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Q&A: Stephanie Elkins, host of WPR's 'Morning Classics,' forges connections with music
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Q&A: Stephanie Elkins, host of WPR's 'Morning Classics,' forges connections with music

It’s the window between when the news ends and the instrumentals begin that Stephanie Elkins tries to hook the morning public radio listener, offering an on-ramp to a music genre that has been a mainstay of public radio for decades. 

The host and producer of “Morning Classics” on Wisconsin Public Radio, Elkins began her radio career as a volunteer at a station in the Philadelphia area in 1995. She later moved to Madison and started at WORT radio before joining WPR in 2007. 

On “Morning Classics,” Elkins guides listeners through each classical selection, sharing stories of composers and performers while offering historical context on the music. The show airs weekdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. 

The Cap Times asked Elkins more about the future of classical music, how she does her work and how she brings it to new audiences as the radio landscape shifts. 

What draws you to classical music?

Above and beyond any other genre, and I’m a huge music lover of all genres, classical music captures an enormous range of human emotion. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, "When words fail, music speaks," and that is so true. It’s truer for classical than it is for any other genre of music. It can capture just the utmost sadness, joy, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and so many other facets. It can really help you process emotions. It can be really cathartic and I think can be particularly calming and help give people a sense of serenity through challenging times.

This past year was a time where people really turned to classical music. I have received more correspondence this past year than in the past couple years before, thanking me for the music, saying it’s a lifeline and that "It’s really helping me feel better during the pandemic."

What is the general demographic of your listeners? 

Classical music consistently draws a large audience, often the largest audience of programs on (88.7 FM) WERN. We’re lucky in Madison to have a very healthy classical music scene... our age demographics do skew a hair older, but we have plenty of younger listeners. 

Have you seen interest in the genre wane since you’ve hosted the show and people have shifted to streaming or podcasts for their music?

Here in Wisconsin we have just incredible, robust support. In fact in Madison we are often number 1 or 2 in the market. That is a testament to our listeners. We have a steady stream of listeners that enter into our listenership and it’s interesting. Our demographics largely stay the same. People keep coming in. 

What is classical music’s place in public radio as cultural tastes and the media continue to shift?

WPR is an educational organization to begin with. That's what our charter was 100 years ago. Part of our mission is educational and I’m so grateful that they let us continue to do that even on the music side. I love that we can curate the music and try and make it as open and accessible as we can. For me, the music is so wide ranging so full of emotion and so full of great stories and we try to bring those to life in a short, pithy way, just try to make it approachable for people for whom classical music might seem intimidating. But it really shouldn’t be. Back in Mozart’s day, his music was the pop music of the day. People would take lines from his operas and make all sorts of arrangements and people would sing them around town. This music is always intended to be accessible. Not all of it, but most of it. 

How do you approach your job?

One of the most important ways I approach my job — providing companionship. I've had the chance to meet many listeners over the years and I always feel like I’m communicating with kindred spirits. I try to provide the sense that I’m right there with you; that we’re sharing the music together. 

You play a range of pieces from different classical periods and composers. Is there a strategy for that?  How do you pick music? 

We have one of the largest databases in the Midwest. It can be daunting at times, there is so much great music to choose from. We try to provide a wide range of sounds and experiences and tones with the feel of the music. 

I’m coming out of "Morning Edition" and that was a high listenership so as people go about their day, listenership drops a little bit and my goal is to try to capture the ear of the "Morning Edition" listener. I try to make my first piece something that is interesting and thought-provoking and this morning, for example, it was a jig. And sometimes it’s a baroque piece. I try to make it something energetic and then just from there I have so much to choose from. If I start with a jig for two instruments, the next piece should be something for a whole orchestra, and if it’s something from the 18th century, the following would be from the 19th century, so I try to provide a nice variety. 

I do also make a concerted effort, and have done so for several years, to incorporate musicians of color and women as far as the composers I share. 

What composers of color have you featured recently?

I just gave a talk on the life and music of Florence Price. She was a Black American composer in the first part of the 20th century. She incorporated all kinds of spirituals, all kinds of music from her heritage in all kinds of forms. That talk is through Badger Talks (a UW-Madison speaker series.) Her music touches me. I can listen to some of her piano pieces and it literally will bring me to tears, it is just so evocative knowing what she dealt with in her life and knowing what she went through, I can see where it comes from. She was highly, highly skilled, a child prodigy, and she went to the New England Conservatory of Music as a young Black girl. To incorporate her heritage into these symphonic forms, the result to me is just magical. I love it. 

Public radio seems to be shifting and producing more programming for podcasts and making shows available to stream later. Are you doing that with classical music, too?

We stream 24/7, but the music shows are not available to stream on demand the way our other shows are. Music shows are streamed online simultaneously with the broadcast. 

We are constrained by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (of 1998). It’s restrictive as far as what music can be shared on podcasts because it's protected by copyright. (That law) has some exceptions that allow on-demand streaming for music shows, and we use that for Simply Folk and Higher Ground. The show can only be available for two weeks, and we have to post at least a five-hour chunk.

It's different from content that is produced from scratch because there is intellectual property involved. That is why you don't see a lot of music podcasts like that with commercially made, pre-recorded music. You have to get permission from the artists. So when we do interviews and things like that, we have to get permissions from the artists or whoever owns the rights, so it’s a little more complicated.


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.

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