Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Jack Mitchell

Who was the founder of public radio?  Actually, “it took a village” and several people at the right place at right time.  If I had to pick a founder, I’d say it was “Jack Mitchell.”

Mitchell was National Public Radio’s very first employee, the first producer of its legendary All Things Considered and in 1983 helped “save” NPR from a disastrous financial crisis of its own making. Most of his career has been at Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR).

Mitchell’s new book, "Wisconsin On The Air, 100 Years Of Public Broadcasting In The State That Invented It," a very personal story filled with history and progress. [amazon link]

“Public radio” a/k/a “Educational Radio” began in 1917 in Madison, an experiment by the UW Science Department to serve out-station listeners with instructional programming. (No. Jack wasn’t there then!)

In “Wisconsin On The Air” Mitchell examines how the philosophy of public service was put into motion public radio and in a sense public media. He tells of the almost constant criticism that has tested WPR from the very beginning to current Governor Scott Walker. One incident recounted in the book details the efforts of Wisconsin business group to abolish public broadcasting because “it is government-controlled propaganda in your living room.”

The book is a brilliant history of Wisconsin Public Radio set in the context of the social and political history of the state, from LaFollette’s Progressives to McCarthyism.

In 1974 and 1975 Mitchell was there at the beginning of National Public Radio.  He returned to Wisconsin in 1976 to manage WHA Radio at the age of 35. Mitchell was elected to the NPR Board of Directors. He was the President of the Board in 1983 when the shit hit the funding fan and NPR came hours away from vanishing. As the New York Times reported in June 1983 [link]

As best as anyone can now determine, the financial crisis that is threatening the future of National Public Radio had been brewing unseen for at least half a year. Last March, it had come as a shock to most people when a deficit of $2.8 million was discovered, but it came as an even bigger shock when it was revealed last month that the deficit, if left uncorrected, would reach $5.8 million.

Mitchell’s instructions on a Friday night were prepare to padlock all of the doors at NPR unless a solution was found before the following Monday.  It was temporarily solved late on a Sunday, hours before “going dark” forever.

This is Jack Mitchell’s second book at public broadcasting.  His first book – Listener Supported – has details about his work at NPR.


Jack was one of my first mentors when I moved from commercial radio to public radio in the 1980s. He was a terrific mentor and teacher with exception of one night after a regional public radio meeting in New Orleans when he drank me under the table.  My lesson: Don’t drink Scotch on an empty stomach.

Mitchell is still-active UW-Madison journalism professor emeritus. He was the  head of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) until he retired in 1997. He helped produce the landmark 1979 documentary The War At Home, about Madison’s anti-war movement.


Karen Holp

Another one of my mentors was also in the news recently.  KGOU GM Karen Holp is retiring after 28 years. I met Karen through Rocky Mountain Public Radio, a regional group, was I began my first job managing a public radio station: KCSU in Fort Collins. At the time I knew very little about the inner workings of the biz. Karen patiently taught me about “NFFS,” “CSG” and “NPPAG.” Thank you, Karen, and best wishes for your next chapter.

Speaking of my time at KCSU, I saw an item of interest in Jennifer Waits recent post on Radio Survivor about her station visit to now student-operated KCSU [link].  I love Jennifer’s college station profiles.

Readers might remember my post about KCSU and student fees on February 29, 2016 [link] when I told about the frequent threats I received when I was GM at KCSU to cut off student fees to station. Impossible, you say?

In her post, Jennifer provides this quote from current station manager Sam Bulkley:

“For a couple of decades, KCSU was run as a professionally managed NPR station. Students were allowed to be on-air DJs, but only in the off hours and with the permission of the management staff. The bulk of the programming was classical, and there were five or six full-time professional staff who made all the key decisions for the station.  [The Associated Students] president in the early ’90s made it part of his platform to take back student control of the station, since the students were the ones paying for it. It was a tough fight, with a lot of community opposition, but he succeeded – which is why students run the station today.”

KCSU is an excellent student station today. But seeing this quote made me glad I got out of there.

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