Going out on top
Change was coming for John Munson in 1990. A teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Munson was one signature away from starting work on his doctorate degree. Instead, he said "Yes" to Wisconsin Public Radio's offer to lead its newly-created northern region office, based in Superior.
"I wanted to teach," Munson said, but the change to 12 months of paychecks a year would better support his young family. Besides, he was told, there would always be time for him to get that degree.
Nearly 30 years later, he's handing the region's reins over to a new manager. Munson, whose voice is known statewide, will retire Dec. 23.
"I'm still excited to go to work every day," said the Superior man. "I want to see what happens next."
But it's time for someone with a fresh view to step into the job that Munson built from the ground up.
"I've accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish," he said. "I'd like to go out on top rather than staying too long."
Under his watch, WPR's reach in northwestern Wisconsin extended from two stations to five, campus station KUWS hiked its output from 940 watts to 83,000, technology shifted from analog to digital and computers became an essential delivery device.
"When WPR took responsibility for KUWS, manager John Munson came as part of the deal," said Jack Mitchell, former director of WPR.
He quickly realized Munson came from the commercial broadcasting side of the dial.
"That was not necessarily a negative from my point of view," Mitchell said. "WPR needed the down-to-earth attitude he brought to the job, a different sensibility from most of us in public radio. I sought to teach him about public broadcasting without losing his hard-nosed attitude about radio and his willingness to question what the rest of us took for granted."
Munson rewrote his job description as new opportunities were presented. He pushed for KUWS to have its own fast-loading website, started announcing hockey games on the radio because nobody else was doing it, broadcast football games and more. When an idea was lofted, his first response was "Why not?"
Despite a lack of marketing budget, KUWS made its presence known.
"We used community engagement. We were out in the community, covering events," and producing local news, Munson said. "That was our mission and a way to market ourselves. It's also what keeps us connected to the community we serve."
That mission is what makes WPR unique and gives listeners hours of local programming daily.
"We provide a place where people can go on the dial to find fact-based journalism, honest discussion of issues and a broad range of programming," Munson said. "We actually have offices and people all over the state. In each one, the mandate is to engage the community, to be present, to support what's going on in our community."
WPR has been a great fit for Munson, who has a broad range of knowledge and insatiable curiosity. He's willing to take on a challenge and, occasionally, flop.
"I've never learned anything by doing it right the first time," he said.
Today, Munson runs the northwest region, works with statewide pledge drives and fills in for hosts on the Ideas Network. He's interviewed scientists, authors, musicians and politicians, called the national hockey championship game in 2002 and recently received a career award for "...his outstanding contributions, leadership and service to the mission of WPR and UW-Extension." Mentoring is his greatest achievement.
"I'm proudest of the students I've worked with, being able to mentor them and get them started," Munson said.
WPR Eau Claire reporter Rich Kremer credits Munson for beginning his career.
"For students new to KUWS, John seemed like an intimidating figure," he said. "But as time passed, students like me grew into their roles at the station, and we quickly learned that John had a kind heart, a passion for good radio as well as a passion for helping students succeed. John and the late Mike Simonson were mentors to me who went out of their way to help me launch a successful career in radio journalism. I will be forever grateful to them."
WPR Superior reporter Danielle Kaeding has worked with Munson, too.
"John is the kind of boss who takes time to share what he has learned and help others to grow and excel," she said. "He has provided compassion, guidance and training that will follow me throughout my broadcast career."
It's not a solo job, Munson pointed out.
"One of the really wonderful things about my career has been the outstanding colleagues I've had," he said. "WPR has been blessed with incredibly talented people."
Paul Damberg has been tapped as the new northern regional manager. He served as director of development at KUMD for 17 years. More recently, Damberg led the Lake Superior College Foundation as its executive director and was director of the Human Development Center Foundation of Duluth.
Munson, 63, is looking forward to retirement.
"I'm going to experiment with boredom," he said. "I want to find out for myself if boredom is for me."
Although Superior will remain his home, Munson would like to spend the winter months in Arizona perfecting his golf swing. He also plans to pursue artistic interests — theater, guitar, maybe write a book.
Chances are, his voice won't be silenced. In fact, Munson knows it won't. When he came to UWS as a teacher, he found tapes dating back to the first show he hosted as an undergraduate student.
"My voice was still on the intro tape," Munson said.
WPR Central Regional Manager Rick Reyer contributed to this report.