To hear WMUK announcer Cara Lieurance’s lyrical, soothing voice describing classical music on air, one would never guess her musical and public-radio life began in a rustic log cabin in the woods of northern Canada.
The 51-year-old, who will be awarded a Community Medal of Arts this month for her more than 30-year career promoting local music and arts in Kalamazoo, grew up in Dawson’s Creek, British Columbia. Her father, who taught her to play the flute, was “kind of the music man in town,” she says.
“He taught high school music but also formed other groups to keep adults playing and kids playing and ran the Kiwanis band,” she explains. “I was about 9 when he bought a farm, and we basically lived in a cabin on it. He fixed up an auxiliary building for me and my sister, which was also a cabin and had wood heat. Rustic living was something I was acquainted with pretty early.”
That rustic life also introduced Lieurance to public radio. “In that cabin, without television, my sister and I listened to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.) Radio, which covered a lot more than news. It had dramatic comedy, music and was a national reflection of Canadians,” she says. “I loved it and volunteered at the community radio station, just filling up a music hour. I didn’t know anything about music, but somebody had helpfully put stars next to each song on every album, so I would see four stars and know it was probably pretty good and play it.”
How did you get to Michigan and WMUK?
My parents divorced, my mom was in Michigan, and I had to the chance to go to Interlochen Center for the Arts. After I graduated, I went to Northwestern Michigan College (in Traverse City) to figure out what to do next and decided to come to Western Michigan University’s School of Music. Before I came to Western, I wrote to WMUK’s general manager (then Floyd Pientka) and said, “I love public radio, and I would be honored to have a student intern or a student operator position at WMUK.” Little did I know, that was something he hadn’t seen before, and (he) was really impressed that I had reached out before I got to Kalamazoo. I was 19 and started as a student operator at WMUK (102.1 FM), and that is the end of the story, because I never left.
Not quite the end of the story. How did your career progress?
In 1992, an on-air announcer left, and I was hired full time as a music host at WMUK. There was a lot of music mixed in then with the anchor programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. I learned a lot from playing all those recordings over the years. I was also able to present local music through a two-hour showcase program called In Concert. Then, in 2001, our program director, Clay Woodworth, said, “I think you should start interviewing people.”
That’s when the show Let’s Hear It started, where I interviewed local musicians and artists about their work. It really became a valuable program to the community. A lot of people remember it and still appreciate it. I can’t remember why it went away, just that things come and go.
Then, in October 2019, the news department lost a reporter and asked if I could fill in doing the news announcing during All Things Considered, and I said, “Sure.” Everyone was kind of surprised that I sounded like a newsperson because I don’t have journalism training. It’s not that weird to me, because it’s been in my ear this whole time. I’ve been listening to other on-air announcers for years.
Do you still play music?
I am a flutist, which translates to playing a lot of the reed instruments, (including) alto and tenor saxophone. I’ve played in the pit orchestras for local theaters and with the bands Blue Dahlia and An Dro. In 1999, Dave Marlatt, whose band Whiskey Before Breakfast had lost its flute player, asked me if I wanted to start playing Celtic music, which I knew nothing about.
My then-boyfriend said, “If you join a band, I am going to have to rethink this relationship.” Three months later he was gone. I was in the band and having the time of my life.
Your affinity for Celtic music has also spilled over into your work.
In 2004, WMUK wanted to start some more local music shows, so Dave Marlatt and I created and co-host a Celtic music show called The Pure Drop (which airs Sundays at 3 p.m. on WMUK). It’s been on the air for 17 years. Dave and I also put on The Pure Drop Concert Series, where we bring in Celtic musicians to perform at the Richland Community Hall.
You’ve interviewed more than 5,000 people during your time at WMUK. Any favorites?
Whoever’s in front of me is the most fascinating person in the world at that moment, but my happy zone is interviewing the person who doesn’t always get a chance to talk about what they do. Famous people are already bored with having to do interviews, and you think you’re making a connection but then read a New York Times article where they said the exact same thing. They’re just on repeat.
I do love to interview Andrew Koehler, the music director of the Kalamazoo Philharmonia and Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra and the current conductor of the Western Michigan University Orchestra. He’s one of the most thoughtful, articulate people. He makes it easy on me. He’s one of those people who takes the time to think out a fully explained answer rather than just kind of fiddling for it, grasping for it, as most of us do. He just has this wonderful pause, and then the whole thing comes out in these beautiful paragraphs. That’s rare.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity