Arts & Culture

A radio pioneer loves life in Sarasota

She became a groundbreaking and influential broadcaster, holding court in New York City for 30 years.

But for months, June LeBell didn't even realize she'd been offered a shot at radio stardom.

She was a singer who shared concert stages with some of the best musicians in the business. She was living in her native Manhattan and working at Lincoln Center. Everyone in the New York City music scene knew her.

One day in the early 1970s she got a call from the program director of WQXR, New York's mammoth classical music station. He said they were looking for a new announcer, and they wanted a minority.

She called an African-American friend of hers, who trained for the job for several months before turning it down.

LeBell decided she might want the job. She called the program manager and asked why the job had to be filled by a minority.

"I said 'What do you have against a nice white girl?' " LeBell said. "And he said 'I offered it to you but you turned me down.'"

She didn't consider herself a minority, so she hadn't understood that he wanted her for the job.

But she finally auditioned and got the job hosting classical musical programs on the New York station for 30 years.

"I became the first women announcer on a major commercial classical music station." LeBell said. "Or so I'm told." It was hard work, 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a long time. She was on the air every day. If you liked classical music and you lived in New York, you listened to June LeBell.

She retired to Sarasota in 2002 but she didn't stay retired.

Starting last fall, she began hosting "June LeBell's Musical Conversations" on WSMR.

The show, which airs on 89.1 FM in the Sarasota area (and 103.9 in Tampa), combines interviews and live performances with major artists.

Sometimes they're local people, such as Anu Tali, the music director of the Sarasota Opera, or jazz great Dick Hyman. Sometimes they're the biggest international stars of classical music, such as conductor Leonard Slatkin or opera singer Marilyn Horne. LeBell, an accomplished cook -- she wrote a popular cookbook with illustrations by legendary Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld -- also has had the occasional cookbook author on her show. Cooking, she says, is art, and has much in common with music.

JoAnn Urofsky, the general manager for WUSF Public Media, the parent of WSMR, said LeBell and the station had been talking for years about getting her on the air. LeBell had been listening to WUSF since she was a kid, vacationing in Sarasota, and had contacted the station about wanting to work with them. The station was eager to get a broadcasting legend of LeBell's caliber into its family.

"She's so connected in the classical music world," Urofsky said. "She has the ability to bring to our listeners voices that we never would have been able to bring to them just by ourselves."

LeBell loves Sarasota. She thinks of it as a more compact version of Manhattan, and compares Bradenton to Brooklyn, with its emphasis on homegrown arts. She loves that both cities have recognized the arts as central to their growth and quality of life. In fact, she said, she has heard there are more arts groups per capita in this area than there are in New York.

It's not just the quantity of arts that makes the area special, she said. The quality's here, too. She ranks the Sarasota Orchestra among the finest in the world, right alongside her former hometown orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. She loves that the Sarasota Opera devotes itself to performing operas the way their composers and original directors intended them.

But she wasn't so keen on the area at first, though. She had lived her whole life in Manhattan, and started visiting here when her parents brought her on vacation, and later when they retired here.

She hated Sarasota. But the more time she spent in this area the more she liked it.

"After a while I started to see what my parents saw in it," she said. "I knew I would eventually retire here."

Tragedy strikes

Retirement came suddenly. She was living in Manhattan's Battery Park. She was lying in bed one morning in 2001 when a plane struck the World Trade Center, three blocks away. The explosion literally knocked her out of her bed.

A year later, she left New York and came here.

Sept. 11 remained a part of her for a long time, though.

"I'd hear a garbage truck going over a grate and it would terrify me," she said. "It was the same sound."

A Sarasota therapist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder worked with her, and she eventually got over that fear.

That day, Sept. 11, marked the second huge trauma in her life. When she was 27, she was engaged to Michael Rabin, who is still considered one of the finest violinists of the 20th century. One evening she went to his apartment and found him lying dead. He had just waxed his floor, and he slipped, fell backward and hit his head on a chair.

"I tried to revive him," she said. "I didn't know. I had never seen a dead body before."

A new beginning

It wasn't until 40 years later that she would finally marry. She was living in Sarasota when a friend from the New York music world, Edward Alley, gave her a call. He had a retired down here with his wife and had seen LeBell's name in the paper and gave her a call. In New York, LeBell had interviewed both Alley, who was a conductor and the manager of the New York Philharmonic, and his wife on her New York radio show. They renewed their friendship here, and some years later, after Alley's wife died, he and LeBell started dating. LeBell married for the first time in her life when she was in her mid-60s.

Now in her early 70s, she's as happy as she's ever been, and doesn't mind sporting the completely hairless pate that treatments from now-banished ovarian cancer have temporarily left her with. She does her radio show, which her husband co-produces, she travels around the country lecturing about music and conducting live interviews on stage, she teaches classes for the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning, she writes about the arts and she still sings occasionally.

It's not the retirement she envisioned, she said, but she's never been happier.

"I feel like I'm more of a kid now than I was when I was a kid," she said.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.