Radio Career

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The Beginning: WKPR-AM (1974-1976)

My radio broadcasting career began in the summer of 1974, only a few days after I graduated high school. Mercifully, no recordings survive of my two years at WKPR-AM in Kalamazoo. That station gave me a start, though, and I’ll forever be grateful to the manager there who took a chance on a total greenhorn. When I started, WKPR favored “elevator” music during the weekend and Christian religious programs on the weekend. It went all-religion a few months later. This was something of a trial for the program director, who came to WKPR from an progressive rock station in Boston after his wife got a job in Kalamazoo. WKPR was the only radio gig on offer, so he took it, but much snark ensued after the format change. Sitting on top of a lonely hill at the end of a crumbling driveway, the station still looks much the same today as it did then, minus one tower and a change of frequency.

 

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I try TV: WUHQ TV41 Battle Creek, Michigan (1976)

I landed an internship at WUHQ TV-41 in Battle Creek, Michigan, but fortunately for the viewing public I was off-mic and off camera. Later on the station hired me for a few months during the fall of 1976 to help out during the holiday season running the audio board in master control and as a camera operator. In those days, WUHQ was still the struggling kid on the television block in southwestern Michigan. In many ways it resembled the fictional station in Weird Al Yankovic’s movie UHF. The highlight of my time there was running camera during a wonderful live program called Up Late With Doug Eckman that aired Saturday nights from midnight to 1 a.m. Very few stations would try a free-form program like this now. On one memorable occasion, Eckman showed a 8mm film of the doomed Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald shot by a friend at the Soo Locks only a few months before the ship sank in Lake Superior. Using Gordon Lightfoot’s song about the disaster as the soundtrack, the effect was haunting. The WUHQ building, once the U.S. Army’s headquarters at Fort Custer, now looks rather empty and forlorn. Programming is now handled by WOOD TV-8 in Grand Rapids.

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WMUK-FM Kalamazoo, Michigan (1985-Present)

I was a board-op and part-time newscaster at WMUK while I was a student at Western Michigan University from 1979 to 1981. I must have made a favorable impression because the station hired me in 1985 as a reporter covering local government and to handle newscasts during Morning Edition. I became news director in 1998 following the death of my predecessor and mentor, Tony Griffin. During my tenure the station's news staff has expanded to four and we have plunged head first into the murky waters of social media.

Following are some of the stories I've been privileged to cover during my time at WMUK. Some deal with significant events in the recent history of southwestern Michigan while others are just fun. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I did producing them.

WMUK news features in 2012

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Birds and birdwatching were big in January. First up: a piece about local volunteers participating in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. 

 


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Later in January, I heard about a gathering of crow enthusiasts looking for a big winter "roost" in Kalamazoo. Crows live in small family groups most of the year but gather in large - sometimes very lage - flocks when cold weather arrives. This piece turned out to be poignant because one of the people I interviewed, naturalist Bil Gilbert, died just a few days later.

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In June I had the opportunity to report on a new training program at Kalamazoo Valley Community College designed to deal with a shortage of qualified factory line workers in southwestern Michigan.

WMUK news features in 2011

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One of the biggest, and saddest, events of the year in Kalamazoo was the shooting death of Public Safety Officer Eric Zapata. He was the second law enforcement officer in Kalamazoo County to be shot to death while in duty; the first was in the 1860's. Zapata's memorial service at Western Michigan University's Miller Auditorium drew police, fire, and EMS personnel from as far away as Canada.

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Kalamazoo also remembered the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Each year since the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, people in the city have gathered in Bronson Park to mark the occasion. This is an audio montage of the 2011 memorial.

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WMUK news features in 2010

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Sometimes stories are just fun. The "Radio Ship" piece was one of the infrequent occasions that my hobby and professional interests in radio coincided. In this case it was several amateur radio operators who put the historic Great Lakes passenger steamer Keewatin on the air during the annual "Historic Ships Weekend". The Keewatin was then in Saugatuck, Michigan, where it had literally been on the beach since the mid 1960's. In 2012 it departed for a new home at a museum in Ontario, Canada. You can also listen to an "audio tour" of the ship.

 

 

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Kalamazoo went wild in 2010 when the White House announced that President Obama would address Kalamazoo Central High School seniors at their commencement ceremony. The school had entered a contest to win the prize. When the president comes to town, "normal" life temporarily stops, but few people at the event in Western Michigan University's Read Fieldhouse seemed to mind.

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If you need proof that people will collect just about anything, listen to this feature about guys who restore old farm tractors. The gathering at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, drew lots of interesting people and the noises the tractors made were great.

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Things got serious again just a few days later when a pipeline blew near Battle Creek, Michigan, and dumped at least 800,000 gallons of toxic and sticky "tar sands" oil into the Kalamazoo River. The head of the pipeline company and the governor met the press in Battle Creek not long after the spill was discovered. During those early days the extent of the disaster, how long it would take to clean up, and the actual cost of that were greatly underestimated.

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Wild plants and animals were also affected by the Kalamazoo River oil spill that turned out to be the worst disaster of its kind to date in the Midwest. A center was set up to clean oil from animals caught in the spill. Visiting the place near Marshall, Michigan, was an interesting experience.

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Birds aren't the only wild flying that can be tagged. You wouldn't think butterflies are hardy or big enough for this but they are. Each year volunteers gather at the Kalamazoo Nature Center to learn how, as I learned doing this piece that aired in September. The tagging project is part of an international effort to track monarch migration.

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WMUK news features in 2009

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Tagging isn't the only way some people in southwestern Michigan show their interest in monarch butterflies. Some track their migrations visually. Others construct "butterfly gardens" to attract them. I didn't know until I did this piece that aired in September that monarch caterpillars only eat milkwood. If you want monarchs, plant milkweed in your garden.

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 WMUK news features in 2008

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This was the year that WMUK aired Golden Days and Friendly Faces; a Musical Voyage to America's Emerald Isle. More than two years in the making, this hour-long documentary about the unique music scene on Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan was definitely a "labor of love", and not just for me. I was the writer, executive producer, and general all-around dogsbody, as the Aussies say. But my colleagues Cara Lieurance, Martin Klemm, and Lorraine Caron also played critical roles. All told, we made four recording trips to the island beginning in 2006 and the project would never have gotten off the ground without the unstinting hospitality of everyone we met there. The result of all that hard work was a show that got airplay on public radio stations around the nation. You can listen to it here.

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The Library of Congress launched its "Veterans' History Project" in 2000. You can get a kit that helps you interview veterans in your life to document their stories. The Kalamazoo Air Zoo (formerly called the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum) started doing this quite some time ago. This piece from January looked at the Air Zoo's veterans' history program.

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There's been a lot of hand-wringing in certain quarters about the future of the printed book. You'll find no anxiety about that at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center. In June I went there to see it move to new quarters inside the Parks Trade Center in downtown Kalamazoo.

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Politics was never too far away in 2008. Republican presidential primary contenders John McCain and Mike Huckabee stopped in the Kalamazoo area on January 14th. Democrat Barack Obama and running mate Joe Biden held a campaign rally at C.O. Brown Stadium in Battle Creek, Michigan, around Labor Day, shortly after the Democratic National Convention in Denver. And on Election Night in November, Kalamazoo Democrats and Republicans had different takes on Mr. Obama's victory in the presidential contest.

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WMUK news features in 2007

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To mark Rev. Martin Luther King, Junior Day in January we remembered King's address December 18th, 1963, at Western Michigan University. WMUK broadcast the speech "live" and the station's announcer at the time, Garrard Macleod, still had vivid memories of the event. Macleod later served for many years as WMUK's general manager.

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Kalamazoo drew intense national attention in 2005 when the "Kalamazoo Promise" was unveiled. The college scholarship program funded by anonymous local donors pays tuition at public colleges and universities in Michigan for most graduates of Kalamazoo's public high schools. Two years later the Michigan Public Radio Network asked WMUK to find out if the promise was being fulfilled.

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During the summer of 2007, controversy exploded over a bungled prostitiution bust in Kalamazoo. The story came to light through great reporting by the staff of the Kalamazoo Gazette. At the heart of it was the client book of the woman who was arrested. That book disappeared but allegedly included the names of law enforcement officers and other officials. As fallout continued, Kalamazoo city officials called a news conference in late August to announce that changes would be made at the Department of Public Safety.

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The pharmaceutical industry in Kalamazoo has had its ups and downs in recent decades, mosty down in terms of the number of people employed. The locally owned Upjohn Company merged with Sweden's Pharmacia which was swallowed in turn by Pfizer. In late December, Pfizer announced that it was axing another 250 non-manufacturing jobs in Kalamazoo. Earlier job losses provoked strong reactions from area leaders but this time their response was muted.

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WMUK news features in 2006

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PCB contamination in and around the Kalamazoo River has been a problem for decades. Much of the river from Kalamazoo to Lake Michigan is on the U.S. EPA "Superfund" list. Removal of toxic sediment continues, however a 2006 proposal by EPA officials to dump the material at another PCB contamination hotspot, the former Allied Paper landill in the City of Kalamazoo, sparked a vocal protest by residents and local officials in April. In the end the plan was withdrawn.

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A lot more fun was covering an equestrian competition at the Richland Horse Park northeast of Kalamazoo. The facility draws Olympic-caliber riders and horses. The photo is from an event in 2012.

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WMUK news features for 2005

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For several months over the spring and summer, I worked with an extraordinary student intern to produce the documentary A Fruitful Land about the severe challenges facing many fruit growers in southwestern Michigan. Jill Straub was a graduate student in Western Michigan University's oral history program. She and her dog Blue were a delight to work with and I think we produced an important and interesting program. I hope you agree. (Photo: Michigan.org)

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The collision between traditional culture and development in Malaysia - and Western attitudes about it - was the focus of an intriguing video documentary produced by Western Michigan University honors student Tristan Brown. You can watch the program here. I had the pleasure of speaking with Brown just before it debuted in Kalamazoo in February.

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Factories aren't the only source of pollution fouling our lakes, streams, and rivers. Another big source is surface water run-off that carries lawn chemicals, insecticides, and other nastiness with it. This report from April looked a different approaches to the problem in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.

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WMUK news features in 2004

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WMUK news features in 2003

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WMUK news features in 2000

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WMUK news features in 1999

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This was the year that WMUK made its first stab at radio documentary production. We were fortunate to have great colleagues in professors Michael Chiarappa and Kristin Szylvian who were in charge of Western Michigan University's oral history program. They and many of their students created a travelling exhibit about conflicts between Native American and non-native fishermen on northern Lake Michigan. They invited my colleague Gordon Evans and me to go along when they hit the road to record people on both sides of the issue. The result was Fish For All. A shortened version of this was later broadcast worldwide by the Voice of America on shortwave (see above). I served as executive producer and writer on this project. WMUK news reporter-producer Erin Toner, now with Milwaukee Public Radio, did a great job narrating the program. And we had great assistance from student intern Abe Hohnke. (Photo: Michigan.org)

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WMUK news features in 1998

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WMUK news features in 1997

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WMUK news features in 1996

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WMUK news features in 1995

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WMUK news features in 1994

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WMUK news features in 1993

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WMUK news features in 1992

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WMUK news features in 1991

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Astronomy_Day_041991.mp3

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WMUK news features in 1990

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WMUK news features in 1989

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WMUK news features in 1987 and 1988

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WCSY AM/FM "Cosy 98" South Haven, Michigan (1983-1985)

I was news director of this small but feisty station for a turbulent year-and-a-half. I can't say it was the most enjoyable time of my life but I learned a lot. Here's a noon newscast from January 26th, 1985, commercials and all.

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WHFB AM/FM Benton Harbor, Michigan (1982-1983)

For the better part of two years I was a reporter and news anchor at this station on the shore of Lake Michigan. At the time, WHFB was owned by the Herald-Palladium newspaper controlled by the Banyon family. The joke was that the call letters stood for "Working Hard For Banyon" but it actually was a great place to work. Benton Harbor, then as now predominantly African-American, is just on the other side of the river from mostly white Saint Joseph. It is one of the most polarized communities in the state. During my time at WHFB, Benton Harbor Mayor Wilce Cooke said law-abiding residents should buy guns to protect their families. The resulting uproar, which got national media attention, was the subject of a two-part In Focus report on WHFB.

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WBUK-AM Portage, Michigan (1980)

I was a DJ at this country and western station for less than a year. However, news director Rod Kackley, one of Nature's true gentlemen, let me cover a campaign appearance by Walter Mondale just before the presidential election that year. I later worked with Rod while he was news director at WHFB (see above).

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Like a lot of AM stations, WBUK's transmitter was in the middle of a swamp. So was the studio, which didn't do much for working conditions. It was a small step up from the station where I'd been before, though...

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WYYY-AM Kalamazoo, Michigan (1977-1978)

Not a trace of this 500-watt, daytime-only rock 'n' roll wonder remains today. The cinderblock building that housed the transmitter and studios was torn down long ago and even the station's frequency -1470 kHz - is silent in Kalamazoo now. The little tower rose out of the middle of the pond in the photo above. No jokes about the call letters please; I've heard them all. I got a job as a DJ but became news director at the ripe age of 22 when my predecessor was canned. That gave me my first opportunity to combine my radio career and my shortwave listening hobby in this report from 1978. I was still in my Ted Baxter phase, so proceed with caution.

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WEHB-FM 89.9 Grand Rapids, Michigan (1977-1979)

This was a noble experient: an all-volunteer "community" radio station that tried to serve the under-served. That included minorities all all sorts of persuasions. Like a lot of similar stations around the country it was constantly riven by internal disputes over programming, finances, and just about anything else you can think of. Even so WEHB gave Grand Rapids some sublime radio programs. It also inflicted some absolute crap on the listening public. My efforts fell somewhere in between. As co-news director I was in charge of a weekly interview program called Monitor 90 on which I indulged my interest in exotic foreign places with uneven results. Here's the show about the West African nation of Senegal. The interview victim was a college friend of mine. This was my first stab at long-form radio journalism.

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