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Jill Pasternak's Path to WRTI

WRTI classical host Jill Pasternak in Rock Hall at Temple University in 1999.

[*This article originally appeared in the 2000 spring issue of TEMPO, WRTI's member magazine from 1997 to 2008.]

Jill Pasternak is a celebrated Philadelphia radio personality whose work was recognized by Women in Communications when she won the Sarah Award in Radio Broadcasting in 1999. She is a denizen of the town that has truly loved her back, but when she arrived here 15 years ago, it was with apprehension. She says, "I thought that when I came to Philadelphia my life was over."

The story behind that remark takes a little telling. It begins in North Jersey, “in the Newark of Philip Roth,” she explains. Her father, a physician, was an émigré from Poland. He was also a classically trained pianist who had won the Paderewski award as a young man; her mother played piano, too.

She was a musical child; she sang in the school glee club and took piano lessons, and like most other children, didn’t practice. But when she was 15, her parents sent her to an acclaimed performing arts summer camp - Interlochen, in Michigan. “I checked off drama and beginning harp just for the fun of it,” she explains.

Pasternak’s teacher at Interlochen told her that she would never play the harp – that her thumbs were too long. But once home, she missed playing an instrument and agreed to pursue studying the harp, nevertheless.

"Life challenges us, but we must live it. That's what makes us interesting."- Jill Pasternak

Her mother found a local harp teacher who agreed to rent them a harp for only four weeks and provide lessons. In pursuit of a more permanent rental harp, she spoke to the mother of a young, professional harpist who told her that “the only person to study with was the head of the harp department at Juilliard. Marcel Grandjany.” Despite that fact that her daughter was a novice, she called Grandjany and managed to arrange an interview.

That interview was the turning point of my life,” Pasternak recalls. “He examined my hands after hearing the story of my first teacher’s assessment, asked me to play for him, and subsequently agreed to take me as a student.”

Grandjany’s training during the next year-and-a-half prepared her for entrance exam and acceptance at Juilliard. (On that occasion her parents bought her a golden Lyon and Healy concert harp that she still performs on today.) The bachelor’s program at Juilliard was a five-year course. “It was intense,” she recalls. “The other students, who included Van Cliburn, were so focused.”

Jill in 1955.

While at Juilliard she played professionally with New York’s Little Orchestra Society, and after graduation, she joined the Halifax Symphony Orchestra in Nova Scotia. A year later she was en route to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship. “It was during the Suez Crisis,” she recalls, “and there was no heat in the apartment. It was a La Bohéme experience.

Upon her return she discovered that “Paris was cold, but nothing like the New York music scene” where jobs for harpists were scarce. That’s why she headed for Florida and two seasons with the Orlando Symphony.

Back in NYC with no prospects, she found work as an editorial assistant for the HiFi Stereo Review magazine. But soon after she was hired as a staff harpist at Radio City Music Hall in addition to freelancing on Broadway and doing recordings and commercials.

Jill in 1953 with Ed Sullivan and her husband.

Marriage and the births of a daughter and son cast her in the happy role of a full-time wife and mother. But changes in her personal life would set Pasternak on a new course.

Thirteen years later, Pasternak was discovered, settled in West Orange, N.J., with her children and fending for herself. “I couldn’t return to performing to make a living after being out of it for so long, so I began to develop other skills,” she explains. She was a coordinator for a cultural arts center, then and editor of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Anthology of American Music, and an administrative assistant at Nonesuch Records.

With an eye on teaching music at her university level, she enrolled for evening classes at Montclair State College. By then she was the PR director for a women’s recruiting firm and was developing a series for cable TV. An elective course in TV production and an influential professor were factors in switching her major to public media, in which she completed a master’s degree.

For the six years that followed, Pasternak was a training manager at Exxon until she received a fateful phone call: it was from her former professor regarding a blind ad in Broadcasting magazine for a classical music host. It turned out to be WMHT, a radio station in Schenectady, N.Y. She auditioned along with 86 other candidates and got the job. But the logistics weren't easy. She hosted the show from Tuesday to Friday and raced home to West Orange for the weekend to be with her son who was still in high school and to work at Exxon on Mondays. Her son joined her in Schenectady for his final year before heading off to college.

On the air in 1997

She made a painful decision three years later – to give up broadcasting for a more substantial salary at a research institution in Philadelphia. It was 1986 when she arrived in Philadelphia as a reluctant immigrant. “Soon after, I was listening to the radio when I heard a golden voice.” It was Dave Conant, the classical music host at WFLN. Pasternak submitted an audition tape, hoping to sub on the weekends. A Sunday sub shift led to a month of Saturdays that led to two years of weekends that led to a full-time job in 1991.

When WFLN dropped its classical music format and WRTI picked it up in 1997, Pasternak was invited to join the station. For the past three-and-a-half years she has been hosting “Afternoon Drive” on weekdays from 2 to 5:30 pm followed by “Crossover Express.” She also serves as a co-producer and co-host with Jack Buerkle of Crossover on Saturdays 11 am to noon, which explores the commonalities of classical music and jazz.

Wherever she has roamed, Pasternak has continued to practice, practice, practice. And for the past 10 years she has been the principal harp of the Kennett Symphony Orchestra. Life in her adopted city has been good. She basks in the accomplishments of her grown children: her daughter is a chef and her son works in international business. "Life challenges us," she says, "but we must live it. That’s what makes us interesting."