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David Elliott, ‘extraordinarily selfless’ leader of Harvard’s WHRB-FM, dies at 78

Mr. Elliott was a rigorous keeper of standards who insisted that WHRB never be merely a “college radio station.”
Mr. Elliott was a rigorous keeper of standards who insisted that WHRB never be merely a “college radio station.”Randy H. Goodman

In the summer of 1960, before his freshman year at Harvard, David Elliott bumped into an acquaintance who casually mentioned that he was president of the radio station at Harvard.

“Harvard has a radio station?” Mr. Elliott responded incredulously.

Upon arriving at campus that fall, he tuned in to WHRB-FM and visited the station before attending a single class. In some ways, from that day forward, Mr. Elliott never really left, for the next 58 years.

He became a student member of WHRB, later an adviser and éminence grise, and eventually chairman of its board of trustees. Beneath those titles was a unique amalgamation of roles: beloved announcer for classical and opera programming with deep ties to the local arts community; mentor to countless students for whom the station became a home away from home; staunch advocate for the station’s fate across a shifting broadcast landscape; and dry-witted yet unfailingly rigorous keeper of standards who insisted that WHRB never be merely a “college radio station” light on protocol and catering to a small on-campus audience, but rather a robust, community-oriented radio station that happened to be run by college students.

Mr. Elliott died in his Cambridge home Nov. 12 of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. He was 78 and had lived in the Back Bay for many years before moving to Cambridge.

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“David really was the station’s spiritual leader,” said Aaron Fogelson, a recent Harvard graduate and former president of WHRB. “He demonstrated what a unique and unconditional love for an organization and for a mission looks like.”

Under Mr. Elliott’s watch, across an era when many classical stations across the country were increasingly homogenizing their programming toward an interchangeable blend of soothing staples, WHRB (95.3) became an essential FM destination known for its bracing mix and its exploratory zeal. (The station currently plays roughly 60 hours per week of classical music and also broadcasts hip-hop, underground rock, and other genres.)

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Meanwhile, over multiple decades on campus, WHRB’s studio became a refuge for creative-minded students, several of whom went on to distinguished careers in the fields of classical criticism or broadcast journalism. WHRB’s alumni include The New Yorker’s Alex Ross; former New York Times critic and editor John Rockwell; Chris Wallace of Fox News; and Scott Horsley of NPR.

“David was an extraordinarily selfless man who dedicated himself to the enjoyment and education of others, on air and behind the scenes,” said Jonathan Lehrich, Mr. Elliott’s successor as chairman of the station’s board of trustees. “He strongly believed in fostering a community of students who in turn brought together a community of listeners.”

Stories of Mr. Elliott’s devotion to the station, its students, its standards, and its history are legion, from Thanksgiving meals hosted at his home, to his signature two-hour lecture delivered to every incoming student on the history of radio, to the thousands of annotations he left on classical CDs he had personally added to the station’s library from his own vast collection.

Mr. Elliott also put his own quiet stamp on some of the station’s most singular traditions. Before he arrived, WHRB was already known for its on-air “Orgies,” extended binge-worthy marathons devoted to a single artist, genre, or style. Under Mr. Elliott’s watch, the Orgies — a term the station has trademarked — grew more ambitious, comprehensive, and exactingly prepared. For the Bach tercentenary in 1985, Mr. Elliott coproduced a Bach Orgy that lasted for nine straight days and involved multiple trips to Germany to gather rare recordings.

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It was an early example of Mr. Elliott’s appreciation for gestures of unusual or even immoderate dedication to the station’s mission.

Ross, who got his start in music criticism by writing album reviews for WHRB’s program guide, recalled one such moment from an Orgy devoted to the complete works of Danish composer Carl Nielsen. As the host, Ross had grown frustrated after discovering that a brief piano prelude was missing from his stack of preselected recordings, so he and Mr. Elliott hatched a daring plan. They cued up one of Nielsen’s lengthier symphonies, and while it played, they raced over to Harvard’s music library, found the score, and recorded Ross’s own rendition of the prelude, returning before the symphony had concluded, much to Mr. Elliott’s delight.

“I don’t think I would have become a music critic if I hadn’t encountered David Elliott at WHRB,” Ross said. “My gratitude toward him is immense.”

In addition to mentoring students and overseeing all of the station’s operations, Mr. Elliott devoted himself to actively supporting the needs of the local classical community. In 1999, when WCRB dropped its cherished Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Elliott stepped in and brought the broadcasts to WHRB, winning him the gratitude of opera fans across the region.

Adding to the appeal of the broadcasts' new home, Mr. Elliott discussed the opera of the week in fastidiously produced pre- and post-performance shows, wedding unpretentious expertise with a thinly veiled love for the genre and the forgotten byways of its history.

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For more than 30 years, Mr. Elliott also hosted a Monday night program called “Special Concert,” which often featured in-depth interviews with local performers from the city’s core classical music ensembles.

“He was such a gentle man, a gentle soul, a gentleman,” said Kathleen Fay, executive director of the Boston Early Music Festival, whose biennial gatherings Mr. Elliott used to preview with special five-hour programs. “He was so devoted to all cultural organizations, no matter how small or large — our history, our innovative programs, our wacky programs, he loved it all and was there to help lift up what we do.”

Mr. Elliott grew up in Needham in a family that supported local music, and his father, Byron K. Elliott, an executive at John Hancock Life Insurance and eventually its president and chairman, served on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s board of overseers. Mr. Elliott attended the Fessenden School and Phillips Exeter Academy before entering Harvard. His mother, Helen Heissler, was a loyal devotee of the BSO’s Friday afternoon concerts and also brought Mr. Elliott to his first opera, “La Bohème.”

By Mr. Elliott’s sophomore year of college, his on-air devotion to historic opera recordings had earned notice in the Globe. After graduating in 1964, he received a law degree from Indiana University but returned to Harvard not long afterward. He leaves his brother, Kent Elliott of Yarmouth Port, and his sister, Barbara Niles of Lakeville, Conn.

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After illness forced Mr. Elliott to step back from his numerous roles, WHRB honored him with the station’s own ultimate gesture of tribute, a seven-hour David Elliott Orgy. It will be rebroadcast on Dec. 24.

“On college campuses things usually change every four years when people go in and out,” said Fogelson, one of the Orgy’s hosts. “David was what connected the past to the present and made sure our vision for the future was consistent with that history. He was like the giving tree. And I know until the very last days he was listening to WHRB.”


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.