ROCHESTER--In these days of shock radio and morning zoos featuring pseudo-doctors and -brothers, it may come as a surprise to learn that one of the area's most original radio personalities can be found on a classical music station.
Each Wednesday morning at about 7:15, WXXI-FM announcer Simon Pontin puts Bach on the back burner and Haydn on hold, to spend a few minutes listening to what he often describes as the "raving" of essayist Richard Howland-Bolton.
In his inimitably animated style, Howland-Bolton addresses topics ranging from the slaughtering of evergreen trees for Christmas to what would happen if a car suddenly backfired during a meeting of the National Rifle Association. While the essays are off-beat--and often hilarious--the essayist says he tries to loosely lace lessons among the laughs.
"I'm usually deadly serious about what I say, but I hide it fairly well, I hope," Howland-Bolton said from WXXI's downtown Rochester studios. "I do feel strongly about certain things. I try to be mildly amusing, but I'm usually lecturing."
"A lot is about morality, although I don't know if I'm a particularly moral person," he continued. "But all humor is serious. It's usually about one of two things: how to act, or how to survive."
A former teacher, Howland-Bolton's love of language and history also manifests itself in the weekly harangues.
"Every so often I castigate a figure from history," he said. "I still haven't forgiven William the Conqueror."
A transplanted Briton, Howland-Bolton says his decision to come to America, his new job at Cornell University, and his fledgling radio career are all basically "accidents."
He arrived in Miami in September 1979 to photograph a boat show. ("I had never been quite that hot and humid," he recalled). He worked his way north up the east coast and by January 1980 arrived in Rochester, where he met his future bride. He married his wife, Ann, on July 4, 1980 ("I couldn't believe how many people celebrated."). The couple have four children: Raedwald, 7, Eadweard, 5, Emma, 3, and an unnamed baby boy born 15 days ago.
"We're still arm-wrestling over what to call it," he said.
Howland-Bolton, who will turn 42 this month, recently left his job as a computer specialist at Nazareth College in Pittsford for a newly-created position at Cornell in Ithaca. (He's either "manager of publications computing systems" or "publications guru," depending on which business card he gives you.)
He said he enjoyed Nazareth, "but my salary was based on the assumption--quite erroneous--that I was a nun."
Howland-Bolton studied philosophy and physics in college, worked in specialized fields of photography afterward, and eventually "discovered computers, quite by accident." He was able to finagle substitute and temporary teaching jobs in the area, but not permanent ones.
"To get certified for full-time teaching in this country, you need to be a United States citizen," said Howland-Bolton, who hails from Suffolk, England. "You have to be a U.S. citizen to get into teaching, police work or the armed forces: Interestingly enough, three occupations with a lot in common."
On the other hand, Howland-Bolton says his nationality probably contributed to his presence on the airwaves.
"I'd never be on the radio in Britain," he says. "There are 52 million people there who sound just like me."
Howland-Bolton hooked up with WXXI (91.5 FM) about three years ago, after sending several essays to morning announcer Simon Pontin. Some time later, Pontin invited Howland-Bolton to produce weekly essays for the morning show.
The two share a playfully antagonistic on-air relationship. It's not beyond Pontin, also from England, to jibe "RHB" when introducing the essays.
"I was ill or something one day, and wasn't able to do my essay," Howland-Bolton recalled. "(Pontin) broadcast that I had been mugged. A friend actually called to see if I was OK. See, he's the weird one; I'm normal."
Off the air, the jabs continue.
"I like him very much," Pontin admitted following a recent broadcast, "even if he can't read and breathe at the same time."
Howland-Bolton is just one of several local essayists Pontin has recruited for his 6 to 10 a.m. Monday-through-Saturday program. Among the others, Isabel Neuberger, George Grella, Bill Johnson, Edith Lank and Bob Koch provide--respectively--general reports, movie reviews, humorous essays, real estate information and profiles on local artists.
But Pontin treats the rest of the team with a degree of on-air respect usually denied Howland-Bolton. Even when complimenting RHB, Pontin can't resist a dig.
"I like the essays," he said. "I wouldn't have him on the show if I didn't like them. It's him I don't like."
Howland-Bolton said the good-natured sparring comes about because the two Englishmen have a lot in common.
"Before 1979 (when he came to America), there is very little I have in common with people here," he said. "A lot of the weirdness is just us talking about things you don't know about."
The 190-some essays he's written in the past three years have brought Howland-Bolton a measure of recognition.
"The number of people who recognize me is small enough so that it's actually pleasurable," he said. "I don't attract the sort of person who would be a fan, but people will shyly say they listen to me.
"Of course, in radio you have the advantage that if you shut up, nobody recognizes you."