The golden-voiced radio man signs off after four decades at Maine Public.
By Will Grunewald
For 40 years, Mainers have known Charles Beck by his unmistakable speaking voice, a blend of Walter Cronkite’s assured, reassuring cadences and the deep resonance of an operatic bass. In the 1980s, on Maine Public Radio, Beck’s voice delivered midday news, presented classical-music programs, and hosted a morning show, Bed & Breakfast. Later, it became a fixture of fundraising drives as Beck moved into a mostly off-air role, managing programming for radio and eventually TV too. Against a constantly shifting media landscape, he helped turn Maine Public Radio into a major news outlet — with some 200,000 weekly listeners, it’s now the number-one station in the state. And although Beck retired in January, he still gets stopped in Hannaford by people who recognize his voice.
How did you get into radio?
I had graduated from UMaine with a degree in music, and I didn’t know how I was going to make a living. So I was looking for odd jobs when I saw an ad in the paper — back when we had newspapers with ads — for anyone who might want to voice commercials. As a music student, people had told me I should sing or that I should use my voice somehow, but I never wanted to. I taped this audition anyway, and the guy came out afterward and told me, “You have the voice of God, but you don’t know how to use it.” I’ll never forget that quote. After that, I got another undergraduate degree, in radio, television, and film.
What was Maine Public Radio like in the ’80s?
Back then, it was mostly a classical-music station that had some news. From 7 a.m. to noon, five days a week, we had Robert J. Lurtsema. He was this iconic classical host out of WGBH, in Boston. He always started the program with birdsongs, and sometimes the birdsongs would go on for 20 or 25 minutes. It drove people nuts. And the reason for that was just however late he was showing up for work that day.
News took a backseat?
Public radio was almost an alternative for news programming at the time. Everyone was still getting major news from ABC, NBC, and CBS. So we did a lot of stuff that we probably wouldn’t spend time on today. I once did a story — I believe it was 17 minutes long — on the year’s potato harvest in Aroostook County. I interviewed a gentleman who made jewelry out of moose droppings. Then, as we gradually evolved into more of a news station, we started hearing from classical-music fans, saying, “Why can’t you be like you used to?” That’s why we launched Maine Public Classical, in 2016, to still bring lots of music to people who want it.
Is it especially tough to keep everyone happy in a spread-out place like Maine?
I’d sometimes be envious of stations that just serve one community. You could focus all your resources on that community and really be in it. Our news team has to weigh every day what’s relevant from all corners of Maine that’s going to be of value to listeners in all the other corners. It’s hard to do. On the other hand, people are very proud of being part of this state. And being a statewide organization, we bring everybody together. With programs like Maine Calling, you’ll hear from a listener in Caribou, then Camden, then Cumberland.
What are some of the more difficult programming decisions you’ve made?
Last winter, we carried the impeachment hearings, and you’d think that’s a no-brainer. But in the early days, taking a break for days or weeks for special programming was very controversial, like during the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings. The switchboards would light up. The nasty letters would come in about interrupting music programs in particular. Now, I think listeners expect that programming. And with so many different voices leaning right or left, we still aim to maintain neutrality and impartiality. It pains me to see what’s labeled as news these days. But more and more people are turning to public radio and public television, at least here in Maine, which shows that they recognize the value of hearing the truth.
Does that urgent need for reliable news make it any harder to walk away now?
No, I’m very happy with where I’m leaving things at the station. It’s been a long and good run. Back when I hosted Bed & Breakfast, I had to get up at 3:15 a.m. I managed to do that for five years. Colleagues called me Charles Wreck when I finally got off the air. I was producer and host, and I was also doing midday news at the time. It was exhausting, but even then, I was just so honored to be a part of this and really loved doing it, so it never felt like work to me.