Arts & Culture

Heart on the Line

For two decades, WLIF’s Fran Lane has played Baltimore’s romantic and lovelorn requests.

The digital clock in the studio reads 11:45 and it’s Friday night, which means it’s time for Fran Lane to entertain her longest-tenured caller, a happily married, 59-year-old Annapolis college professor who goes by The Captain. Each week for the past 22 years, give or take a rare miss, The Captain dials in and plays a faux cat-and-mouse love game with the WLIF 101.9 nighttime host of Love Songs with Fran Lane, who does her best to play along. It started with his first request, “Nightshift” by the Commodores, way back when.

“It goes out to you and anyone else who may be working,” he told Lane across the airwaves, flirting with the woman who brings five hours of love-song requests and dedications to Baltimore every weeknight.

Normally, The Captain greets Lane with an over-the-top imitation of William Shatner’s signature line from the TV show Star Trek, “This is the captain speaking!” But tonight, Valentine’s Day approaches.

“Hi Captain, how are you?” Lane asks.

“I’m fine, but this is Dan Cupid,” he says, switching character. (He occasionally goes by the Easter Bunny in April, Uncle Sam on a day near the Fourth of July, and the Great Pumpkin or Tom Turkey in the fall.)

The 51-year-old Lane, who could easily pass for thirtysomething and possesses a preternaturally soothing voice, sits alone behind a silver microphone extending from her desk inside the WLIF studio near Mt. Washington. She prefers the lights be kept low. A pair of black headphones rests over her long, dirty blond hair. Three computer screens surround her, brightening the darkness. The soundboard is at her fingertips and a cup of coffee not far away.

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot,” she replies, playing it straight. “How are you Dan?”

“I’m terrific! How are you?”

“I’m great,” Lane says. “It’s Friday. And you’re here.”

“Yes I am,” he replies. “Of course, this is a very special weekend . . . ”

If radio is the theater of the mind, as Lane believes it is, then she’s the director from 7 p.m. to midnight every Monday through Friday. The “actors” come from all over 101.9’s broadcast reach and include frequent dialers with on-air personas such as The Captain or Big Kat, who sends out a “special of the week” at the end of his calls. But they also include the nightly, more serious one-off requesters, like Julie from Westminster, who wants to encourage her fiancé through the difficult start of a new job with “Keep Your Head Up” by Andy Grammer, and listeners who fall somewhere in between, like Michelle Hope, a 46-year-old bus attendant from White Marsh, who first called in while going through a difficult divorce.

The production is rooted in love, one of the world’s endless pursuits.

“What’s on your heart tonight?” she asks. “You can tell me about it.”

There is a formula to being a friend in the night, to drawing emotion from strangers, and Lane has the science down. “What’s on your heart tonight?” is her catchphrase, to which she usually adds, “You can tell me about it,” before sharing the station’s phone number. During weather updates, skies aren’t clear, they are moon-lit. From her seat in the Lite FM studio, she sets the mood with sympathetic and soothing one-liners.

On a recent night, Lane plays Orleans’ familiar 1976 soft-rock hit, “Still the One.”

“Who’s the one for you?” she asks.

“Can I make a request?” asks a middle-aged man from Odenton who wants to hear, “You’re Beautiful,” by James Blunt, dedicated to his special someone.

“That’s what I’m here for.”

It’s a drizzly, winter Monday afternoon when Lane arrives at Atwater’s in Belvedere Square Market for a scheduled interview. First, however, she needs a pick-me-up. “What’s the strongest coffee you have?” she asks a cashier.

Wearing a black coat and scarf, she sips from the white paper cup, hands cradling it to enjoy the warmth and then admits she’s not that comfortable talking about herself. “I’m kind of shy by nature,” she says. “The anonymity of radio works for me, as well as the callers. I’m very comfortable with that.”

Then she leans forward with a polite smile. “But what do you want to know about our little show?”

Lane lives in the Mayfield neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore, which is also where she grew up. She knows everybody there and says the best part of her day is the “talking walks” she takes with her two Irish wolfhounds, Magda and Jude, and her husband of 23 years, Tom Fink. He’s a graphic designer. He’s also president of the Junius B. Booth Society, a nonprofit that has worked with Harford County to turn Tudor Hall, where Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth grew up, into a museum. Both share an interest in 19th-century history.

“Tom’s interested in theater,” she says. “I’m more interested in the architecture. It’s just a fascinating time in our country.” She also has a 31-year-old stepson, T.J., a U.S. Army veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lane met her future husband about as far away from Baltimore as you can get in the U.S.—and by pure coincidence. On vacation in Los Angeles, she was supposed to hang out with a childhood friend who was in the movie business. But he got a gig the day before her flight left from Baltimore, and told her a neighbor was available if she needed to get someone to show her around town. That was Fink.

“Do you have a certain someone on your mind?”

“We just hit it off immediately, yakking away. We had a lot of the same interests,” Lane says.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Is she as nice off the air as she is on?’” Fink says later. “And yeah, she definitely is. She really cares about people. She has a great heart. One of the things she loves most about her job is her audience. She puts them first.” To her husband’s point, each February, Lane makes “Valentine” workplace visits to the loved ones of contest winners, delivering candy, flowers, theater tickets, restaurant gift certificates, and hotel vouchers on their behalf.

Not that everything is roses when you talk about love, of course. Hearts get broken, relationships end. Not always well.

Hope, the bus attendant for Baltimore County Public Schools, first spoke with Lane after her divorce left her insecure and dealing with trust issues. “She heard my story and, ever since, has put me on the air every time I call,” Hope says. “I adore her. I want to thank her for everything she does for all the people in Baltimore and whoever can get her show.”

“Maybe you just need a song to take you someplace else.”

In her own life, Lane is facing some of the difficult feelings that inevitably come with love—whether it’s a romantic, platonic, or familial bond. Her father, Florian, who turned 88 in January, was diagnosed with kidney cancer this fall, after an unrelated surgery. A Fells Point native born to Polish immigrants, he spent a career in sales working for an industrial chemical company. Her mom, Marge, now 85, took care of Lane and her four older siblings, and later worked at T. Rowe Price. Together, they provided their daughter, who never went to college, all the education she needed for a job no one could plan.

“My parents were a great example to me of a loving relationship,” she says. “They are kind of opposites. My dad is super outgoing and my mom is more of an introvert. They had different interests and common ones, too. If my mom was interested in something, he was interested in it. It might not have been his favorite thing, but they did that for each other. They are best friends. I knew that’s what I wanted to have in my life.”

“Need one for the ride?”

At 9 p.m., there are only four cars in the dark parking lot of the CBS Radio building off of Falls Road, and one of them belongs to Lane. Inside, she is a one-woman show, taking the calls, editing them on the fly, and turning them around for live broadcast. She has no producers or support staff. The building also houses Mix 106.5 and 105.7 The Fan, and sports talk-show host Terry Ford, who also works evenings, waves as Lane passes by.

A Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins is on a TV with the sound turned off in her studio. Lane is a sports fan, too. She’s into the Ravens and, in the summer, Orioles games serve as her background viewing of choice. The O’s typical 7:05 p.m. first pitch aligns perfectly with the start of her show.

“I grew up loving radio,” she says, adding that she idolized local top hits disc jockey Johnny Dark, who she later worked with briefly at 101.9. “As a kid, I always felt like he was talking to me. It was one-on-one. I’ve always tried to emulate that.”

“It’s a place to reveal your heart.”

While Lane counts the Rolling Stones among her all-time favorite bands, she also appreciates jazz and modern pop stars like Adele and Ed Sheeran. For the most part, she fits the 25 to 54 female demographic that makes up the bulk of her audience. That said, she gets requests from a wide variety of folks—teenagers, seniors, male and female—even occasional second-generation listeners whose parents put them to bed with WLIF.

“My parents were a great example to me of a loving relationship. They are opposites. . . . They are best friends.”

“What she does is a unique craft,” says Dave Labrozzi, CBS Radio Baltimore vice president of programming. “In my estimation, there’s nobody better in the country doing that type of show, especially the way she puts callers on the air and gets them involved. That’s a special art that she has mastered.”

After working at an AM station in Bel Air right out of high school, Lane had jobs at rock stations in Portsmouth, NH, and Boston before returning to her hometown. An acquaintance at WLIF asked if she could fill in for a nighttime host who had been felled by the old entertainment line “break a leg” after slipping on ice. That 10-week gig is closing in on a quarter-century.

“I never thought this would be what I’d end up doing, but I love what I do. It’s something positive,” she says. “There’s a certain intimacy with nighttime radio, an immediate interaction, and it’s local. You’re talking to your community and giving them a voice.”

When she started, the format was slightly different, however. Listeners called in, but their dedications weren’t heard on the air. A child of the ’70s, Lane felt she needed to bring a bit of Wolfman Jack, the famed DJ featured in George Lucas’s early film American Graffiti, to Charm City.

“We get a little lost in love and lost in the music, too.”

“They’re not tuning in to hear me talk about my problems,” she says, offering a glimpse at what has kept her part of 101.9’s top-rated local programming for so long. “Doing it is a great distraction. Let’s focus on what’s going on with somebody else. It is a little therapeutic [for everyone].”

In The Captain’s opinion, the show will go on for another 20 years. It’s the local flavor—at least 25 callers a night get their voices on the air, with many more names mentioned—that he thinks will stand the test of time and competition from satellite radio and other media. He plans on playing his role, hitting the airwaves with regularity before Lane’s signature signoff, “Sweet dreams, Baltimore.”

“She’s part of Baltimore culture,” he says. “She’s kind of like the Senator Theatre and Bengies Drive-In. I don’t know how many people would recognize her on the street, probably nobody, but the way she does it, everyone feels connected.”

Lane has vacation days to use, but won’t take them all. She’s committed to her callers in that way. Nor does she necessarily aspire to bigger and better. There is someone out there named Delilah, who is essentially the nationally syndicated version of Lane’s voice in the Baltimore night. Typically, Delilah can be heard the same five hours as Lane, doing the identical love-request format, in many cities across the country.

“You never rule it out, if she wants to retire . . .” Lane acknowledges with a smile. “But not many people get to work in their hometown. I would miss that. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do this. I love it.”

“What’s on your heart?”