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WGMS DJ Dennis Owens turns playing music by dead white guys into performance art

It’s 5:34 a.m. on a frosty Thursday. The “Weather Frogs” predict snow for late morning, eventually turning to rain. By that time, “Savage Beast” will be roaming the boiler room, “C.C. Man” will be smiling his Cheshire Cat grin, and the “Cardinal of the Cultural Crypt” will have burrowed into the corner office in the undistinguished brick building at 3400 Idaho Ave. NW.

Right now, though, it’s just WGMS 103.5 FM morning DJ Dennis Owens, the “Morning Mogul,” as he sometimes refers to himself, mano a mano with the silver, bullet-shaped microphone.

And also here, for a brief moment or two, is Jerry Edwards, who somehow has evaded the infamy of an Owens moniker for all these years. Owens relishes his verbal jousts with one of D.C.’s traffic mavens—his only opportunity during the morning broadcast to spar with another live talent—but moves the conversation along swiftly nevertheless. “You just tell us about your fascinating traffic, Edwards,” he commands in his most dismissive, patronizing, John Houseman-as-Professor Kingsfield-in-The Paper Chase tone.

Owens saves his most amusing and provocative musings for the real conversation of the morning—the one with listeners to his classical-music show. He stands ready in front of the microphone, feet aligned and planted, shoulders and eyes focused on the window to the empty studio next door. “So you all have decided to assemble together, have you?” he asks, twitching his head as if standing directly in front of his predawn audience.

Owens begins this Thursday morning with a statement that he hopes will ruffle a few feathers, this being two days before the inauguration of George W. Bush: “The course of history can be changed but not halted,” he quotes from African-American intellectual Paul Robeson. That’s just one of Owens’ many quotes and quizzes of the day. (“Yes, you’re going to be tested this morning,” he warns his listeners.) A symphony or two later, Owens refers back to the cutting quote. “I hope you weren’t that …[pause]…crestfallen when I gave you that observation earlier this morning,” he says, with a hint of condescension.

“Crestfallen”? Isn’t it too early in the morning for that kind of verbiage?

Not for Owens’ devoted flock of “Assembled Ears,” as he calls those who tune in from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. For two decades now, Owens has entertained the station’s sizable morning audience with his combination of wit, wisdom, and wordsmithery. He first hit the D.C. airwaves part-time in 1966, when Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver owned the morning on WMAL 630 AM and Eddie Gallaher had the helm at WTOP 1500 AM. With the retirement of Gallaher from WGAY 1260 AM this past December, Owens is now the longest-running host on Washington radio.

And certainly its most deliciously pretentious.

He is a classical-music DJ, after all. But that’s hardly the focal point of Owens’ commentary. “The fact that I’m playing classical music is incidental,” he says. Owens, in fact, doesn’t even choose his musical selections—that’s done by the Cardinal of the Cultural Crypt, WGMS Program Director Jim Allison. Which allows Owens to focus his energies on what happens in between the music.

Despite Owens’ seemingly professorial tone, he does not approach classical music as a sacrosanct art for the chosen few. He welcomes all listeners, from the novice to the expert. Recently, Owens recalls, he hosted an Assembled Ears event at George Mason University. “This young maiden was leaning against the doorjamb waiting for her turn. She said, ‘Mr. Owens, I have a confession to make. It was Lent, and I had to find a penance, so I decided that I would listen to you. But now I’m hooked, and I listen every day.’”

Owens’ personality-driven broadcasting contrasts with the styles of most other classical-music DJs, who keep conversation to a minimum. Take the approach of rival classical station WETA 90.9 FM: “If I can be a little snide, it’s almost like [listening to] a CD player with quick verbal interruption,” Owens says. “They don’t communicate—they announce. You can get announcements at the railroad station. The guy’s not communicating with you—he’s just passing on a piece of information. But you’re not going to say, ‘Gee, that was fun.’”

Owens admits that WGMS—its call letters stand for “Washington’s Good Music Station”—took that same disengaged attitude when he first went on the air. The station’s employees didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying—or even to what they were playing. “I can distinctly recall a Shostakovich War Symphony being on between 2 and 5 in the afternoon,” Owens recalls. That’s quite an intense tune to hum along to as you work from your cubicle.

In the early ’70s, WGMS almost dropped its classical format for rock. “At that point, the station almost disappeared, because it had the same sickness that many classical stations have had in more recent years,” Owens explains. “It is a very rigid approach to presenting classical music. The word that comes to mind—which has been used by my audience to me—is borrr-ing.”

A WGMS station executive named Jerry Lyman came up with a solution. He knew that Washington had the audience for a commercial classical station, if only a few elements could be changed. “The way to do it is to put personality into it, to revamp it for certain times of the day so that you cater to the mood of the day,” explains Owens. “Therefore, you don’t offer heavyweight music at 7 in the morning.” Indeed, this morning Owens plays favorites like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and Pachelbel’s Canon, which has been chosen as today’s “Tranquil Tune.”

The strategy has clearly worked. In the most recent Arbitron listenership ratings, released Jan. 16, WGMS placed fourth overall in the Washington radio market, tied with talk stations WJFK 106.7 FM and WTOP 1500 AM/107.7 FM. Its 4.5 market share is almost unbelievable for a classical station in a major metropolitan market. So-called alternative-music station WHFS 99.1 FM, by comparison, came in 18th, with only a 2.2 share of the Washington audience.

Not that you would have learned that tidbit of information from the Washington Post, Owens complains. This morning, the Post’s Radio Listener column spilled a little ink on the ratings. “Let me have a quick squint at this swine’s piece,” Owens says as he grabs the Style section in between his on-air quips. The story—which highlights WTOP for its performance—fails to mention WGMS.

Owens picks up and puts down the story throughout the morning, shaking his head every time. “It’s like we’re invisible,” he says with irritation. But he’s hardly been invisible to his broadcast colleagues, who have bestowed numerous awards on him, including a March of Dimes Achievement in Radio Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

Owens has also attracted attention from former WETA listeners, who were forced to start getting their dose of classical music from Owens in 1999, when WETA decided to broadcast more National Public Radio news programming in the mornings. Owens says that many former WETA listeners object to his loquacious presentation. “There are the ones that will never forgive you for being anything except holy and straight and minimal in everything you present,” he says. “You’ll never convince those people, so I don’t even try.”

You might recognize Owens’ presentation style from listening to his pitches on other D.C. radio stations, including commercials for Joe Hadeed’s rugs and Crown Books. It’s easy to understand why local businesses want him flacking their product: His voice has a certain inexplicable magnetism—a commanding authority that invites rather than intimidates. It’s the voice your favorite high school English teacher might have used in an attempt to steer you away from your slovenly enunciation. A voice that you secretly love to listen to.

And Owens uses his voice and love of language to his broadcast advantage. “A lot of the dry references I make, where I tone the voice and sound like I’m being superior, you’ve got to know that it’s a put-down—that I’m putting it on,” Owens says. “That’s why I’ve got such a college-crowd audience. They dig the irreverence.” Whereas other morning hosts might shout down detractors with obscenities, Owens responds, “You’re irritating me through your sheer lack of comprehension.”

Before going on the air, Owens sifts through various sources—including the Associated Press wire, Today in History, something called Cooler Copy (“water-cooler stories from the past 24 hours”), and listener e-mails—for topics to discuss with his Assembled Ears.

This morning he pauses on an item about Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin’s friendship. “I just don’t care,” Owens says as he tosses it aside. Ditto for a water-cooler story about comedian Andy Dick, who reportedly popped out of a cake dressed in a thong.

“That’s not something I want to even touch,” Owens says with disgust.

Owens chooses items not only for talk value but for cadence and pacing and tone. Even with his preparation and deliberation, his on-air time comes with all the perils of a live performance. “I really commiserate with people who are very good at what they do, but somehow they get themselves into a corner with something they say. I think the best example of that is the Greaseman,” says Owens, referring to the WWDC 101.1 FM DJ who got fired after making a racially offensive remark on the air. “I really felt sorry for him….He’s got a vulgar approach like [Howard] Stern, but he’s clever and it’s entertainment—it’s entertainment for his audience.”

Owens admits to one of his own missteps this past March, when he read an ethnic joke on-air. “I was having a good morning and one of my listeners [sent] me this remark [by e-mail]: ‘What is 10 miles long and has an IQ of 25? The St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York.’”

Owens chortles a bit even now. He then explains that he had just finished reading—or listening to; Owens is a big fan of books on tape—Irish-American author Frank McCourt’s memoir ‘Tis. “If I hadn’t just finished listening to ‘Tis, I don’t know that I’d have done it.”

But Owens’ Assembled Ears seem willing to forgive his penchant for outrageousness. That’s his attraction, after all. Recently, Owens recalls, he spoke to a group of students: “One of the young tads came over afterward and said, ‘Mr. Owens, I drive a carpool to school. We love you. I got to tell you that I think the music’s crappy, but we can’t wait to hear what you’re going to say next.’” CP