Goodbye to- The Coffee Hour

“The Coffee Hour.”

It’s a Pendleton institution that needs no further introduction. I suppose most small and medium sized communities have a program with a similar mix of current affairs, cultural news and community discussion. I’ve done radio sit downs all over the country that were similar, but for me, there’s only one Coffee Hour.

I think its iconic status in my imagination is partly due to my first impressions of it. In the week of my first concert here, the orchestra manager asked me to do the show and directed me towards the venue- the local feed store.

Said feed store seemed a vast enterprise- a sprawling center of everything a large-scale wheat rancher could need, certainly more than just feed. Tucked away in this space was a small café, and above that, a little raised platform with a table and chairs, from which Coffee Hour went out into the world. I suppose the ambient noise of the small café helped give it an air of authenticity, while the varied stock announcements in the background gave it an even greater air of sur-reality. I think there were commercials back then, but the interview just carried on- we never stopped talking, so who knows what the audience heard.

Later, Coffee Hour moved to the Oxford Suites hotel. It’s a very nice, clean, modern building with a lovely foyer next to the breakfast room- a nearly perfect setting, complete with the comforting clink of plates and cups in the background. The show in those days was hosted by a chap named “Tom.” Tom was a “sports guy,” but that was okay- he was also a damn fine broadcaster. Describing what makes someone a good  broadcaster, or a presenter in England, is hard- I think it boils down to having the ability to speak clearly, to related to any kind of guest naturally, and to appear interested in what other people are saying, no matter how random the topic. Tom, being a sports guy, always brightened when I started talking sports, but he also did a good job of giving me plenty of room to talk about our concerts. I never knew how long I’d have- once it was 90 seconds, another time, I had a special extended edition of coffee hour to myself when a politician didn’t show. They don’t train you for this, so young conductors, be ware- you may have to fill 2 hours of airtime someday. Practice your BS.

However, he did once have me on his sports talk show- I took it as a huge badge of honor. We spent over an hour on live radio talking Packers trivia and sports history. Great fun.

The Oxford Suites was, if less colorful than the feed store, still a nearly perfect venue for a show that had evolved into something a little less bizarre and quaint. Of course, nothing perfect lasts forever, and a few trips later, I found the show had moved to a new venue.

We still sat on comfortingly plush living-room furniture while breakfast was being served in the next room, but we were now in a nursing home instead of a hotel. I suppose it wasn’t too different except for the occasional beeping of a medical emergency alert. I honestly can’t remeber if anyone died while we were on the air- I remember 2 ambulance calls, though. In general, one heard more non-verbal vocal noise- moans, cries, wails, and that was just the host when I told him we were doing Hindemith….

Later, we moved up to a conference room a the radio station- it was a little less coffee klatchish, but easier to hear each other. The subject matter stayed the same- the upcoming orchestra concert, the spaghetti feed for the 4 H club, the local sheriff touting the benefits of the bond issue for new cruisers. However, the Coffee Hour was now a half hour. That’s modern America for you- tune into the Coffee Hour and be done in 30 minutes. Tom was gone too- there was a new host who knew his classical music pretty well, but wasn’t quite as smooth an interviewer. Still, he was good, and I enjoyed our chats.

A year later, Tom was suddenly back as master of ceremonies. “John didn’t quite make it,” he reported soberly. You see this a lot in rural areas- people have talent and some skill, but somehow, the don’t quite make. Usually it boils down to, er, not showing up for work.

In those final years, Tom and I would work our way through the details of upcoming concerts with an ever changing parade of executive directors and board members as my sidekicks, still managing to talk Packers and road stories. Tom was fascinated by my experience in Washington during 9/11, and that was the subject of our last chat in April. Funnily enough, once I was commuting from the UK, jetlag meant that the early start time was less of a hardship for me compared to my La Grande days.
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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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