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Face of Radio

KVLU’s Elwell tells stories of life on air

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Joe Elwell puts his radio headset on over his Penn State University baseball cap as long curly white hairs stick out of his cap. An energetic voice reflects the personality that it belongs to as Elwell begins discussing classical music on his morning show.

Elwell has been passionate about radio and classical music since he was a young boy traveling between Colorado and Minnesota. Elwell was born in Boulder, Colo., in 1958 and lived there for the majority of his childhood. He discovered his passion for radio at a young age.

“The moment that determined my career, was probably in 1963, just as I was turning five-years old,” he said. “My family and I were visiting my grandparents that summer, and for my sister and I — for a birthday present — they gave the both of us a transistor radio. I carried that thing wherever I went. I constantly had that thing on and I was flipping the dial trying to find radio stations left and right.

“After flipping between stations, I finally found my rock station in Denver — KBTR. I listened to it religiously and brought my radio to school with me many times. What caught me about the station was listening to The Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’ and hearing that awesome guitar solo in there in 1963. That guitar solo is what hooked me on music and radio.”

Elwell, who is music director at KVLU, Lamar’s public radio station, said he planned on going into radio before he reached high school.

“After a few years my family moved later out of Denver to Montevideo, Minn.,” he said. “My friend in Montevideo and I talked about going into radio together. I still played around listening to my rock stations and everything. There was KDWB out of Minneapolis that I started listening to because during this time I wasn’t able to reach my favorite station back in Denver.”

Elwell’s family moved again in 1969 when his father was offered a job in Albert Lea, Minn. Elwell said he wasn’t prepared to move.

“When I moved to Albert Lea, I had gotten a new AM transistor radio,” he said. “It was a big-ass one, but I wanted a clock radio because it could reach more channels. I got one of those for my birthday when I turned 11.”

The radio led Elwell to DXing — finding faraway radio stations.

“One of the stations I found was KAAY in Little Rock — a 50,000-watt, 1090 AM. At night they had an underground rock program called ‘Beaker Street.’ That was another defining moment for me.’”

After being bullied in middle school, Elwell looked for a way to fit in. That’s when he discovered the sound of a guitar.

“By the time I was in eighth grade, I started learning to play guitar,” he said. “I quit with my trumpet, that I had been playing since the fifth grade. When I started playing guitar I thought it was fun and I loved playing it.

“Later, I discovered Dizzy Gillespie — I wished I would have stuck with playing the trumpet. My dad told me to do both, but I told him I can’t play trumpet in a rock ’n’ roll band, never mind that there was Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago), Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chase — and Frank Zappa, who I adored, later used brass. I should have stayed with the trumpet.”

Joe Elwell has worked at KVLU 91.5 FM, Lamar University’s public radio station, since 1986.
Joe Elwell has worked at KVLU 91.5 FM,
Lamar University’s public radio station, since 1986.

In 10th grade, Elwell found a new guitar teacher.

“I have had a lot of inspirations, my guitar teacher and classmate Ken Orth being one of them,” Elwell said. “This guy was one of the best I had ever heard. My first lesson with him I chose ‘Lazy’ by Deep Purple, and Ken would show me how to play it and then I would work on it. He showed me some lead patterns, practiced some chords and all that kind of stuff. He was probably the best guitar teacher I ever had.”

Elwell said that this time he also learned to appreciate classical music.

“I was into not so much improvisation, but virtuosity on an instrument,” he said. “It didn’t matter what instrument, violin, viola, even saxophone and trumpet, and especially guitar — ‘virtuosity.’ I gravitated towards bluegrass music, virtuosity on guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. That’s why I liked John McLaughlin, and then I discovered later Al Di Meola. I also got into this one guy who became one of my heroes — Frank Zappa.”

During Elwell’s senior year in high school he started working at his high school’s radio station. But radio wasn’t the career he had planned.

“During my senior year, I worked at the local airport because my dad wanted me to get my pilot’s license and be a pilot just like him,” Elwell said. “My dad was the city manager in Albert Lea and was the boss of the airport operator. I already knew some things on how to fly from my dad, so I decided after getting close to getting my license I was going to get my private pilot’s license.”

Elwell set his sights on Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University, Mankato) which had a flight training program.

“A friend of mine was already in the program and I went up there,” Elwell said. “My original major was business administration with a concentration in aviation management. I had plans to do that with the rest of my life and marry my high school sweetheart.”

At MSU, Elwell became interested in radio once again and took an introduction to radio and TV class.

“My dad had met the instructor and he told me I needed to go up and spend time at KMSU,” he said. “KMSU was a 10-watt student station and they covered all of Mankato. It wasn’t a carrier current, it was one that actually transmitted out.”

During his time at KMSU, Elwell became interested in jazz and became a Charles Mingus fan.

“I hadn’t listened to much of the jazz show they had on the station and noticed they really were not playing jazz, they were playing soul and R&B,” he said. “I got a call and was told that there was a shift opening and I asked which shift it was. The voice on the phone said, ‘Thursday night at eight,’ and I realized it was the jazz show and accepted the offer.”

However, when Elwell went to the station, the regular jazz hosts came in to do their shift.

“I called the station and they told me that they were giving the guys one last chance,” he said. “After listening to the show that night I knew the shift was mine. I went in and started playing jazz.

“One of the first things I played on the show was Oscar Peterson. I played some Mingus, and some Herbie Hancock as well. About an hour into the show, the director of radio called me up and said, ‘This is what I want, you got the show.’ I didn’t know much about jazz, but I started learning and I found out that it was my favorite.”

In Elwell’s second year at Mankato, his parents moved from Albert Lea to St. Louis Park, Minn., and his girlfriend left him.

“I decided to take a year off and I worked in a factory that made small motors for computer drives in Hopkins, Minn.,” he said.“I worked there for about a year and then my dad became city manager in Ames, Iowa where Iowa State University is located. Iowa State had an NPR station because I listened to it in Albert Lea and their AM station was day-time only, but they had FM, too. So I decided that’s it, WOI at Iowa State is where I am going.”

Elwell graduated in 1983 with a degree in speech communication from Iowa State.

“I started looking for jobs,” he said. “Then I saw one that said, ‘Corpus Christi, Texas, boasts no snow, no state income taxes, balmy golf breezes for some lucky classical music announcer,’ and it sounded like a Chamber of Commerce ad. I sent a résumé and didn’t think I was going to hear back from them. After a while I got a call from one of my friends saying that Doug, who was the fine arts director at WOI, got a call from Corpus Christi. I decided to phone them up and the manager calls me back in a Texas accent saying, ‘Yeah, we all listened to your audition tape here and are very much impressed. Why don’t you come down here and work for us?’ I loaded up the U-Haul and said goodbye to my girlfriend at the time.”

After a year, Elwell started looking for another job.

“I went to the Public Radio Conference that the managers go to in 1985,” he said.“I talked the station into paying the registration fee and stayed with a cousin in Denver. That is where I met Dale Spear and George Beverly who were both managers for KVLU at the time.”

After a few dead-ends, Elwell saw an opening at KVLU and applied for the morning broadcaster position.

“I came through Beaumont listening to KVLU, and I heard the announcer in the morning and I said, ‘Wonder if that is the job I was applying for,’” he said. “It turned out that it was that exact job. However, Dale and George hired someone else for it. I thought I was stuck in Corpus Christi until four months later, in November of 1985, I was at a quiet fundraiser and got a call from Dale and he asked if I was interested in coming up to Beaumont. I started working here on February 1 of 1986, and have been here ever since.”

When he is not in front of the microphone, Elwell can be found watching sports, especially football, basketball and some baseball.

“My mother was the one who got me into football,” he said. “She would sit and watch two or three games a weekend. My dad couldn’t see how you could watch more than one football game on a weekend. He’d sit down and watch the Vikings when we lived in Minnesota, after that game he would be done with it and go out and work on the car. Mom would sit and watch the rest of them, the college games and all of that.

“I have my DVR full of the games and let them sit there until the season ends, so that way I don’t have to be like most people who go through withdrawal from the game. I would buy a load of VCR tapes and record them and put them up for later to be watched again.”

Elwell said that he started getting into basketball because he had friends who were interested in it.

“I started watching ‘Road to the Final Four,’” he said. “The NBA playoffs, I will watch, but if the Lakers are playing I’ll switch it off because if they win it just pisses me off — I hate the Lakers. The same goes for the Yankees in baseball, I can’t stand to see them win.”

Elwell also enjoys professional wrestling.

“I call it my ‘comic soap opera,’” he said. “When I was little, I rooted for the bad guys to win. Some of my favorites include Doctor X, who was back in the late 60s, and Larry ‘The Axe’ Henning in the 70s. I loved Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Fabulous Freebirds and Hulk Hogan. My favorite wrestlers now are Austin Aries, The Miz and Damien Sandow. However, my all-time favorite is Chris Benoit, before the murder-suicide. I watch all types of wrestling and enjoy it a whole lot.”

Elwell has two children who are both on the autism spectrum. Elwell said that they are his pride and joy.

“My oldest, Marilyn, goes to Lamar and is majoring in fashion design, and my youngest, Jacob, is in high school in some of the life skills classes,” he said. “Jacob’s autism is more severe than Marilyn’s. Jacob has his routine that he sticks by and he is not verbal that much. He knows what he wants but he can’t communicate it sometimes.”

Elwell said that he and Marilyn enjoy going to Lamar basketball games, it has been a tradition for them since 2011.

“We try to go to every home game,” he said. “We did that because we started going to the women’s games and we started getting to meet the players, and my daughter loves them. We always pick one to adopt as a family member. If they are a freshman, they will be our family member until they graduate, same goes for any classification. Sometimes we pick two and ask if they want to be a family member. We did that with Gia Ayers, we sat next to her mother at the game one time and asked if we could adopt her as a family member. Her mother said it was fine, and we told Gia and she agreed.”

Elwell said that he and Marilyn have been going to the Lamar men’s basketball home games since 2012.

“I was going to go to the games before, but I didn’t until Pat Knight started coaching the team,” he said. “When Pat became coach, I was a big fan of his daddy, Bobby Knight, who is one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. I told myself I wanted to support his son and went to the games. The first year he was coaching he took us to the dance, and I thought that was great. The second and third year was abysmal, and that is when he got fired.”

Elwell said that after Knight was fired, the interim coach was Tic Price.

“I didn’t know it at the time where I had heard that name before,” he said. “It turns out I had met him before because his wife was my daughter’s inclusion teacher at Pietzsch-MacArthur Elementary. My daughter being autistic was mainstreamed, but with modifications on tests and everything. It was Tic’s wife that made sure my daughter’s modifications were ready, and the teachers knew how to work with my daughter. It didn’t dawn on me that first game that he coached. I noticed that the team was playing better.”

Joe Elwell is a constant sight as he takes his almost daily walk around campus, both for fitness and for fun.
Joe Elwell is a constant sight as he takes his almost daily walk around campus, both for fitness and for fun.

When he was in his early 40s, Elwell decided to start walking for fitness, and can be seen most afternoons walking around campus.

“After my friend Greg Busceme had a heart attack, I noticed more of my friends were having heart issues,” he said. “I decided to walk and become healthy, and I started doing that with my daughter at the beginning, and occasionally my son will walk with me around our neighborhood.”

Elwell said that the broadcast business has changed quite a bit since his early experiences with that old transistor radio, with the introduction of satellite and internet.

“Satellite radio has taken a bite out of us, because people now, if they want classical music, they can call up a service that provides that,” he said. “They don’t get as wide of a variety that we can offer, because I look for weird stuff and different composers, composers who don’t get heard that often, or works by well-known composers who don’t get heard very often. Usually, what you are going to get with satellite is basically the pop classics. You might get a little bit of more in depth, too, but a lot of times it’s probably what they stay with.”

Elwell compares the rise of satellite and internet to the popularity of FM radio during its inception.

“What made FM a place to go was classical music and underground rock, because classical was being heard on FM,” he said. “Progressive rock and classical music, that pretty much got people starting to gravitate towards FM, because they got tired of hearing the same old crap on AM radio.

“I am seeing that same thing with digital radio, right now. It’s not developed that well. It is going to be a while before digital really takes off. People think digital is satellite and it is not. There is terrestrial digital, and a lot of stations are that way right now. Eventually, I think we will see digital terrestrial radio take off if people find it and they can listen to it. I think it would be a hit and will take off, just so it doesn’t become AM-ized.”

Whether he is spinning records or talking about classical music on his early morning show, Elwell will always be a voice made for radio and a legend for KVLU.

Story by Cade Smith Photos by Noah Dawlearn

Category: UPbeat