Ode to an old-school radio journalist

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio.

Mike Simonson, longtime reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio, died suddenly on Sunday.

“It’s a profound loss,” WPR Director Mike Crane said in a statement on the network’s website. “Mike covered the north woods like no one else for nearly 25 years. He was a wonderful influence on all of us, and on so many other people. It’s really hard to imagine that we will stop hearing his expressive voice on WPR. He will be missed by colleagues and listeners for a long time to come.”

Simonson was an old-school journalist, mentoring young people into a business in which not enough talented young people are persisting.

“It is safe to say that over the past 25 years no one has spent more time telling the stories of northern Wisconsin than Mike Simonson and it isn’t likely that anyone ever will again,” Superior regional manager John Munson said.

One of his students was Aaron J. Brown, who writes about him today at his Minnesota Brown blog.

I worked for Mike at KUWS when I was in college. Mike was the somehow the toughest and kindest mentor I’ve ever had. Mike took 30-word sentences and made them 12-word bulldozers. He’d call you into the studio, ostensibly property of the radio station, but his de facto empire of reel-to-reel tape and scripts, each one always printed in Comic Sans because it was such a terrible font that it made you read slow and deliberate like Edward R. Murrow.

If you went into the studio with unanswered questions, excuses, sloppy copy or a hint of mush he’d mark up your script and scrawl the names of three more people to call to get the story right. You’d stay until it was done, because tomorrow’s biology test didn’t matter. The news mattered. Being right mattered. Mike taught a legion of students this way. They work across the country now.

See, Mike didn’t yell at you. It’s just that his talking sounded like yelling, and it took a few months to figure that out. By then, you were a functional cub reporter and you didn’t turn in crap to Mike Simonson. You knew better than that.

For the longest time I never knew if Mike liked me. Then it was time for us to go to a conference in the Twin Cities. He drove the van full of budding reporters. I had shotgun. Some awkward moments, but then we got on the road and “Midnight Train to Georgia” came on the radio. I reached down to turn it up. He looked at me, and from that point forward he treated me as an equal. That. Precise. Moment.