The voice is deep, almost husky. The pronunciation is impeccable. The pacing is leisurely. The inflections are whimsical and cheery.
Starting at 9:05 a.m. every morning, Lois Reitzes greets her listeners with her distinctive timbre on WABE-FM (90.1), her home reaching back to the Jimmy Carter presidency.
Reitzes is entering her 35th year in front of the mic at the modest studios of Public Broadcasting Atlanta. Nobody in Atlanta radio has been in the same place longer, and she has been a major factor in why classical music remains so important at a station that has faced pushback from NPR fans.
And she has earned a privilege few jocks on commercial radio get to enjoy: She picks all her own music (though it naturally has to be in the classical realm).
As a result, she is an active participant. Sight unseen, she often dances to the more upbeat selections, such as a classical crossover piece led by late jazz great Benny Goodman. “Playful,” she says, “but spiky!”
“We have security cameras,” says her boss John Weatherford. “You could see Lois boogieing to the music in the hallways. As many times as she has heard pieces, she gets so deeply into it.”
Stanley Romanstein, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, says she “more than any single individual has come to personify classical music for listeners in Atlanta. You associate her voice and face with the importance of classical music. She believes in this. It’s part of her DNA.”
Reitzes’ vocal delivery is so precise, so chipper, fans have said it sounds like she’s smiling through the microphone. In fact, she is usually smiling when she talks. And that voice is so entrenched in people’s brains, her acolytes in grocery stores recognize her voice before they even see her.
“She’s got the most mellifluous and mesmerizing voice on radio today,” says longtime fan Benyamin Cohen, who moved to New York a few years ago. “I don’t even live in Atlanta at the moment, but I still listen to her online because she’s incomparable.”
She is self-effacing about her persona. In 2011, she did a tongue-in-cheek video promo for Atlanta-based cable network Adult Swim, a channel packed with juvenile humor utterly at odds with WABE’s brand.
Matt Hutchinson, who came up with the bit for Adult Swim, says he had been a fan for years and didn’t care if people outside of Atlanta had no idea who she was. “Her voice,” Hutchinson says, “transcends region.”
She is no snob. “I love pop culture,” she says. She watches Stephen Colbert religiously. She loves Mel Brooks and is a sucker for talking animals in film (“Air Bud,” anyone?). Her favorite show this year: “Breaking Bad.”
“Goofy,” she says, “is good. I am seriously dedicated to the arts, but that doesn’t mean being humorless or reactionary.”
Weatherford says she isn’t just a voice. She works tirelessly in the community as an advocate for the arts.
Reitzes’ office is hardly befitting her stature. It’s a modest cubicle in a space she affectionately dubs “shabby chic,” noting the charmless 1950s elementary-school concrete architecture. “It’d be nice to have pretty surroundings, but that’s not what matters,” she says. “In case listeners come by, I can always say, ‘See? Your pledge dollars do not go for decorating!’”
She grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s listening to three full-time classical stations. She began playing piano at age 3 when she plinked “Hound Dog” impromptu. She always had that genetically inspired “low voice.” Adults would compare it to that of actress Tallulah Bankhead. When she was 10, she had to sing with the boys in the chorus.
“I had perfect pitch,” she says, which is the natural ability to imitate notes without a point of reference. Then in her classic self-effacing manner, she adds: “That’s the only thing about me that’s perfect.”
Her mother took Reitzes to many classical concerts as a child. As a teen, she became a serious piano student — and an insomniac. She’d listen to classical music all night long and grew to love radio.
By 17, she realized she wasn’t cut out for piano performance — but she loved music history. She graduated with a degree in that subject at the Chicago Music Conservatory in 1975, followed by graduate study at Indiana University, where she dabbled in radio and met her husband Don.
In 1977, Don nabbed a job as an assistant sociology professor at Georgia State University. She knew so little about Atlanta, she thought at first she’d live by the ocean.
Reitzes interviewed with WABE before she arrived but didn’t get the gig. Once in town, they quickly got a subscription to the ASO, then led by the legendary Robert Shaw. She soon moved to Morningside, where she raised her son and daughter and resides to this day.
In the interim, she sold jewelry at Tiffany’s and took classes at Georgia State. She considered advertising as a profession. But 18 months into her time in Atlanta, WABE gave her the call. The previous hire had gotten married and moved to North Carolina. The job was hers.
Reitzes, 60, is in many ways a ballast keeping classical music on WABE. And that annoys many news/talk advocates who want NPR programming all day long.
George Chidi, a business consultant and writer, last year started the semi-facetious website “Lois Reitzes Must Retire.”
“It’s more of a primal scream about the lack of news on our NPR station than something carrying real intent,” Chidi says. He compares Reitzes’ voice to cilantro: “Some people really, really like cilantro. But about one out of seven people can’t stand it. It’s genetics. To them, cilantro tastes like soap. That might be me, with her.”
Reitzes’ colleague John Lemley says he believes as long as she remains on WABE, classical music isn’t going anywhere: “She has such a legacy and presence in that spot. She’s a force to be reckoned with.”
And though her cubicle is right next to a fire exit door, she has no plans to exit the station anytime soon.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” she says, a twinkle in her eyes. “I hope I won’t have to. I pinch myself every day I’m here.”