MPR's Gary Eichten signs off for the last time

11:42 AM, Jan 20, 2012   |    comments
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Gary Eichten now and then

SAINT PAUL, Minn. -- Venerable public radio personality Gary Eichten is hanging up the headphones for good this week, after more than four decades behind the microphone at Minnesota Public Radio.

The long-time host of MPR's Midday show will make his final appearance on the air Friday, so he can spend more time with his family and do some traveling.

"Mostly because of my work my wife and I haven't had a chance to do a lot of traveling," he told KARE. "We haven't had a chance to hang around together. We're still reasonably healthy, and I wanted to retire while I could still enjoy it."

True to his down-to-earth, unassuming style Eichten didn't want to waste valuable air time talking about his pending retirement, but his colleagues and recent radio guests didn't want the milestone to go unnoticed.

"You've been an icon in Minnesota broadcasting and here at MPR," House Speaker Kurt Zellers, a Maplewood Republican, told Eichten in a visit to the studio Wednesday. "And it's always been a true pleasure to work with you."

Rep. Zellers, who appeared that day with the other top leaders of the state legislature, said he worried Eichten would devote the entire hour to politics without giving them a chance to broach the subject of his legacy.

No Minnesota radio personality can match Eichten's skills when it comes to juggling a room full of politicians of varying stripes, and at the same time keep the discussion informed and respectful. In his 20 years behind the glass walls of his studio, the radio host gained a reputation for keeping the attention focused on his guests.

"Because you're not the focus, the center of attention," Eichten told KARE. "People tune in to hear a senator or Congressman, not to hear my opinions."

The Mankato native didn't know he was launching a broadcasting career back in 1967 when, as a student at St. John's University, he joined KSJR-FM radio in Collegeville. He became part of a small group of dedicated young broadcasters, who would form the nucleus of what became MPR.

That fledgling staff included the likes of Garrison Keillor and Bill Kling, who would grow one station into the most successful public radio organization in the nation.

"No matter how small we were back when we started -- and I credit Bill Kling for this -- we always had the notion, the goal, of being the best radio station in America."

His radio career was interrupted only once, for a three-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, which also involved time in a radio booth. When Eichten left the service he made the move from Collegeville to Saint Paul, which became MPR's base of operations.

He took on a variety of roles at MPR over the years, but in the past 20 years Eichten became known as Minnesota's moderator-in-chief.  Every election cycle he was in demand as a low-key, even-tempered referee for candidate debates.

Some took place inside his studio, while others were staged in auditoriums, theaters and the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Those events supplied television political reporters with a steady diet of sound bites.

But rarely did video of Eichten, or his questions, make the edited versions of TV stories. He's alright with that.

"Can anyone name the moderator of the Lincoln-Douglas debates? No. Apparently he or she did a pretty good job, just stayed out of the way," Eichten remarked. "And that's, in my universe, the goal of a good moderator."

There were times Eichten couldn't dodge the spotlight entirely. In June of 2002 then-Governor Jesse Ventura picked a live Midday interview with Eichten to break the news to the world that he wouldn't be seeking reelection.

"It came from out of the blue," Eichten recalls. "I was stunned."

And, because Ventura by then wasn't on speaking terms with the Capitol press, audio clips of his political bombshell were in high demand by reporters across Minnesota and the nation.

Later that year Eichten, and the entire state for that matter, received a different kind of shock. Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, along with his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia and five others.

Eichten began that cloudy October day expecting to see Wellstone in person.

"Sarah Meyer, the producer of Midday, and I were supposed to leave immediately after the show to go up to Duluth to moderate a debate with Paul Wellstone and Norm Coleman," Eichten recalled.

"We were all geared up for that, bags packed to head out the door. But, of course, there was no reason to in the end."

He spent the afternoon, instead, relaying details of the unfolding tragedy to his listeners and inviting reaction.

And, while he agrees the role people in his business play is essential in a democracy, Eichten doesn't view himself as indispensible or a celebrity.

"The business that we are in is really important, but I'm not," he laughed. "I'm just a guy who happens to be lucky enough to do it."

Eichten conducted his final live interview Thursday with Governor Mark Dayton. Later that night his extended radio family -- friends and listeners -- celebrated his career with a special event at the Fitzgerald Theater.

As part of that send-off Eicten conduded one last interview with former Vice President Walter Mondale, with will be broadcast Friday during the first hour of Midday.

And then it will be Eichten's turn to field some questions, when he sits down for a discussion with morning show host Cathy Wurzer reflecting on his career.

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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