Linda Yohn celebrating 25 years playing jazz at WEMU
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com file photo
Yes, it was on May 25, 1987—Memorial Day, no less—that she made her debut as a WEMU music-program host—about three weeks after starting her then-new gig as the station’s music director.
When she made her debut, it was as the host of a weekday dinner-hour show, but about a year later, she moved to the weekday-morning slot, she recalls—and has been there ever since. And she's still probably the station’s most popular music host.
As is often the case with such anniversaries, Yohn can’t believe that 25 years have passed since that day. “I really didn’t begin thinking about it until April, when the university hosted an event to recognize various staff members for their anniversaries,” she says.
“That’s when it kind of knocked me backward, that realization, and I thought, ‘Whoa, 25 years!’ Up until then, I was just focusing on doing my job every day. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I’ve grown and changed in those 25 years, just like the station has. You learn a lot of life lessons doing this, at the same place, for that many years, five days a week.”
One thought that keeps coming back to Yohn, she says, is “how grateful I am to the university for believing in this station for those 25 years, that they give us the latitude to make decisions about programming changes and community service, instead of just saying ‘We think this is how you should program.’”
That was also a wise decision, because Yohn has very big ears, as they say in the music community. She grew up immersed in music—her mother was an opera singer and pianist—and Yohn began playing guitar and singing as a teen. And by the time she came to WEMU, she’d already done a five-year stint at WKSU in Kent, Ohio (she’s an Ohio native) as a jazz program host and jazz/blues/folk music director -- plus two years as a music publicist in New York.
And Yohn’s passion for the music has only increased over the years, as she has continued to discover new artists and share those discoveries with listeners.
“I do believe we have to move things forward,” says Yohn, “We’ll always have great respect and affection for Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Django Reinhardt”—some of the truly towering giants in the history of jazz.
“But, it’s also a joy to see the staff get excited about something new and different. I think that’s more the case today than when I started—wanting to move it forward.”
When Yohn started at WEMU, the station’s programming was more jazz-centric than it is today, with only a bit of blues, and a reggae program, she recalls. But, as part of her mission, WEMU began giving more air time to those other styles, and has added a few more since then. “We’ve definitely diversified, with more blues, and shows like ‘Cuban Fantasy’ with Marc Taras, and ‘Brazilian Sol,’ with Mary Catherine Smith, and ‘The Roots Music Project,’ with Jeremy Baldwin,” she says.
But while her professional commitment is to moving things forward, her greatest fondness, in her heart of hearts, is still for the classic, hallowed jazz pioneers.
Indeed, when asked to name her 10 favorite jazz artists, she is quick with her reply, and she even ranks them: “Number 1—and this will be no surprise to listeners—is Duke Ellington; Number 2, also, not a surprise, is Billie Holiday.” And then: 3) John Coltrane; 4) Carmen McRae; 5) Django Reinhardt; 6) Miles Davis; 7) Ben Webster; 8 ) Jimmy Smith; 9) Mel Torme and 10) Herbie Hancock. Then, as if to give them “honorable mention” status, she also names Weather Report, Bill Evans, and “Phil Woods on clarinet.”
During her college years, Yohn was active in theater. “Back then, I thought I was going to be a singer or an actor.” And she’s still a natural as a performer, which comes across on the air, via her signature delivery style—very expressive and effusive, sometimes marked by dramatic pauses.
But she also stresses that the focus of the show is not her—which is also the case, of course, with all of the music programs. “The focus is the music. When I was doing theater, I didn’t get cast as often as I would have liked, and my feelings sometimes got hurt, but I had a wise yoga teacher who said, ‘perhaps it is your karma to be a deliverer.’
“And, that’s what I am on the air, I’m a deliverer, and I have found that to be very rewarding,” she says. “And, there’s still a certain physicality to doing a radio show—punching the buttons at the right time, doing the segues from one CD to another, developing a rhythm as one song flows into another, and figuring out what songs will sound best, back-to-back. When I’m doing that, I’m very much in the moment, and that’s very exciting and gratifying.”
Yohn is also proud of the honors and awards that she and the station have recently received. This year, WEMU won “Best Local Music Programs” and "Best News Special or Public Affairs Program" awards from The Michigan Association of Broadcasters, and in 2011, Yohn was anointed "Major Market Jazz Programmer of the Year" by JazzWeek, while WEMU was named "Best Radio Station: Music" and "Best Radio Station: Talk" in the AnnArbor.com’s readers’ poll.
After 30-plus years in the business, Yohn is now so steeped in the music, and has developed so much expertise, that it would be very easy for her to play “only the things I like. But I’m not doing this show for me, I’m doing it for the listeners,” she says.
“I think we’re all smart radio programmers. In a perfect world, sure, you wish you could just play what floats your boat,” she quips. “But we know that, often, listeners are not hanging on our every word, or on every song. We know that, a lot of times, the music is in the background while they’re doing something else. So, we try to create the best possible soundtrack for their morning, or afternoon, or evening.”
In recent years, Yohn has faced down some serious health issues that prompted her to make some lifestyle and work adjustments. In 2007, she was diagnosed with rectal cancer, and in 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a tumor removed from her spine.
Both times, she beat the cancer, but since then, she’s dialed back on her after-hours workload.
“I’m just happy to be here, so now I know I have to pace myself,” she says. “I can’t go to as many evening shows and other events as I used to, because I know I have to get up for work the next morning. And I now know, more than ever, that I need to take good care of myself, and get enough rest. But I still want the clubs and other groups to know that I still care, and that I’m still doing my best to serve the community at large.”
Linda Yohn hosts “89.1 Jazz with Linda Yohn” weekdays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on WEMU, 89.1-FM.
Kevin Ransom is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.