The Origin of Audiophile Audition, Part 1
Audiophile Audition began with John Sunier.
The Sunier family immigrated from Neuchatel, Switzerland to the US in 1881, initially settling in Ohio. In 1883, the family moved to Iowa City, Iowa. Aime Sunier, the family patriarch (John’s grandfather), opened a jewelry and musical instrument store at 112 Washington St. in a building that was previously the First National Bank of Iowa City.
A. Sunier & Son Jewelry and Music Store sold sewing machines, jewelry, watches, clocks, pianos, organs, sheet music and a variety of musical instruments. In addition, it sold the first cylinder graphophone records and Edison phonograph records in the Iowa City area.
Here is a selection of print ads for the store from the local Iowa City newspapers of the era:
Notice the elephant standing on the cylinder record in the first print ad at the far right!
Aime Sunier performed on autoharp at various public events such as the University of Iowa, local literary society meetings, hotel lobbies and church events. One such performance on 4 June 1892 was at the Coldren Opera House where the Englert Theatre stands today in Iowa City. John (Senior) played the piano, ocarina [ancient flute shaped like a potato], harmonica, accordion and zither at various local public events as well. In 1929 and 1932, John (Senior) performed piano, accordion and autoharp selections live on the air from the studios of WSUI-FM. As prominent business owners and local musical performers, the Sunier family was well known in the Iowa City area.
John (Senior) had visited the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago in August 1893. His visit was listed in the Independent Herald, 9 August 1893. He possibly attended Antonín Dvořák conducting the gala “Bohemian Day” concert on 12 August 1893 at the exposition. The Indonesian gamelan [percussion ensemble] were first heard in the U.S. at the exposition. This interest in varied musical instruments would later be passed down and impressed upon on young John (Junior).
John (Senior) continued the family business after Aime Sunier passed away in 1907, rechristening the store John H. Sunier Jewelry and Music House.
Here is a selection of print ads for the store from the local Iowa City newspapers of this era:
The sewing machine and jewelry portions of the business were later curtailed and the store at its original location of 112 Washington St. closed in December 1928. In 1929, the music store re-opened at a new, smaller location down the street at 220 Washington St., opposite the Englert Theater.
John (Senior) retired and closed down the second location in 1933. In retirement, he sold pianos and other musical instruments from his large house on North Dubuque St.
This family history of music and musical instruments was the world into which John (Junior) was born. This environment made John “sound aware.” John Henry Sunier (Junior) was born on 30 November 1936. He learned to play the piano and many other musical instruments such as the accordion, harmonica, flexatone [glide pitch percussive wand] and castanets [clackers] from a young age. He was, in fact, a piano prodigy.
From the mid-1940s until 1953, John (Senior) and John (Junior), father and son, performed as a duo at local events in the Iowa City area such as moose lodge events, anniversaries, cub scout meetings and church gatherings. They were often seen performing together in the upstairs parlor at the Jefferson Hotel, just across the street from where the Sunier music stores were once located. Some of these early performances were recorded on an early home disc recording machine.
Notice John (Senior) announces the performance in a similar fashion to Edison Records on these audio recordings:
John (Senior) passed away in 1953, aged 83.
John (Junior) attended the University of Iowa, attaining a Bachelor of Arts in Music as a pianist. Initially, the goal was to become a concert pianist, however, he didn’t want to sweat the recitals and decided instead to pursue a career in radio producing and announcing.
Here is the earliest aircheck recording of John Sunier announcing on WSUI-FM, Iowa City, Iowa. These date from September 1955 to March 1957. Notice the last name pronunciation as “soon yer” here.
Sunier hosted programs such as Music for Listening, Family Album and Musical Chats during his time at WSUI-FM and the University of Iowa, winning a Broxum Award from the university for radio broadcasting in May 1958. Some of these programs of Family Album were sourced from Edison phonograph records and graphophone cylinder records left over from the former Sunier music store.
Using an Ampex 601 portable reel to reel tape recorder and EV-665 monaural microphone, John Sunier recorded several performances of the University of Iowa orchestra from 1956-8. This was his first professional experience with sound recording. Several of these reels are extant today.
American composer Samuel Barber visited the university in March 1957, attending recitals of his music. The performance on 25 March 1957 by the SUI String Quartet included his String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11 with the middle movement, Adagio for Strings, played faster than when it is performed separately in modern performances.
At the performance on 27 March 1957, the Overture to The School for Scandal and the Second Symphony, Opus 19, were performed in the composer’s presence. After the concert, Sunier asked for and received an autograph from Samuel Barber himself on the printed program. Here it is: (green ink, lower left).
During his time at the University of Iowa, John Sunier wrote his first regular weekly newspaper column, Needle Talk, as a music reviewer for the editorial page of the university newspaper The Daily Iowan, 1957-1958. These articles can be found online in the archive at https://dailyiowan.lib.uiowa.edu/
A graduate scholarship to Boston University was awarded to John Sunier in April 1958 for a 1 year program toward a Master of Science in Communications as a radio producer-director for WGBH-FM.
Sunier’s master thesis, Stereophonic Sound and its impact upon the communications industry, August 1959, (250 pages) is available in PDF format here https://open.bu.edu/handle/2144/21950
This thesis was later rewritten as The Story of Stereo 1881- (Gernsback Library, Inc., 160 pages) December 1960, available in PDF format here https://www.tubebooks.org/Books/Atwood/Sunier%201960%20The%20Story%20of%20Stereo.pdf
These were written prior to the FCC approving FM stereo multiplexing in April 1961.
The Story of Stereo 1881- is a good read if you are interested in the subject. As you may be familiar with the way John spoke, one can truly “hear the author’s voice” mentally as you read. The early development of stereophonic sound at Bell Labs is covered as well as stereo sound on film, tape, discs and broadcasting. Placement of microphones is also covered. The often-cited 1881 Paris Exposition origin of binaural sound reproduction is contained in Chapter 2.
Caption: “Sausalito resident John Sunier is the author of The Story of Stereo 1881-, a Gernsback Library book aimed at the hi-fi addict. His reviews of recordings, both classical and jazz appear frequently in the Marin Magazine. (Independent-Journal photo)”
While at Boston University and WGBH-FM radio as a producer-director from 1958-1960, John Sunier created a program called And Not Without Humor (ANWH) which broadcast comedy album segments and original comedy material. ANWH was broadcast on WGBH from 10/1/1958 to 4/27/1959, 76 broadcasts. Program lengths were 10 to 15mins, later expanded to 30mins. This program predated The Dr. Demento Show (KPPC-FM, 1970 and KMET-FM, 1972) by over a decade.
The original humor presented on ANWH reveals Sunier as strongly influenced by early radio humor such as Bob & Ray. One of the best examples of this humor is this original WBOS Boston radio satire.
Also featured on ANWH was a parody of guest interviews with absurd humor. This was 20 years before Sunier would record guest interviews for Audiophile Audition covering important topics in the world of audio and music in a serious manner.
In 1960, an interview with talent recruiters from Berkley, California for KPFA-FM would lead John Sunier to move west to California. Sunier was attracted by the then-adventurous programming on KPFA-FM and a print ad listing a harpsichord for sale. Here is the print ad that appeared in the KPFA Folio that may have drawn him to San Francisco:
The print ad appears in 4 issues of the KPFA Folio, February to April 1960 [Vol. 10 issue 23,24,25,26]
Sunier settled across the bay in Sausalito, California, working in operations and announcing for KPFA-FM.
In December 1960, John Sunier hosted a program on KHIP-FM called Sounds Different, Friday and Saturday nights 10pm to 1am. In the 1960s, Sunier also announced on KDFC-FM, KAFE-FM in San Francisco [exact timeframe not known] and appeared on KTIM-FM discussing harpsichords in 1962.
As John Sunier was knowledgeable about audiophile recordings, the new program director of KDFC-FM suggested he host a program called Direct to Disc discussing these high fidelity recordings. There was no remuneration for producing the program and Sunier could not keep any of the new recordings he presented on the program. [This information is derived from an interview with John Sunier, broadcast on KALW-FM 11/22/1989]
Live music recitals were not entirely given up to his radio announcing and producing career. John Sunier performed on harpsichord with the San Francisco Conservatory on 2/21/1961, for example.
In February 1964, San Francisco FM station KBCO was renamed KBRG “the bridge” as a 50,000 watt station with John Sunier as the new general manager and program director. His office was at 442 Post Street in San Francisco. The office building still stands today. KBRG-FM was initially on the air 6am to 12 midnight playing stereo albums. By April 1964, the station was broadcasting full-time stereo classical music. From July 1964, Sunier hosted The New Records, weeknights 9pm to 10pm. He was general manager until 1966.
Photo taken in his office at 442 Post St. in San Francisco, February 1965.
ANWH continued as 60-minute weekly programs on KBRG-FM (8/15/1964 to 5/29/1965, 42 broadcasts) and KPFA-FM (10/5/1965 to 5/3/1966 and 12/16/1966 to 3/26/1967, 42 broadcasts) in San Francisco. Part-way through the KPFA run, on 2/23/1966, the program moved back to a 30-minute format. 5 whole programs and several source segments from this series are extant on open reel tape today.
Of historical note from this timeframe is John Sunier reciting the NBC radio pronunciation test in 1966.
John Sunier’s career as a freelance writer for several publications ramped up from here. Sunier wrote a weekly newspaper column, On The Stereo Scene, for the Daily Independent Journal, San Rafael, California from August 1962 [earliest listing] to January 1976 [last listing with Sunier as writer]. These are available to read via newspapers.com. Sunier was also editor of the FM & Cultural Guide, from 1962 to the early 1970s.
From 1966 to 1972, Sunier worked for the Standard School Broadcast, a weekly educational radio series, as a producer, sound editor and musical performer. His office was in the Standard Oil Building at 225 Bush St. in San Francisco. This office building still stands today. More information about the Standard Hour and Standard School Broadcast can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Standard_School_Broadcast
Caption: “John Sunier of Sausalito, in charge of music and recording for the Standard School Broadcast, composites a sequence of sound effects on the audio equipment of the broadcast’s offices in the Bush Street building of Standard Oil. These tapes will later be combined in the Hollywood studios with tapes of the musical selections and announcers.”
In 1972-3, Sunier presented a class in Sound in Motion Pictures at San Francisco City College. An example of a completed project for the class is extant today. The Star Spangled Banner (1973) is a 16mm short film featuring brief cuts of individuals around San Francisco reciting 1 line from the title song as the lyrics build up to the finale with a group of people in a city park. John Sunier’s voice can be heard saying “cut” over the end credits with some audio outtakes of the individuals filmed for the short.
From 1973 to 1979, John Sunier worked for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Films as Sound Director. His office was located in the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Building at Polk and Geary in San Francisco.
In April 1978, Sunier authored his second book, The Handbook of Telephones & Accessories (TAB Books, 432 pages). This book covers consumer-level details about answering machines, answering services and various electronic equipment related to contemporary phone technology. There is a chapter devoted to interesting legal issues of the era and an entire chapter about creating an answering machine message both humorous and otherwise.
In the 1970s, Sunier was a member of Multi-Image Showcase (MIS), a group of artists in the Bay Area who worked on multiple-slide projector audio-visual presentations. In 1979 and 1980, he presented 2-day workshops on Techniques of Slide/Sound Production at the University of Santa Clara, Ft. Mason Center and other locations. Related to this subject, his third and final book, Slide/Sound and Filmstrip Production (Focal Press, 160 pages), was published in 1981. This book covers planning, graphics, effects and audio for slide presentations, including multi-image shows. The basic non-technical portions of the book can be applied to current-day PowerPoint presentations.
In 1979, John Sunier began writing about audio and music topics for KQED-FM’s Focus magazine. He proposed a new radio program to KQED management that would showcase the high fidelity recordings he was writing about – Audiophile Audition.
[end of part one]
A great source for information used in this article is this 1989 radio interview with John Sunier:
Sources for information in this article:
Iowa City Press-Citizen, 1891 to 1958
Iowa City Daily Republican, 1893
Independent Herald, 1893
Daily Iowan, University of Iowa newspaper, 1956-8
Boston Globe, 1958-1959
San Francisco Examiner, 1960-1997
Daily Independent Journal, San Rafael, California, 1960-1977, via newspapers.com
KPFA Folio, 1960-1967
Who’s Who in Entertainment 1992-3, 2nd Edition (1992)
Author Bio: William Lonergan
I was an avid listener of Audiophile Audition on FM radio back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was drawn in by the binaural broadcasts and then stuck around to hear what else John Sunier had to say. The program ignited my interest and enthusiasm in film scores, non-standard repertoire classical and headphone listening.
I’m sort of the unofficial archivist and “Beard of Knowledge” for the FM radio series of Audiophile Audition. I am currently working on a grand project to digitize tapes documenting John Sunier’s radio career and Audiophile Audition. It is my pleasure to listen to these recordings and write about them.
Outside the audiophile world, I am a SCUBA diver, voracious reader, archivist, movie buff, live music enthusiast and information technology problem-solver. I am a graduate of Missouri State University at Springfield with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems.