVOD was such an anomaly. They let me do a history of Mozart and play the work in order. Because any week of Mozart’s life, you would know from his letters home that he was eating broccoli; and he wrote this. His wife was giving birth in the next room; and he wrote this. I loved that stuff and they let me do it. They didn’t subscribe to Arbitron ratings; they had an owner on the air and a commercial policy in which a lot of their accounts were direct, and so they knew whether it was working or not. We were recession-proof, where other stations were so dependent on Arbitron numbers – which were always fudgeable – and ad agencies run by 20-year-olds who only knew how to plug in numbers.”

Eventual changes in ownership and direction led to Samson’s departure. He continued teaching music appreciation at Metro for 13 years and started a side business writing program notes for orchestras. He had completed a master’s degree in music history at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), and was about to start a dissertation when an old friend from KVOD, now with Colorado Public Radio approached him about a position. “It was then KCFR, which offered NPR (National Public Radio) news morning and afternoon and classical in the middle of the day and night. I was hired to be sort of the fill-in guy and work all the shifts.”

CPR’s later expansion to a statewide network eventually led to the creation of Colorado Spotlight, a program airing at 7p.m. Sunday through Friday featuring local classical talent, hosted by Samson for the past decade. “The premise was always local performances, either visiting performers or people who live here. It all started with the Colorado Symphony, and then the Friends of Chamber Music came on board with all the high-powered acts they bring in. The Colorado Music Festival and the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival came in. In the beginning we were negotiating with the symphony, and I told my boss, ‘If we don’t have content from them, we just won’t have enough.’ Well, that’s just not true anymore. We recently celebrated our tenth anniversary and we held a live, look-back show with all these people who were with us from the beginning. It got me to thinking that there were groups that are fairly successful now who didn’t even exist then.”

Despite a long-touted popular notion that classical music is dead, the number of organizations and performers pitching their work to Colorado Spotlight continues to grow exponentially. “Very quickly both operas came on board and then the choral people, and that’s endless; and now there are the authentic baroque performance people. There’s the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, the Seicento Baroque Ensemble, Colorado Bach Ensemble, the Boulder Bach Festival. They’re not all pure in terms of using authentic instruments but that’s the direction it’s going. But it always still comes down to the responsibility to communicate with an audience. We still have to make a show. We’re all circus people, basically.”

The music he airs – from full-blown orchestras to young Suzuki violinists – continues to captivate. “We get hold of some of these kids in music school before they ever graduate and some of the things they do I really admire. Musicians get exploited sometimes, people hire them as if they were supposed to enter in the back along with the servants, but what it takes to be a classical musician in this day and age, what you’re expected to know, the practice required; I don’t know how they do it. I took piano lessons in the mid 1970s and then again in graduate school and the talent of these musicians was terrifying. I knew I was not going to be a performer. You have to have that fire in the belly.”

While the goal is always entertainment, as part of public radio Colorado Spotlight shares a different mission than commercial programs. “They have altruistic goals. The programming is set, and then they figure out how to pay for it. Whereas in commercial radio the goal is to make money and they will change the programming if they think it will, with public radio the underwriting messages are limited and the commitment to the product is there from the beginning. It’s a different culture. There’s a bunch of people from commercial radio who have gone over and not flourished there.”

On the side, along with continuing to write program notes for orchestras such as the Arapahoe Philharmonic, the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra, Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Denver Young Artists, and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, Samson is a pronouncer for the Colorado State Spelling Bee.

“I was trained by Jacques Bailey who’s the pronouncer for the nationals, a Colorado kid who won it; and he meticulously went through all the diacriticals because it has to be according to Webster’s Third (New International Dictionary). If you see spelling bee movies, he’s in there portraying himself. The kids are in middle school and so embarrassed and adorable and they just keep getting better every year. Spelling bees are stupid unless they’re a vehicle for languages and cultures, history and science. And the way to succeed isn’t all memory. If you want to spell a word that you’ve never seen before you’ve got to know your Latin and Greek roots, and the kids that do, do well.”

He also recently started playing piano again with a friend. “It’s probably the most fun of anything I do, but we’re definitely amateur. I don’t even know if what we’re doing is music but it’s hysterical. Well, it’s all these things that Mozart and his sister played, and he wrote all these jokes in where you’re fighting for the same note. And then I attend performances all the time. My first boss told me, to make this show as good as it can be you need to get out there. And when you’re at a concert, you’re on the clock because it’s our credibility to have a face out there. The fact is:I genuinely enjoy it!”

Samson defies the stereotype of hermit-like radio personalities who prefer to duck the spotlight. “Contact with the players has always been the best part of the job. I’ve become good friends with many of them. And I still feel some wonder at what they’re able to do, the efficiency of how they do it, and the sheer amount of material they bring. It’s still to some degree incomprehensible to me what goes on in their brains.”

(Editor’s note: KVOD was heard at 99.5FM from 1969-1995 until the frequency was sold to Tribune Broadcasting. Its extensive music libary was eventually acquired by CPR; KVOD is currently broadcast at 88.1FM orcpr.org.)

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