RON DELLA CHIESA reflects on five decades of radio.By RICHARD TRUST
Broadcasting from radio stations in Quincy, Plymouth and Boston, Ron Della Chiesa has been a voice heard by thousands of loyal listeners for more than 50 years. His voice, which has been described as “honey-coated” and “mellow,” is heard on Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall broadcasts on WCRB-FM (99.5) and at summertime performances at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. He also produces a weekly radio show on WPLM-FM (99.1) in Plymouth from 7 p.m. on Sunday to 2 a.m. Monday morning that features Frank Sinatra and others of his genre.
A Quincy native, Della Chiesa and his wife, Joyce, divide their time between their restored, 10-room Victorian in Dorchester and their condo in Hull. Inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, he describes much of his life story in the 2012 memoir, “Radio My Way,” written with Erica Ferencik.
When did you know that a career in radio broadcasting was for you?
I knew as a youngster, at 5 or 6 years old, when I was listening during the golden age of radio (generally considered 1930s through the middle 1950s). Network radio was big. I heard all these great voices coming out of the box. I had the radio bug, and I had it bad.
You’ve said that The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and comedy shows featuring Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, and Fred Allen were among your favorite radio programs while growing up in Quincy. Did you listen to a lot of music?
I loved the music shows. Among those I listened to was The Voice of Firestone, a program devoted to classical music and opera. I loved the Lone Ranger theme, the William Tell Overture by Rossini. There was no television until 1948, so radio was a major form of entertainment, along with records. The radio was always on and most of the time classical music or opera was on. The radio has been the soundtrack of my life.
Was your father’s love of classical music and opera an influence on you?
My father had a 1903 wind-up Victrola and he used to play recordings by Caruso and Mario Lanza and other famous opera singers. He liked tenors, and I listened to those records. He knew the words and he’d sing along. He had a natural voice, although he couldn’t read music. On Saturday afternoons we’d listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from New York City; the voice was Milton Cross. He would describe so well what was happening on stage that it brought the action fully alive. I’d get so excited listening to that, I wanted to see an opera.
What led to your appearance, as a 10-year-old, on radio station WJDA in Quincy?
I knew they had a children’s show, so I wrote a letter saying how much I wanted to be on radio, and that I love radio, and they invited me on. The nice lady who hosted the show interviewed me. I didn’t sing or anything. I just talked. Then I told them I wanted my own program, but was told I had a ‘diction problem.’ I didn’t pronounce my R’s. I had built a little radio station in my bedroom. I had a turntable, my own 78 rpm records, and a cardboard microphone. I was writing my own script and my own commercials, but I didn’t know what I sounded like. I was talking to myself. I teased my father into buying me a tape recorder. Then I heard how bad I sounded. Pahk, dahk, cah. I had to work really hard at it. What helped me more than anything to get me into radio was that Voice of Music tape recorder.
You have been the voice of the Boston Symphony since Oct. 4, 1991, first on WGBH, and later on WCRB. What has that been like?
It’s an honor to have done this, week after week, going on 26 years. The challenge is to properly represent the talented musicians, conductors, and singers who’ve prepared a lifetime for an opportunity to perform at Symphony Hall. Meanwhile, I try to provide an exciting listening experience.
What goes on behind the scenes in providing that listening experience?
A script is prepared by my producer, Brian McCreath. It’s done live Saturday night, starting at 8. I go into the booth, wear a headset and have a TV monitor and communicate with Brian as to what is going on. At the appropriate time, I say something like, ‘Andris Nelsons (conductor) is coming onstage, members of the Boston Symphony rise to greet him and in just a few moments we’ll hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.’ We provide color. It’s like doing play-by-play of a sporting event, only with classical music and opera. (The Boston Symphony schedule this season runs Sept. 24-May 6; the Tanglewood programs will run July 7-Aug. 27, and will air Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons on WCRB).
Which programs do you host on WPLM, where you are into your 22nd year?
Strictly Sinatra is on Sundays from 7 to 10 p.m., Frank Sinatra and Friends follows from 10 to 11 p.m. (includes music from the likes of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Bennett), and Music America goes from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday and touches on jazz, Broadway show music, with a range from Ella Fitzgerald to Harry Connick Jr. to Diana Krall, among others. Paul Schlosberg does a great job as my executive producer.
Did you ever consider another line of work?
Radio came so easy for me, once I got into it, that there was no reason I should leave. It was like a comfortable couch. Bing – the light goes on, I was on.
You and Joyce have been married for 30 years. What has she meant to you and your career?
Joyce is everything to me. She’s with me every step of the way, behind everything we do: traveling, she loves the music, she loves opera, she loves the arts. She’s a great chef; she had her own restaurant, the Turtle Café, in Inman Square, Cambridge . . . She’s my anchor. She’s my soul mate.