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This is Steve Johnson, WXXI Classical's Midday Host

Head shot of a man with brown curly hair wearing a Hawaiian shirt with blue and red stripes
John Schlia Photography

Steve is passionate about making classical music accessible to everyone. His knowledge of the music is only matched by his desire to share its beauty with his listeners. Through carefully curated playlists and insightful commentary, Steve has a knack for making the music come alive in a way that's both engaging and enlightening.

Steve has also been involved in many online music educational outreach projects, including his own award-winning YouTube series The Listener’s Guide, and a collaboration with the Dallas Opera to create a humorous opera synopsis series Opera in Brief. You should Google both!

We had a chance to ask Steve a few questions to get to know him and his philosophy about music.

1. Can you share your journey on becoming a Classical radio host.
I have always loved talking to people about music. My undergrad degree is in music education, and I started a YouTube channel in 2013 called The Listener’s Guide to try to make classical music more accessible to the public. When I heard that WXXI was looking for new part-time hosts in 2019, I jumped at the opportunity. I was a grad student at Eastman working on my dissertation, so my schedule was flexible enough that I could jump in whenever WXXI needed me. Then when Julia announced her retirement last year, it happened to work out perfectly with the end of my degree, so I applied for the new host position. I’m so grateful for this new role and for the warm welcome that I have gotten from so many listeners throughout the region!

2. How do you curate the playlist for your classical music show? Are there specific criteria or themes you follow when selecting pieces?
I used to think really hard about my shows, but now that I have been full-time for about six months (that’s about 130 shows, or about 2200 musical selections) it has gotten much more intuitive. My main goal is to provide both variety and a personal connection, so I try to make sure to highlight all sorts of different people—lots of different composers, performers, ensemble types, time periods, etc.—and to make them relevant to our current Rochester community. We do have some rules to follow, too, such as not playing a piece that has been played within the last two weeks, but there are so many pieces that we’ve never played at all that it’s hardly ever a problem!

3. Classical music spans several centuries and cultures. How do you balance presenting well-known classics with introducing your audience to lesser-known composers or pieces?
I actually have to remind myself to play the popular stuff most of the time! I am such a nerd that I genuinely love finding composers I’ve never heard of. I learn everything I can about them and get so excited to share that story on the air. There has really been more than one occasion when I’m playing some gorgeous, obscure piece with a really great story behind it, only to realize “oh right, I’m also playing a Beethoven symphony that people might want to hear about!”

4. Is there a particular piece of classical music that holds a special place in your heart, and why does it resonate with you?
This is going to sound terrible, but the truth is the Erotica Variations for Banned Instruments by PDQ Bach, which I recently played in his honor upon the news of Peter Schickele’s passing. I know it doesn’t sound like a touching piece but it’s absolutely true. I was probably in middle school or high school when I first heard the piece on an LP my dad had. It was the piece that introduced me to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and got me so much more invested in classical music. But what I remember most is how it gave me permission to have fun and to take joy in the music—things don’t have to be so serious!

5. You recently earned your PhD in Musicology from the Eastman School of Music. What was your dissertation on and why did you choose that topic?
My dissertation was on North Korean revolutionary opera, a project that a young Kim Jong Il oversaw in the early 1970s. I first found out about these operas in 2011 when I was teaching English in South Korea because Kim Jong Il had recently died. I was learning about the history of North-South relations to try to make sense of the world around me as Kim Jong Un took power, and I came across the operas on YouTube of all places. I got curious about them and ended up going down a rabbit hole, and well, now I’ve written a whole book!

6. In the age of digital streaming and instant access to music, how do you see the role of traditional radio in promoting and preserving classical music?
This goes back to my thoughts on balancing well-known pieces with lesser-known ones, really. Streaming makes it so easy to find great recordings of the popular pieces, and there are plenty of playlists of well-known performers doing well-known music. What we offer at WXXI is a deeper dive curated by experts. My role is really to connect with the audience and to guide them to music that they may never have heard before—which they can also explore on streaming once I’ve helped them find it! I’ve started making TikToks and Instagram reels featuring some of these discoveries, and I often get comments saying something along the lines of “new favorite composer!” and that’s how I know I’ve done my job right.

7. Classical music often has rich historical and cultural contexts. How do you incorporate educational elements into your radio show to enhance the listener's understanding and appreciation of the music?
I choose four pieces a day that I get to tell stories about (one per hour). There’s no rhyme or reason to which ones I choose—it’s honestly usually just the ones with the best stories! Then I write myself out a little blurb to help me tell the story, because I only get about one minute between pieces to share. I try to make the most out of that minute. Above all, I want it to matter to the listener. “This is nifty” can be fun, but “this is important” is so much more impactful!

8. How do you make Classical music more accessible to newcomers?
How much space do I have? Just kidding—mostly. My guiding value in all of this work is that we are building communities. I want to connect with people through music. Most of the reasons people find classical music inaccessible is because of all of the ways they feel excluded from the community for one reason or another. The most important way to fight that is to make sure that people feel fully welcome. We have to actually reach out to the communities that have been excluded and show them that they do matter to us, that we do see them, and that want them here.

9. Classical music has a reputation for being so formal. How do you inject a sense of personality and relatability into your radio hosting to connect with your audience on a more personal level?
I think the stories really help. Part of the formality is this idea that we’re dealing with gifts of the gods, when I really think what makes classical music so special is that it was created by humans just like you and me. I talk about the stories that led people to write or perform a given piece—these are people with hopes and dreams, people who make silly mistakes, people who embarrass themselves sometimes, and people who take all that together and still have the guts to put music out into the world. I was just telling a story recently about Liszt’s “Festival Sounds,” which is this celebratory, joyful piece, but it is actually very sad for me to hear because he wrote it for his own wedding that was never able to happen. The woman he spent decades with was prevented from going through with the ceremony. That’s something I think a lot of us can relate to on one level or another—who hasn’t pinned all their hopes and dreams on one thing and seen them come crashing down? I have so many stories with so many different emotions and music to go with them all, and that’s what helps me build these connections with the listener.

10. Your daily TikToks are informative and fun. How do you come up with the theme, and how long does it take you to produce them?
Most of my TikToks actually just come from my daily stories that I prepare for my show. I pick the two of the four stories that I like best and tell them in video format. The amazing thing about TikTok is that people can comment on those videos, and I can reply with videos to those comments. It helps me actually have a conversation with people around music. It can feel very isolating to be in the studio, with only myself for company as I talk into this soulless machine. But the TikTok conversations remind me that there really are people on the other end who want to connect with me too.

As for the time, I probably spend about ten minutes recording them and then another ten minutes or so adding captions and uploading them everywhere.


A native of Herndon, Virginia, Steve came to Rochester to earn his Ph.D. in Musicology at the Eastman School of Music. He has loved classical music and public media since his youth, and has worked for years to make classical music more accessible on social media.