Bonnie Grice Bids Adieu to WPPB

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Bonnie Grice on air at the WPPB studio in Southampton. Michael Heller photo

Bonnie Grice is more than a radio personality — and even she is not exempt from that reminder.

Bold and bright, with an infectious energy and curiosity, Ms. Grice is sprinting down the path of self-discovery, having announced her resignation earlier this month from 88.3 WPPB-FM Peconic Public Broadcasting, after two decades as a host and producer at the Southampton station.

What has come next is far from an identity crisis, she explained on Tuesday from her home in Sag Harbor. Instead, it is a future filled with lazy mornings and slowly sipped coffee, she said, not to mention the start of an artistic resurgence and personal exploration.

“I’m ready to take a break and let go. Just let go and do something completely different without a rope — because public radio’s been my rope for, God, 30 years. And it almost, in many ways, did become my identity,” Ms. Grice said. “My identity is so wrapped up in the radio station. It’s like, what would it be like to just be Bonnie Grice? Just for a while, and then try to examine what that is.”

According to Wally Smith, president and general manager of Peconic Public Broadcasting, Ms. Grice’s departure is a sizeable loss for not only the radio station, but also her audiences, who tune in locally and even internationally.

“There will be a big hole for a while, because there are a lot of people in this community who really have made Bonnie their very personal friend wherever they live, wherever they listen,” Mr. Smith said. “Who you hear is who she is. She was born for the job that she had, and she lived it, and produced some of the best radio that we’ve heard at NPR.”

The Pennsylvania native found her voice through music — first, as a flutist in her high school marching band, and then while studying at Miami University of Ohio and volunteering at their licensed NPR radio station, WNUB.

A detour — before hosting the coveted classical music morning show — dropped her in the middle of the station’s newsroom, often writing copy on deadline for the daily noon report. One day, minutes before the agriculture segment was scheduled to air, its reporter was nowhere to be found.

The news director yelled, “Grice! Get in there!”

“She hands me the copy and it’s like, ‘What? Pigs and barrows and gilts,’” Ms. Grice said. “But I read it, and the general manager of the radio station came downstairs and he said, ‘Who was that voice?’ And that’s where I started.”

Years later, and 2,000 miles away from a burgeoning Ms. Grice, Wally Smith was wondering the same exact thing. As general manager of KUSC in Los Angeles, he had exhausted his search for a classical music host — someone who also possessed a contemporary sensibility — when his friend suggested “this young woman somewhere in the middle of Ohio,” he recalled with a laugh.

“I said to my program director, ‘Get on the phone, find her, get her out here. I want to talk with her,’’ he said. “Within 20 minutes, I hired her. It was so obvious that everything you’ve heard and know about her was right there and it didn’t take me any time at all to make that decision. And the rest is a happy history for both of us, personally and professionally.”

As a commanding voice in the country’s second-largest radio market, Ms. Grice pushed the bounds of her more traditional audience, sprinkling jazz and rock into the classical mix. “People got kind of upset with me in L.A. for doing it,” she said. “We’d go from Bach to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.”

In 1997, NPR tapped Ms. Grice and moved her out to Washington, D.C., where she co-hosted the nationally syndicated “Anthem,” a new, upbeat Saturday afternoon program that covered a wide range of music and arts. Her chemistry with co-host Rick Karr was contagious, she said, but that was where her elation started and ended.

“I called my dad — God rest his soul, he passed away a couple years ago — and I was sobbing,” Ms. Grice recalled. “I said, ‘Dad, what do I do? I’m here in Washington, I’m at NPR, but I hate it.’ And he said, ‘Follow your heart.’”

She paused. “My dad was a tough guy. It wasn’t all lollypops and roses, and I didn’t see him much,” she continued. “He was a big man, he was intimidating, but I dearly loved him and he always told me that I was special. In the few moments I had with him as a kid growing up, he would tell me, ‘You are special. You’re gonna go places.’”

After six months, and to the shock of her colleagues, Ms. Grice resigned from NPR and moved to the East End, taking with her a conversation she had with the head of cultural programming just before she left.

“What the f–k are you doing?” he had asked her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to do this. I’m just not happy.”

“And where does it say that you have to be happy in a job?” he had fired back.

That was all she needed to hear, she said, coming away from Washington, D.C. with a level of confidence and clarity she never expected — though it was certainly challenged as Mr. Karr forged ahead without her.

“I was cleaning the toilets in my house here and listening to NPR — listening to Rick doing his thing — and I thought, ‘Okay, here I am. What did I do?’ but I knew it was right,” she said. “I knew I was right.”

In 1998, Ms. Grice landed at WPBX at the Southampton campus of Long Island University. The basement radio studio was moldy and hot, and leaked when it rained. A loud air conditioning unit was jammed into its only small window, and crickets “the size of Mothra” ruled the roost, she said.

“That was the beginning of my time here, and I had just come from NPR in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I have to say, though, I would take the East End and local community radio anytime over national. Anytime. I don’t regret leaving it at all.”

The station changed its call sign to WLIU in 2002 and, in 2010, its ownership transferred to Peconic Public Broadcasting following the campus’s sale to Stony Brook University. Today, operating from an office in Southampton Village, Long Island’s only NPR station is bright and airy, serving the East End with a host of original local programming.

“Everything is in good shape and we’re going to be fine,” Mr. Smith said. “We’re talking about some ways to be a little more secure and I think there’s a great future for WPPB. There are some awfully good people already here and on the radio, and you don’t even want to try to replace Bonnie. You find somebody else who does what they do the way she did it — with the same enthusiasm, intelligence and excitement.”

By month’s end, the new morning voice of the station will be journalist Gianna Volpe, host of “The Gianna Volpe Report,” as heard on WRIV 1390 AM in Riverhead, Mr. Smith announced on Saturday.

“I am unbelievably honored to be doing radio in the same time slot as Bonnie Grice, but there is no replacement for her and it is my understanding she wouldn’t want me to do anything except for my own thing — so I plan to do exactly that,” Ms. Volpe said. “Bonnie and I are both fiercely individual, so I think there may be natural synergy between our programming.”

Most notably the producer, host and creator of “The Eclectic Café,” Ms. Grice also spearheaded “The Media Mavens,” a Friday morning roundtable with local journalists and a fixture for more than a decade. Her weekly hour-long program, “The Song Is You,” is a personal career highlight, she said — a show that started in Los Angeles and eventually found its home on the East End, just as she has.

“This community, I don’t even have the words to describe. I love the East End. I have been a person who has never really felt rooted anywhere. Never — until I came here,” she said. “I feel grounded here. And that’s why I felt, after 20-plus years here, the strength to take that breath, take that step, let go of the rope and still feel grounded, still feel safe. And that something good is going to come, and it’s going to come from here.”

Operating as a free agent, and reimagining her role in the future of radio, Ms. Grice is embracing her new identity, and currently writing a play for her theater company, Boots on the Ground, which will bring together four legendary women of the 19thcentury — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman — for a never-before-heard conversation on stage.

“I don’t think I want to be apart from the mic for long. I’d still like to have my hands in radio, some way. There’s a lot to explore,” she said. “The microphone and the radio has gotten me through so much stuff in my life. There have been times when I have suffered loss and I have grieved, gone down a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down — we all do that. But when I walk into that studio and that microphone goes on, it absolutely shifts the dynamic in me and I am saved. I am different. I am strong. And I am finding that now, too, by taking a look at life and saying, ‘What do you want to do next?’”

To contact Bonnie Grice, email bootstheater1@gmail.com or visit bootsonthegroundtheater.com.

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