Celebrating Dick Kowal's Amazing Career

Apr 28, 2017

It's a bittersweet day here at Blue Ridge Public Radio.  Thirty one years ago this month, music director Dick Kowal hit the airwaves.   Today, he hosted his last show.   While it's  impossible to capture all of the amazing accomplishments of his talented career, we do have some highlights, and a few good stories.  BPR's Helen Chickering reports.

(Dick Kowal on the air)

“It’s about 6 minutes after 9, good morning.”

If you live in Western North Carolina, chances are, you know this voice.

(Dick Kowal on the air)

For the past three decades, Music Director, Dick Kowal has hosted morning classical music, just one of his many jobs here at Blue Ridge Public Radio.  But before we talk about his career in public radio, a bit of background.

Dick is a true Asheville native in this town full of tourists> Dick’s career in music began early with violin lessons, and later trumpet.  He graduated from Asheville High school and majored in music in college, earning a master’s degree in music education from Western Carolina. He returned to Asheville in the late 1970s, as he describes in this presentation recorded during an Asheville history event hosted by the Pack Library .

“I landed my dream job selling guitar strings and picks and I was lured away one of the most creative people I know, Howard Hanger”  

“My name is Howard Hanger and years ago I had a band called the Howard Hanger Jazz fantasy, which got shortened to the jazz fantasy, and I was looking for good musicians and so somebody told me about this guy named Dick Kowal, and he played flugelhorn and trumpet, I thought he’s pretty good, but could he do Jazz. I found him we got together, made a little music, and thought this is going to work.”

Howard just happened to have a copy of the band’s only album on hand, and we just happened to have a turntable.

“He just added so much to it and it changed the kinds of music that we were writing and playing,” says Howard.

“We would all  go on stage in white tuxes and top hats because we wanted to look like Alice in Wonderland.  It was a fantasy.  We played all over the place, we didn’t get rich, but we sure had a good time.”

When asked if there were any stories to share…

“I went over to his house early on he said you want to hear music, and I said what’s your favorite, and he said, Frank Zappa.  Dick is this mild mannered fellow. If you didn’t know him better you would think he was a very quiet, counselor, you know but Zappa freak? I knew I loved him automatically when I heard that,” says Hanger.

(Frank Zappa music)

During that time, Dick would swing by what was then a fledgling WCQs to inquire about an opening.

“He was then a traveling musician, and had no time to actually do a job, (laughing) but he was interested, and as he will tell it, I turned him down,” says BPR Program Director Barbara Sayer.  

“He was hired  - when we advertised for both a music director and news director. It was a really exciting time for us, we were a very small station.’

(Barbara Sayer on the air 1986)

“We needed someone who knew about music and art, and knew about not just the Asheville community, but western north Carolina and Dick really fit the bill,” says Sayer.

“Dick showed up in the spring of 1986.  When he came in, they put him on the evenings,  to help break him in, “ says Classical Music Host Chip Kaufmann, “and then they decided and rightfully so, he’s the  music director and should have a prime time slot,  and he came in to do the mornings and that’s how  his career began.” 

(Dick announcing, 1987)

“One of the major things about Dick, he is such a skilled individual.  He announces, he interviews, he’s a tech guy, he records the symphonies.  He juggled so many hats. It was kind of crime to call him music director, because he did so many other things, and he did them all well,” says Kaufmann.

“ I first met Dick Kowal on the radio, as a faculty member, coming down from Pittsburgh , I would put on WCQS while I was living here on the Brevard Music Center in the summers, and hear his voice and his music.”

Jason Posnock is Director of Artistic and Educational Planning at the Brevard Music Center and Concertmaster at the Asheville Symphony.

“Dick Kowal, I’m not sure you know, is a Brevard alum, he was here as a student and recalls many stories about that, and I think that began a lifelong connection with the Brevard Music Center.

(clip of Open Air Brevard)

“We worked together to partner with WDAV radio to develop what is now open air Brevard, it’s really been wonderful to turn our performances into polished produced radio programs. Dick is an easy person to work with he has a great ear, a great sense of the room, he’s incredibly collaborative, really understands the pacing of the event, he’s also a fan loves the music and enjoys being part of it here,” says Posnock.

And in case you are wondering, yep, there is a Dick Kowal story here too.

“In thinking about Dicks role here, hosting chamber concerts is certainly one of the big things he’s done here.  One of my favorite moments in those concerts, when he would introduce the concert at the beginning, he would always ask everyone to shut their cell phones off.  One of the times he did this, he said, I have a new app, cell phone finder app, and and I will find you if your cell phone is on and he held his cell phone up, and I looked around and boy, everybody is turning their cell phone off, and he finally copped to the fact that no such app existed.”

Great sense of humor, tons of talent, not enough time in this story to capture it all.

"I think  more than anything, more than anyone who has  ever worked here, Dick has always believed most in the mission of public broadcasting and upheld that as a standard, in addition to that, more than anyone else, believed in transformative power of music and art,” says Sayer.

“We all wish Dick the best of luck and happiness and whatever new chapter he decides to write for himself in the future, “ says Posnock.

(Dick signing off)

Thanks for listening….