Dave Conant Retires from WRTI and Looks Back at Five Decades in Radio

Dec 22, 2016

It was 1964 when longtime Philadelphia classical morning host Dave Conant landed his first radio gig. Now, 52 years later, our general manager with the velvety baritone and dry wit is turning off his mic and retiring from WRTI.

Dave sat down with host Jack Moore—his colleague of more than two decades—and arts reporter Susan Lewis to chat about the old days, his start in radio, what makes radio valuable today, bloopers, and more. When you're done listening, check out some fun Q & A with Dave below.

"It's a bittersweet moment for all of us who have had the privilege to work with Dave at WRTI," says WRTI Station Manager Bill Johnson. "He's earned a well-deserved retirement after 52 years of serving the public, but we'll miss his subtle humor, steady hand, and friendship. It's hard to imagine the station without him. We all wish him well and fully expect to talk him into some hosting duties now and then."

Dave with two posters from his days at WFLN. The one on the left was signed by Eugene Ormandy. Dave asked a NYC artist to create the second one based on an album cover designed for The Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of "Peter and the Wolf" with David Bowie.

Highlights from the interview:

“My father used to have one of these big old Wollensak tape machines. Portable. 55 pounds. And I would take it into my bedroom and I’d get my records out. I’d introduce a record.  And I'd walk across the room and put my microphone next to the music.  When it was done, I’d come back and say something. Read the newspaper. That was the newscast. I had a special theme song for the newscast. I think it was a Guadalcanal March from Victory at Sea. After doing all those maneuvers I would take out that razor blade and splice things. I’m sure I didn’t do it correctly. Fortunately none of those tapes exist.”

“Music [on the radio] shouldn’t be stuffy. The presentation shouldn’t be stuffy. It’s entertainment really”  
 
“Radio is personal. People pick their radio station, and the hosts they enjoy, and they think of them as somebody in the room with them—part of their life. That’s what’s kept radio alive.”
 
“I remember one of the early times someone came to the station to meet me and said, 'I always thought you people wore tuxedos and ate cheese when you were on the air.' "

 Debra Lew Harder's Q &A with Dave

How long have you been in the radio business, and how long have you been GM of WRTI?

Counting four years at WXPN when I was a student at Penn, 52 years. If you want to deduct two years for getting my master's degree and first year of teaching, it drops to 50. Then I taught and worked air shifts at WFLN for two years before leaving teaching to work in radio full time. I've been the general manager of WRTI since 1998.

What is something we'd be surprised to know about you now?

I like three olives in my martinis (Tanqueray, please).
 

WRTI's 2015 Warp Drive was out of this world! Dave has the sign in his office.

You have an incredible set of pipes. Do you sing?

Only in the shower. It's an inherited thing. My grandfather was a Methodist, then Congregational minister, whose preaching drew crowds. His deep, mellow voice was almost hypnotic.

Your favorite top three pieces of music to play on the air?

A tough question. Almost anything by Handel, Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. That's a quick top-of-the-head list because after all these years narrowing to three is almost impossible.

What music would people be surprised to know you like?

It even surprises me: Creedence Clearwater Revival.

What’s your proudest accomplishment at WRTI?

There are several: Watching our membership grow, getting us from a deep deficit when I arrived to a healthy financial footing today, and being able to bring The Philadelphia Orchestra back to the air.

What famous people, past or present, would you love to have join you at a dinner party?

I would really love to be able to sit and chat with Ben Franklin, the most approachable of the founding fathers, and the one who would most probably be fascinated by our modern technology. Add Neil deGrasse Tyson to the list as well as historian David McCullough, and Geoffrey Chaucer, although my Middle English is a bit rusty.

You used to be an English teacher. What's your favorite book of all time, and what are you reading now?

Favorite books would be the poetry of Walt Whitman and To Kill a Mockingbird. Currently, I'm reading several: Ken Follett's World without End, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball by George Will, and Benjamin Franklin in London by George Goodwin.

What's that ideal first day of retirement going to look like?

Sleeping late (if I can) and binge watching Bar Rescue on Spike.

Will you come back to do an occasional guest appearances on the air, and if so, when would be your ideal time slot or show?

I’d love to do some relief air work if they'll have me. My favorite shift is the one I held for over 40 years—at WFLN and here at WRTI: morning drive.

What’s your biggest word of advice to the incoming GM?

Remember, you have a great group of highly talented and motivated people—the best I've ever worked with. They'll take the station to new heights and make you look good.

Any other words to live by?

Just the old chestnut. Do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life.