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The Path to 500 "Days Off"

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Despite studying journalism in high school – I was editor of my high school newspaper – my first inspiration to break into broadcasting was that I thought it would be fun to be a deejay. I got sidetracked into radio news instead, liked it, and am happily doing broadcast news 46 years later. My career started in 1970 and when I moved full-time to Hawai?i at the end of 2000, I had never actually worked as a deejay and I had never worked in television. HPR made both things possible.
 
Television, which for me started on KHON from the newsroom of Pacific Business News, was the direct result of Executive Producer Wally Zimmerman hearing my business reports on HPR and thinking he could do something with me on TV. Classical jocking came of my amiable relations with then-GM Michael Titterton, who thought it might be interesting to have me fill in during Gene Schiller’s vacation. I did it for free with the blessing of then-PBN Publisher Larry Fuller, and had a ball doing it, though I don’t recall distinguishing myself particularly. I referred to Heitor Villa-Lobos as Hector.
 

After that I waited in vain to be asked again. Maybe the ghost of Villa-Lobos complained. But then the evening classical host left the station and was replaced with the host of the Saturday morning show. So I offered to do the latter, as a volunteer. The hours were 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., so no one would be listening. “Howard’s Day Off” started in 2006 on the same weekend the big quake shook eastern Hawai?i and blacked out O?ahu for a day and a night. I remember because it was the weekend of my daughter’s birthday. I’ve been shaking up classical jocking in as jocular a way as I can ever since.
 
Classical music is something I approach differently from others because I can’t read music, can’t play an instrument, and grew up in a family that knew little about the classics. I’m not saying there weren’t some classical records in the house, but Dad had been a jazz drummer in his youth and most of his records were jazz. My mother taught us all to sing but mostly hymns and folk songs. My self-guided tour of classical music got fully underway in my teens, checking out records from the library -- “The Swingle Singers” and the Jacques Loussier Trio’s “Play Bach” series -- and these records lured me from jazz to the classics. I didn’t know about sonata format (at first) but I understood the jazz concept of “the attack,” and from ad lib singing, I had a deep understanding, if one I could not yet express in technical terms, of what different harmonies can do to a melody.
 
Exploring classical music on my own, I came to composers “in the wrong order,” delaying for years listening in earnest to Brahms and Haydn and Wagner while enthusiastically exploring Paul Hindemith and Serge Prokofiev and Aaron Copland and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
 
In my forties, I ventured into the deep end of the pool. I was managing the radio network for United Press International, a wire service and audio service that was in perennial peril and kept downsizing. The company laid off its feature editors, but subscribers still wanted features, and a few of us decided to voluntarily review books and CDs, while still doing our real jobs, to get free books and CDs. Nobody else wanted to do classical, so I did. When record labels offered promo discs, I always selected obscure stuff or stuff I had never heard before, and my reviews were less about performance, which I was unqualified to do anyway, than about the compositions. To fill in gaps in my learning, a friend who was a violinist got me into rehearsals of the Richmond Symphony. I first heard John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” that way, and once when a violinist was late getting to town I heard the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto rehearsed without the violin.
 
On UPI Radio in the 1980s, I did a weekly music feature, basically an essay over music clips from my growing CD collection. One I recall with pleasure was a musing over the sounds of hundreds of wind chimes, which I recorded at the summit of Maine’s Mount Desert where they hung at a gift shop. The issue: whether the sound of them was music.
 
When “Howard’s Day Off” premiered in 2006, what I brought to the table was this strange musical background, the odd perspective on the classics, and long experience in doing other kinds of radio. I was unfettered, both by the management of HPR allowing me to play what I wanted, and by the belief that no one would be listening. Then I discovered, fortunately from favorable feedback, that Hawai?i is a place where many, many people do rise early.
 
At first, “Howards Day Off” didn’t have a theme song. I considered using George Martin’s “Pepperland,” “Wheelbarrow Walk” by Michael Nyman, and a certain motto in Paul Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings & Brass. Then I heard the swinging Beethoven’s Fifth piece by Brian Setzer and knew it better signaled that this was not going to be a stuffy program. Other bits fell into place. I had been a fan of Dennis Owens of WGMS Washington D.C., who brought off the neat trick of sounding stuffy while satirizing stuffiness. He referred to his studio as the Cultural Crypt, and I stole that. That's where “the classical cultural crypt on Kaheka” comes from. My sign-off line, “The only sure way to have a long weekend is to get up early on Saturday,” just fell out of my mouth one day. The running feature Trick Question came from the desire to find a use for using some old-timey radio themes I had. The open and close came from a production music record, perhaps 70 years old, which I had dubbed to cassette. To use it on the air I played the cassette, holding the cassette recorder up to an open mike. “Heresy,”radio engineers are thinking. Yeah, bite me.
 
The show had no “topic” until someone decided, years after it began, that I should record weekly programs. To write a promo I needed a topic to describe. After that, each show had a topic.
 
By degrees, I ventured farther afield. Jazz and even rock began to appear when it fit the topic. I found that we got enthusiastic response to anything that crossed over between genres, because most other hosts and stations wouldn’t play that stuff. I did a whole show once on “back-time instrumentals,” the records disc jockeys of the 1960s would play to join the network for news at a specific instant in time. Then there was an entire show of different versions of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which got me two complaints. Most of the time, if I want to play something non-classical, I save it for the last 15 minutes, just before “Weekend Edition.”
 
I got into playing short tracks and excerpts mainly to keep busy, but somewhere along the line I figured out that you’re more likely to endure something that isn’t to your taste if you have a reasonable expectation of something different in a few minutes. I once did an entire show on Bruckner without playing any movement all the way through, mostly by cueing to a recapitulation and taking it to the end. I was surprised how well it worked. Sometimes I’m surprised the other way, and go home to tell Bernadette a topic didn’t turn out as interesting as I thought it would.
 
After doing hundreds of shows, I find I never run out of topics, mostly because I’m still listening to new recordings and exploring composers I didn’t know much about, and often I return to a topic I did a few years before because now I have better examples to add.
 
My TV job at HawaiiNewsNow is the most enjoyable I’ve ever had, and I love my colleagues, most of whom have been on “Sunrise” since it debuted in 2007. But all week long, I look forward to doing “Howard’s Day Off.”

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Howard Dicus was a radio network anchor, reporter, and manager in Washington, D.C., until, after 22 years of part-time residence in Hawaiʻi, he moved here full-time to start life anew.
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