NEW ULM - After 45 years of radio reporting for Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Gary Eichten will be retiring at the end of this year.
Eichten made the announcement on Aug. 22 at the end of his MPR show Midday, where he has provided countless insightful interviews and become one of Minnesota's most recognizable voices. He said he's retiring to spend more time with his wife and provide himself enough time to try other ventures.
"If I'm going to enjoy retirement or try anything else, I need to do it while I can still do things," said Eichten.
Gary Eichten shakes hands with colleagues after announcing his retirement from Minnesota Public Radio. Eichten has been a radio report for MPR for the last 45 years.
He said that he chose to retire this year, before the next presidential election, because he wanted to give newer reporters the opportunity to cover it.
"To be perfectly honest, once you sign up for a presidential election, it's pretty intense. If I'm going to retire, I need to get out of the way beforehand. That way, they don't have fiddle around with when I'm gonna drop out," said Eichten, "Besides, I have talked with my wife and we decided that now was the best time to stop. I love what I do, but I need a break."
Eichten's career stretches over four decades and has tangled with governors, powerful politicians and average citizens. He has also received two Peabody awards for documentaries, 2011 Graven Award from the Premack Public Affairs Journalism Awards Board and been inducted into the Museum of Broadcasting's Hall of Fame. One less well-known fact about Eichten's career is that he got his start in radio at KNUJ in New Ulm.
Eichten said he initially wasn't interested in becoming a reporter. But, in 1966, he returned home to Mankato for the summer from St. John's University and found his usual concrete construction job wasn't hiring. Desperate to find another job, Eichten said he was literally out to lunch when he stumbled upon an opening at KYSM in downtown Mankato.
"I knew the guy because I had briefly dated his daughter. She didn't like me very much, but I guess he did. Anyways, he let me make an audition tape," said Eichten
The manager was impressed with Eichten's audition, but he said he couldn't hire Eichten because of his lack of prior radio experience. However, the manager told him about an opening at KNUJ in New Ulm and offered to send the audition tape over. He took the interview and was promptly hired.
"Truth be told, I lied to get the job. One thing they asked was if I had any previous radio experience and I said that I did," said Eichten, "Also, there was an Eichten in town that owned a shoe store and I think an Eichten that ran bank. They weren't directly related, but might have been in another branch of the family tree. I think maybe the station owner thought he would get advertising by hiring an Eichten."
Once Eichten started working at the radio station, he found he was hooked. He also found he had something of knack for the operations of radio production. He worked an all-purpose position at the station, so he gained firsthand experience with several facets of radio.
"It really was great fun. I absolutely loved it," said Eichten.
While working at the station, he stayed at an aunt's house in New Ulm. He said he enjoyed his time living in New Ulm, though he was initially caught off guard by its character.
"I sort of knew the place. My family had previously had family reunions at Hermann. But, I was mystified when I first walked to work and everyone on the street was speaking German. I thought, 'What's going on here?'" said Eichten.
He said one of his favorite aspects of New Ulm was how immediate and alive its history is. He said that being able to walk in the same area that the Dakota Conflict occurred was exciting. Similarly, he enjoyed attending (the now defunct) Polka Days, where the musical heritage was kept alive.
Eichten eventually returned to St. John's in Collegeville where he joined the newly introduced radio station at the college. That station eventually became the first station of MPR.
"They were looking for guys to join part-time and it was better than working in the cafeteria. Turned out I was the only guy there with 'professional' experience," said Eichten, "I didn't set out to make it a career. It started as a way to make money, but then you look up and its been 45 years."
He said the station initially gave two options: classical music announcer or news reporter. He said he picked reporter because he didn't know classical. That choice ended up defining his radio position for the rest of his career.
Reflections on Leaving
Eichten likes to joke that he stuck with MPR for so long because nobody else was interested in hiring him. He said he really stayed because he's a true believer in the mission of MPR.
"It's been a great opportunity to do what I consider real news. [MPR] is willing to go in-depth and overtime with stories," said Eichten.
He said he expects the transition from his job into retired life to be difficult, but he looks forward to the new challenge. One challenge for him will be shifting his daily schedule.
Eichten's schedule for Midday is intensive. During the week, he wakes up at 3:15 a.m. each day for his morning routine, which includes prep work for the show. He arrives at work at 8 a.m. for more prep work before doing Midday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. After the show, he does some work for the next day's show until 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. He typically goes to bed around 7 to 8 p.m. to get sufficient sleep.
Eichten said the harsh regiment of the show has put difficulties on his family and social life.
"You're really limited to only going out on the weekend. It's even harder with kids, especially when you have a show. You want to go to something like a school concert, but you have to be at the show every single day. You don't have the option to do less one day and make up for it later," said Eichten, "That's one reason to look forward to retirement. It will be nice to catch a movie or go out with the guys."
He said he the ability to sleep in will feel great once he retires, but he expects that learning to slow down will be the real challenge.
"It will be tough to take it easy. I got to meet such interesting people and work with my best friends. When you go from that to just you and your dog in the house, it's a transition," said Eichten, "She's a good dog, but there's only so much she can do. I'll miss working with those bright, inquisitive people."
He also said that as a Minnesota citizen, he will miss the ability to pose questions directly to state leaders.
Reflecting on his show, Eichten said his favorite public figure interviews were with former Gov. Jesse Ventura during his tenure.
"He was a real piece of work. He was always at war with reporters. But, for some reason, he looked kindly on me," said Eichten, "The Ventura interviews were just a lot of fun. You'd just wind him up and away he'd go."
Eichten also said one of the bigger stories he broke on his show was when Ventura announced he would not seek reelection.
He said his favorite people to interview were Teacher of the Year recipients, which he said always brought the most interesting ideas. He said they also complimented the show's method of exploring the news.
"I feel my role is to ask questions I think the average listener would ask if they could. It's a different function than a beat reporter, because it's more geared towards digging up scoops. I'm not interested in that, I'm interested in bringing understanding by having people explain who they are and what they are doing," said Eichten.
He also said he will sincerely miss all the listeners that would call into his show.
"I know it sounds trite and like pandering. But, the fact of the matter is that the listeners comments and ideas were interesting. They made the show worthwhile," said Eichten.
Eichten said that as he leaves the news business, the main concern is the trends towards more tabloid and partisan media.
"I know I sound like a grumpy old person complaining about the good old days. And I know that's how media has usually functioned in the past. Perhaps we just had a golden age of non-partisan media," said Eichten, "But, I fear that one day we'll wake up and not know where to get basic, straight-forward information."
Eichten said he has no idea what he will do after he settles into retirement. He said he would love to do occasional work with MPR or other radio projects, but nothing has been decided yet.
"I'll be trying retirement out. Then, I'll just have to see were life goes from there," said Eichten.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)