Not everyone can say they’ve been working in their dream job for 40 years. Even fewer can say they accidentally fell into the gig of a lifetime. But Dianne Nicolini is one of the lucky folks who can claim both.
Four decades after she got started, Dianne is now a mainstay of classical radio. But that’s not the path she thought she’d be on when she first answered an ad for Kansas City’s Classic KXTR in 1980 while she was in grad school. She took a part-time shift, working overnights.
“I mean, it attracted me because I was a theater major. I thought it would be a kick to be on the radio. And I also had done my junior year of college in France, so I felt very comfortable with French. I just thought it would be kind of a fun thing. Why not? And it did say no experience necessary,” Dianne said. “I really, really came at it from knowing nothing.”
That is obviously not the Dianne Nicolini that listeners know today. She’s come to be someone that listeners appreciate as a friend, trusting her to fill them in on everything they might want to know about the music they’re listening to.
Dianne hosting San Francisco Opera in the Park
Dianne and Rik Malone in the broadcast booth during a San Francisco Symphony Opening Night Gala Live Broadcast
But if you ask Dianne, that persona grew directly out of her self-taught roots at KXTR.
Sometimes that meant flipping through the LPs in the studio, turning them over, just reading the notes. At others, it meant deeper research and getting coached on the proper pronunciations from a professor at a local music conservatory.
“I am very honest about the fact that I’m not a musicologist,” Dianne said. “Over time, I realized that’s OK, because there are other people that could do that… [For me] I think, ‘Well, what would I want to know about this piece if it will enhance my listening?’”
Eventually, after her husband graduated from medical school in Kansas City, she moved with him back to California, working at KUSC for two weeks before a full-time position opened up at KKHI in San Francisco. When that station changed formats, Dianne moved over to KDFC — becoming the “first live human on the radio station,” after years of KDFC’s automation — and the rest is history.
Hoyt Smith and Dianne being inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame with Bill Lueth at their side
Through all these years, Dianne has loved constantly building on her knowledge, and not just of the classical repertoire itself.
“I always learn new things about history, art, architecture — because it all ties together to classical music. A lot of it is old, a lot of it has a connection to whatever was going on at that moment in time,” Dianne says. “I like to just bring it down to real life and make it relatable.”
Still, that personable radio presence is something she considers hard-won. She looks back on the mid-‘90s, when KDFC President Bill Lueth stepped in as her boss, as the moment she really found her rhythm on the airwaves.
“It took me a while, you know, it wasn’t overnight — to just relax and trust myself on the air. But that was a huge deal,” Dianne said. “But Bill also said: ‘You know what? You’re going to like your job better.’ And he was so right!”
Bill with Dianne
Bill remembers that moment slightly differently. Though he concedes that it took a little while, in his eyes, Dianne has always been one of the best in all of radio.
“Dianne is a smart, fun, charming, empathetic person in real life. She’s so much more interesting than just that great voice,” Bill said. “KDFC is like family, and Dianne is a big part of why that is. She likes to have fun, she steps in whenever needed for the sake of the greater good.”
Hoyt, Rik, Dianne, and Bill backstage during a San Francisco Symphony Opening Night Gala Live Broadcast
Dianne and Rik working hard the the KDFC tent during San Francisco Opera in the Park
Dianne and Hoyt hosting San Francisco Opera in the Ballpark
Even in the past few challenging months, Dianne’s sense of camaraderie with her listeners hasn’t wavered. As one listener, Joyce, put it: “I listen to Dianne Nicolini whenever I can. Thank you all for the beautiful music and uplifting words. You are always there for us, and we are grateful.”
These days Dianne can’t imagine doing anything else — as much as she loved theater, and loved studying it for both her degrees, she never loved the audition process. Her job now gives her “a nice little showbiz feeling,” even when she’s introducing the music from her daughter’s former bedroom in her house during the pandemic.
Dianne recording her shows from her daughter’s former bedroom
This year, she was supposed to mark her big anniversary in the biz with a trip to Italy. Instead, she’s continuing to bring classical music to hundreds of thousands of listeners, with her usual grace and wit. And through it all, she’s still thrilled to get to do what she does, as long as anyone will let her.
Dianne talking to an aspiring DJ at a KDFC Discovery Day event
“I never seriously considered doing anything else. Because I realized that this was just a fabulous job. I just listen to this great music,” Dianne said. “The biggest compliment I ever receive is when people say, ‘I feel like you are a friend of mine.’ That’s why I do what I do; I mean, that just makes it. You know, that’s why I continue to work.”