By Emily Barkheim
ike Simonson has been the Northland’s voice of Wisconsin Public Radio for nearly 20 years.
From a cramped studio on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus, Simonson reports the news, provides thoughtful analysis and perspective, leads lively discussions on the media and produces award-winning programming on WPR’s 91.3 FM, KUWS. The gentle giant’s deep baritone broadcasts to the rest of the state that there is plenty of news outside of Madison and north of Eau Claire.
Fariba Pendleton, community resource development educator with UW-Extension is a frequent moderator of Friday’s media news show Final Edition and knows Simonson to be tough, but he puts his guests at ease.
“Mike has a soothing and powerful local voice. He makes the audience listen,” she said. “And he is one of the most courageous radio reporters. I often hear him challenge guests if he feels the conversation needs to be explored or a more in-depth conversation needs to take place and he does that in a very respectful way.”
Simonson may be a natural on the mike, but he never planned to spend his days in a radio booth. His passion was for writing when he entered the University of Wisconsin-Superior in 1976.
“I was on the seven-year degree program at UWS,” Simonson said, shaking his head with a smile. “Radio was not my intention but I got into the business in 1977 as a student, working at WSSU,” the former call letters for what is now KUWS.
But that led to his first professional radio gig at KDAL in 1979 and he has been on the air ever since.
He was the first news director when KQDS came on the air in Duluth in 1980. Then he traveled south in 1984 for radio jobs in Augusta, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C.
In 1990, the job at WPR lured him back home and he has worked as a news reporter for the station ever since.
“I guess it’s the irony of ironies that I am back here. If anyone told me that I would be working at my old college radio station I would have called them crazy,” Simonson said.
But the job is a perfect fit for Simonson, who loves Lake Superior and believes that every community, big or small, deserves good reporters.
“Because it’s a small town doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve good stuff and that is what I am trying to do,” Simonson said.
Over the years, he has reported on several memorable stories, including the launch of the space shuttle Discovery, the first launch after the Challenger disaster. He spent three days reporting from Florida on a total of three hours of sleep.
“The return to space was a big deal,” Simonson said. “There seemed like a million people there to watch the launch. We had press passes and because of those, the reporters were the closest human beings to the launch besides the scientists in the bunkers. I was two-and-a-half miles away from that launch and I will never forget it. The thrust was incredible and it was a color white that I have never seen, I mean it was heavenly.”
A love of space led Simonson to an interview with astronaut Jeffrey Williams, a local boy born in Superior and raised in Winter, Wis. Williams was on the Shuttle Atlantis in 2000 and later Simonson interviewed him, twice, when Williams was science officer on the International Space Station.
“That was such a hoot,” he said. “People asked me how I got to do that and I said, ‘I asked.’ You don’t get anywhere without asking.”
Simonson has also interviewed Jimmy Carter, Jerry Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Jesse Jackson. Jackson stands out in Simonson’s memory after watching him speak in a Georgia auditorium.
“It was a piece of culture I have never seen before,” Simonson said. “It was in an auditorium but it was a church service and there was a brass band. Here I am this white guy from northern Minnesota. It was just so much fun to see this brass band and preachers up there. I thought, ‘What a way to fire up a crowd.’ What an experience.”
Simonson has done plenty of high-profile interviews, but he also is drawn to the stories of people who quietly lead exceptional lives.
“I can name some big names but some of the best interviews come from people talking about AIDS discrimination and Alzheimer’s,” he said. “I once interviewed a lady in Washburn whose husband had Alzheimer’s. She explained how lively her husband once was and how he was now. Her husband could just shuffle around and she had to feed him. Here I am talking to a saint and she does this every day. There are a lot of people who really work to make a difference but don’t get recognition. I love to give a voice to the voiceless.”
Simonson has now been at WPR for 19 years. In addition to working for the station, he also acts as a guest lecturer for a few journalism classes at UWS.
“It’s good for the students because they can listen to a person who is working in the profession they are working towards and can tell them what it’s like,” Simonson said. “It’s fun to teach because you get to see the results of your work. You get to see students transform from seeing the news to critically thinking about the news and starting to question it.”
While he may not have set out to become the voice of a region, Simonson has become a fixture on the local airwaves. He broadcasts morning news reports, leads local media in discussions of the week’s top stories on “Final Edition” on Friday nights, directs some of the best names in the business for “Radio Superior” broadcasts and produces award winning documentaries, including “We’re Holding Our Own,” on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
“Mike is just a fantastic person,” said Lew Martin, part of the radio drama crew that performs on Simonson’s “Radio Superior,” a show about events from Superior’s past.
“He writes a complete script from articles in the Telegram and he gets special music 40s, 50s and the 60s. He is a hard worker and just does a terrific job. He is one of a kind.”
Turns out, radio was Simonson’s destiny.
“You go to work everyday not knowing what you’re going to do or who you are going to talk to. I just love the intensity, the deadlines, and the feeling that I am going to report this in a way that no one else can.”