Veteran New England radio personality Ray Brown may not be proficient at Twitter but he is definitely an expert on tweets.
Best known as the host of classical music shows on WCRB and WGBH, Brown also does a quirky interactive bird-watching program called “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds,” broadcast Sunday mornings on an equally quirky Marshfield station, WATD-FM (95.9). (It stands for “We’re at the dump!” because the transmitter stands next to one.)
Luring listeners to the 8-year-old show, an eclectic program that’s as likely to refer to Beethoven or the Marx Brothers as bluebirds or barn swallows, has been a hard slog. For the first couple of years “Talkin’ Birds” was known mainly to birders on the South Shore and people who tuned in by mistake. But little by little, it’s gained a following. A few other New England stations started carrying it. The show began podcasting. Two years ago, “Talkin’ Birds” was picked up in Boston by a Quincy evangelical station, WROL-AM (950) . The half-hour show also attracts a worldwide online audience including in Japan, South America, and Australia.
Now, suddenly, “Talkin’ Birds” is gaining altitude, thanks at least in part to a hawkish outreach effort.
Though Brown did oversee a low-profile Facebook page — and an even lower-profile Twitter feed — people who knew him started pointing out the absurdity of a bird show without tweets. So a few months ago he hired a part-time assistant to heighten the show’s profile, and the results were “instantaneous,” Brown said. Downloads have doubled, jumping from an average of 5,500 listeners per month in 2012 to 9,200 so far this year; in January, the number spiked to 24,000. He also issued an on-air plea to recruit listeners in all 50 states, playing a snippet of a B.B. King song, “Waiting for your call.” America responded: He ticked off the last four holdout states in March.
“People are really digging the show,” said Mike O’Connor, owner of the Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans, and a regular sponsor of, and guest on, “Talkin’ Birds.” “My biggest complaint is it’s not long enough.”
Brown is the first to admit that a bird-watching show is a tough sell. “There’s that classic image of a bird-watcher with a pith helmet and the boots and binoculars around their neck and carrying bird feeders and bumping into walls,” said Brown, 68, a pleasant, silver-haired goateed man. “People don’t want to be associated with something like that.”
But this is hardly a typical bird-watching show, not that the genre is teeming with competitors. “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds,” a kind of bird variety show, is an extension of Ray Brown and his potpourri of eclectic interests. He works out of a small office at WROL, which he calls “Talkin’ Birds World Headquarters.”
In his 40 years on air in Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and Boston, Brown has worked almost every job in radio. He’s hosted talk shows, newscasts, and classical music programs. He’s been a soft rock and Top 40 DJ, including at WBZ, where he also worked as a weekend political talk-show host. He worked the controls for a polka program in Woonsocket, R.I., and for a music show aimed at Portuguese immigrants.
From 1994 to 2008 he was the afternoon host on classical station WCRB, and he’s narrated live performances with the Boston Pops and other area orchestras. He’s worked at WGBH since 2009, currently as the Saturday morning host for “Classical New England.” His smooth, comforting voice is also in demand commercially: For 16 years he’s been the English voice for Simon and Schuster’s instructional Pimsleur Language Programs and has narrated lessons in 39 languages, from Swahili to Arabic to Dari, a Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan. (Though he speaks Spanish, French, and German on a “schoolboy level,” he notes that he can say “Listen and repeat” in multiple languages.)
Older radio afficionados might recall one of his signature moments in recording, the creation of a novelty record called “Get Preppy (The Preppy Song)” in the early 1980s, a rap-like homage to preppy culture that sold about 10,000 copies and got airplay in several cities. “Sad to say, this is one of my proudest achievements,” Brown said. About a year and a half ago, his nephew put it on Amazon. “We’ve sold well in excess of 43 copies,” Brown reported.
These days, “Talkin’ Birds” is pretty much a full-time job for Brown. Though the show is only 30 minutes long there’s a lot packed into it. It begins with the noncommitally titled “Opening Comments” segment (or “Opening Thing,” as he refers to it off-mike), which might be anything from a poetic soliloquy about migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds to a “Bird Song Comparo” (a term he lifted from Car and Driver magazine) comparing the songs of different thrushes.
There’s a Mystery Bird contest, where listeners are asked to identify a bird based on its song and some clues, such as “it eats caterpillars.” (No matter how outlandish the guess — as when someone came up with the “horn-rimmed owl” — the courtly Brown never tells callers they are wrong. He’ll go with “not exactly,” instead.)
There’s a “Bird Word of the Week,” which he selects “because I think they sound funny,” said Brown, whose favorites include “Tubenose,” “Dummy Nest,” and “Blade of the Scapula.”
There are interviews with big-name birders, birdsong experts, and conservationists; and a funny question-and-answer segment with O’Connor , who tackles such queries as “Do hummingbirds take baths? (Answer: No. Unless there’s a lifeguard.); and “What kind of nesting materials can I put in my yard to attract titmice?”
“They like fur,” he tells a caller. “Tie your dog outside for a few days.”
The show has been described as a blend of “Car Talk” and “Prairie Home Companion.” “It’s very relaxed and very homey — birding without the sense of religious birding fervor some environmentalists have,” said John Casey, a fan who lives in Kent, Conn., where he owns a wild bird supply store.
For Brown, it’s a way to tap into all of his interests and areas of expertise, from doing accents and impersonations to breaking news. Soon after the new pope was chosen in March, Brown was tweeting the bird angle: Pope Francis “speaks out for the environment.” The Arizona water pumping decision, on the other hand? “Bad for birds,” Brown announced.
Sometimes his expertise on birds and classical music collide, as they did on a recent show when he posed the esoteric musical question: Did the song of the Cetti’s warbler inspire the opening notes of the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2? He put together a recording of the bird’s song and compared it with the Beethoven, including a section where the music and birds are played at the same time. (The sounds were close, but ambiguous. “I guess we’ll never know,” Brown concluded.)
“What drives [Brown] is he has such a natural curiousity about things,” said James David Jacobs, the host and producer for Classical New England, a service of WGBH; he produces Brown’s Saturday morning classical music show and often programs pieces of music with instruments that imitate bird songs.
“I give him those pieces because I want to give him the excuse to go on about birds,” said Jacobs. “I want him to be Ray on the show. . . . Classical music may not be the thing he grew up studying, but you would not know it hearing him on air. He delves so deeply into everything he does. He is committed and is really the quintessential voice for radio. There is a personality behind it, there is a soul behind it, and a real desire to communicate behind it. It’s great that he does a bird show. I can also see him doing a political show, or a science show. He is such a great communicator.”
Brown grew up in Rhode Island and insists his interest in birds had nothing to do with the fact that his father, a “serial entrepreneur,” raised parakeets and canaries in the attic. “He considered himself a sort of bird whisperer,” Brown said. “He transformed the attic into an aviary. The problem was he knew nothing about birds. Or aviaries. They sort of all died.”
Brown, who has a strong interest in conservation, describes himself as a casual birder — i.e., no pith helmet — who loves reading about birds and learning about their behavior, biology, and anatomy. “I get caught up in the connections of birds to the rest of society and how they are connected to historical events,” he said.
The idea of hosting a bird show was hatched one day many years ago while he was hosting a weekend talk show at WBZ, and the topic of bluebirds came up. “We got more phone calls than any other topic I’d ever talked about,” said Brown. “It was crazy. I thought someday I should make this a regular show.”
He filed the idea away until about eight years ago, when he started feeling an urge to have a creative outlet combining what he’d learned in radio and what he’d learned about birds. He wanted to produce a radio show where he could interact with listeners and guests, and to “do something a little more tangible for the cause of conservation.”
He approached Ed Perry of WATD, who was immediately wary. “[Brown] called me and said, I’d like to talk to you about a bird show,” Perry recalled. “I sorta choked.”
Perry agreed to rent him a studio for 13 weeks, and told himself “that’s the last I’ll see of him. But as it turns out, this guy is number one. He has a great voice. He understands how to present a topic. I was amazed by the number of people who would call up. That mystery bird contest? I said to myself, nobody is going to call. But then I’d be sitting in my office on Sundays cleaning stuff up and watching the phones. He gets more calls than virtually any other talk show.”
“Talkin’ Birds” is a low-budget operation, so low that Brown once spoofed it himself on the air: He gave a fake tour of “Talkin Birds World Headquarters, an echo-y “150,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility” in Quincy’s Marina Bay, staffed by “a great crew of talented people.”
In real life it’s just himself on Sunday morning, an engineer, and his buddy Mark Duffield, the unpaid executive producer who answers the phones and eats doughnuts. Duffield, who co-owns a gift shop called Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill, has no interest in either birds or music, according to Brown. “We have nothing in common whatsoever now that I think about it,” Brown said. “We just get along really well and have lots of fun.”
The show’s future seems uncertain; despite a few bird-friendly sponsors, he can’t claim it’s making money. “Depends on whether it’s this week or last week,” said Brown, who recently launched a “Save Our Show” crowd-funding campaign. “We wouldn’t be able to continue the show indefinitely without some new revenue,” he said.
Duffield believes the show is “on the cusp. Slowly but surely it is permeating. I wish someone would discover him.”
Those who have are deeply loyal. They include 15-year-old Charlotte Wasylik, of rural northern Alberta, whose brothers call her “the bird nerd.” She listens to the show almost every week, though it means she has to wake up at 7:30 a.m. “I’ve learned a lot from [Ray] and consider him to be a great friend and mentor,” she said.
“What comes through to me . . . is that he seems like a really kind person who really cares about birds without being a zealot,” said Casey, who corresponds with Brown about bird matters.
The night of the Boston Marathon bombings, Casey was in a panic because he couldn’t reach his daughter, who goes to college in Boston. He felt the need to call someone in Boston, except he didn’t know anyone — except Ray Brown.
“I just felt he’d be receptive to a call. And he offered to knock on her door,” Casey said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. And I’ve never met him.”