The day Robin Rilette began her job as host of “Morning Classical Music” on Maine public radio, a listener from her former station at Northwest Public Radio in Washington state sent flowers.
That gesture was all that Charles Beck, vice president of Maine Public Broadcasting Network, needed to confirm that MPBN made the right choice in Rilette to succeed Suzanne Nance as host of the network’s signature classical music program.
“Suzanne certainly had her followers and admirers here in Maine,” Beck said. “Robin had the same thing at Northwest Public Radio. That she was missed even before she left underscores what she can do in terms of providing the music that our audiences can count on.”
Rilette, 58, comes to Maine after a 23-year career with her previous station in the Pacific Northwest. Her first day on the air in Maine was Feb. 20.
She came east for two reasons. First, she’s always been curious about Maine, and wanted to see for herself if the mystique of the state matches reality.
“There were a couple of jobs in various locations that fit my skills, but they weren’t in places I wanted to live,” she said. “This job appealed to me because it was in Maine.”
The second reason is because she believes in the vision of MPBN president and CEO Mark Vogelzang, who wants to create a 24-hour all-classical music station to complement news, talk and issue-oriented programming. Currently, music and information share air time on public radio in Maine.
Fundraising to pay for the new station has begun behind the scenes. As music director for MPBN, Rilette will be the network’s ambassador of that effort when it goes public.
“The first step was to find that right person, and I think we have found not only the right person, but a great person who can help MPBN achieve some of these goals,” Vogelzang said.
But first, Rilette simply wants to get to know Maine.
She is on the air from 9:05 a.m. to noon, Monday to Friday, working from the Portland studio on Marginal Way.
She has begun circulating around the state. She attended a performance of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra and moderated a discussion between Portland Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Moody and guest Jamie Bernstein, who performed with the orchestra last week.
She’s living out of a suitcase until she finds a more permanent home and is eager to see as much as Maine as quickly as she can.
Rilette – pronounced rye-let – was born in Salem, Ore., and spent most of her life in what she deferentially has learned to refer to as “the other Portland.” She has French-Canadian roots and is interested in exploring Quebec.
Her previous network was based in Pullman, Wash. She lived in a town of fewer than 1,000 people and drove through 17 miles of rolling wheat fields to get to the studio each day.
Rilette laughs when people tell her that Maine is a large state and that she had better plan to take her time to travel to all the areas served by public radio in Maine.
Maine is large, she said – relative to other New England states. But back where she’s from, Northwest Public Radio serves listeners in three states and a portion of the province of British Columbia, over a much larger geographic area.
Size aside, there’s no question that Maine shares an affinity with the Pacific Northwest, and vice-versa. Before she moved east, her friends told her, “I’ve always wanted to go to Maine.”
After she arrived here, people from Maine said of Washington, “You’re one of the other states where you can have Christmas trees on the beach.”
A map of Maine hangs on a studio wall, and Rilette spends part of each day studying it. She’s intrigued by some of the names of cities and towns, and is careful to ask about proper pronunciations so she doesn’t embarrass herself on the air.
Her biggest fear so far is saying “Northwest Public Radio” instead of “Maine Public Radio.” It’s a 23-year habit that is hard to break, she said. “I have said it a few times on the air. I just kind of laugh at myself. You live and breathe by routine.”
WHAT LISTENERS WANT
First among Rilette’s priorities is meeting listeners and finding out what they want from their radio station.
“What I do in this room is not for me, it’s for other people,” she said, during an interview at the studio. “I could sum up being an on-air radio host on public radio (by saying), ‘I am here for you, and I am here because of you.’”
She wants to know what listeners do when they tune in. Are they working? Driving? Painting? Do they listen on the go, or are they home with a book?
She has a confident on-air voice. She speaks with authority, but softly. She tells listeners what they are about to hear, and offers information about the composer or the recording. She tries to stay out of the way, to allow more time and space for the music.
Rilette grew up in a musical household. Her mother played the piano and violin, and Rilette played the flute and sang in choir. As she grew older, her interest in music shifted from classical to pop. The first time she remembers getting chills from music was hearing Barbra Streisand sing the song “People.”
She loves all kinds of music and renewed her early interest in classical music as an adult. Life without music, she said, would be a life with something missing. “I think of this music as the soundtrack of your life,” she said.
She also loves horses and taught a therapeutic riding technique promoted by the organization PATH International. One of the things she likes about Maine is the number of barns and stables she has seen close to town. She’s living in Portland now, but she may move to the country when she settles in.
She fully understands her task ahead. She’s replacing someone in Nance beloved by listeners for her on-air warmth and joy as well as a prolific singing career that put her on stages across the state. Rilette is not afraid of the comparisons. She would rather replace someone who was popular than someone who was not. And, she noted, that’s exactly what her replacement back in Pullman, Wash., faces.
“I’ve been used to replacing people or shows or programs who were really popular, and now someone is doing that at Northwest Public Radio,” she said. “If you’re following someone who is popular and well-liked and respected, that’s a good thing. It proves that people are passionate about radio. What you hear is what you get, and hopefully you’ll connect with me.”
She also understands the challenge of creating an all-classical station, and is eager to lead the public effort. She called it a “win-win” for listeners, because it will allow them to listen to the music they love whenever they want.
It’s too early to know details about what that station will be, Vogelzang said. MPBN will have to raise about $4 million to make it happen, and that fundraising process is just beginning.
A new service could take many shapes, including a dedicated over-the-air frequency or a digital channel.
The $4 million campaign has begun quietly. It’s been pitched to trustees, and if the initial phase goes well it will become more public with time, he said.
Raising the money will be challenging, but not impossible, he added. MPBN typically raises about $5.7 million from radio and TV members. That money supports the network’s operating budget, which this year is $11.1 million.
Volegzang expects the process to take two to three years.
Regardless of how that process unfolds, Rilette will play a key role in making it happen, he said.
“It’s important to have a vibrant person who is demonstrating your programming and your goals of your programming every day on the air, and it’s important to have someone people can meet,” Vogelzang said. “There is a very nice person behind the voice.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: