After 40 years, two Peabody awards and countless interviews with politicians, celebrities and thinkers, Minnesota Public Radio's Gary Eichten is ready for retirement. He announced his January 20th departure on his show "Midday" today, saying "It's probably time to get off the treadmill." We caught up with Eichten by phone between shows this afternoon to gain some insight into his decision, and to talk about the past, present and future of MPR.
City Pages: The most obvious question is, why now?
Gary Eichten: Well, that's a good question. Actually, it's the best question and one I can't answer necessarily. It's just time. It's been a long, long run and we're getting up to Medicare age and that's an important thing. And I, you know, want to do some other things while I'm still healthy enough to do them. So, it's time.
CP: Any hints about what you want to do next?
GE: Oh, some travel and hang out with my bride and my dog. And then I don't know. I wouldn't mind doing some projects for the station if things have come up that are of interest, and make sense for everybody. Or something all together different. I've basically never done anything other than this, and so I don't know what the world out there holds. We'll find out I guess.
CP: Who was your favorite interview?
GE: That's always a tough one. I never know how to answer that question. I'm going to bob and weave, because it sounds so corny and hokey, but the fact is, I mean it depends on who I talked to that day, as a rule. Every once in a while you get a clunker, but mostly the people who've been in that particular day are the favorites. Because there's a lot interesting people with interesting stuff.
Certainly one of the more colorful people I've ever dealt with is the former governor, Governor Ventura. He was a hoot. I had a great series of interviews with him. He was just a radio announcer's dream, so. But there's so many people, really distinguished great folks. Former vice president Walter Mondale, former senators, you know, McCarthy, and so on, and Durenberger. And former governors. There's really an impressive list of terrific people and then a lot of people that you don't know all that well, but are doing significant things -- teachers of the year, stuff like that.
CP: Was there anyone who stands out in your mind as the most difficult interview you ever did?
GE: Yes, but I'm not going to tell you who it was [laughs].
CP: Can you give me a hint?
GE: Well, it was an actress, a movie actress, who didn't like me at all. And was, uh, let's say that the chemistry was lacking.
CP: You're so easy to talk to but you also sort of nail people down when they're squirming. How do you put the screws to people and still maintain that friendly radio presence?
GE: I don't know, I mean, people basically tell you the truth, I think. The one thing that always made me mad over the years was when someone was obviously lying. Now that was cause for -- I mean, you really had to press them when they start lying. But fundamentally, people are more or less telling the truth as they see it, and maybe they'd rather not answer your question, and so you ask them a couple of times and if it's clear they're not going to answer, there's no point in belaboring the point. Listeners are smart. They can pick up on that, and realize that the -- but most people that you interview, they want to get their side of the story out and the listeners don't care what I think about this, they're interested in hearing what the guest has to say about these things. You make it as easy as you possibly can for the guest to express themselves, and then the listener can make up their own mind as to whether it makes any sense to them.
CP: Any particularly memorable day?
GE: There are many, of course, as you might imagine. I gotta think the day that the Wellstone plane crashed, and Paul Wellstone and his family and staff members died. That really was just heart-wrenching and it was an opportunity -- well, it was not an opportunity, but it was a time when people were counting on us to give them some good information about this as best we could, and try to explain what the heck was going on. It was an important story. It was a horrible, tragic story, but it was an important story that people needed to hear and needed to get information. We were in a position to get at least some of the information out to them. Then, of course, about a week afterward they had the big Mondale-Coleman debate broadcast on radio and TV nationwide, control of the U.S. senate hanging in the balance, day before the election. I had an opportunity with Paul Majors at Channel 11 to moderate that debate. That was a pretty heady experience. Didn't want to screw that one up.
CP: Throughout your tenure things have changed quite a bit in journalism -- is there any one thing that has fascinated you in the way things are changing, positive or negative?
GE: Well, actually, yes. I mean, it doesn't have so much to do with radio as it does with our broader society. I'm just amazed at how polarized we've become as a society. I mean, good lord, and we're just at each other's throats over everything and it's so very difficult to find common ground where people can at least talk to each other, argue with each other. You can't even get people to agree on the facts of a situation, never mind what you think about those facts. I think that's been a dramatic change, frankly, over the years and not a good one.
CP: What do you think of some of the plans Bill Kling discussed before he left -- he's going to raise a certain amount of money and double the newsroom at MPR. Is it realistic?
GE: I don't know if it's realistic. Bill is a genius. He really is. He is a genius at what he does. Garrison Keillor is a genius. I've had the opportunity to work with two certified geniuses in their own field and seldom do you ever meet one. But I got to work with two of them. If anyone can pull this off, Kling can. He admitted toward the end, right before he left there, that he was having trouble convincing people, not of the merits of the idea, but trying to get people to write a check and a big check. So I don't know. It'll be tough, I would guess, to come up with that kind of money, but if anybody can do it, Bill can do it. And lord knows if he can pull it off, what a boon it would be to everybody concerned. Because, gosh, when you think about what stations are doing with two, three, five, 10 reporters, what could they do with 100? Holy cow! That would make a difference in any community in America that I can think of. Certainly including this one.
CP: Are we going to see you on MinnPost?
GE: Oh, I don't know what I'm going to do. I follow what they're up to and read some of the great articles that those people are writing or posting or whatever the verb is, and I'm thinking, 'Man, that's a lot of hard work there.' It's a lot easier to be on the radio than write all that out and then have people read it. You have to be very careful -- ugh. I don' t know if I want to work that hard. That's painful. All I have to do is run at the mouth.
CP: What advice do you have for young journalists?
GE: Well, yeah it's tough. You know, but stick with it, that would be my advice. I can't think of anything more rewarding. I was saying to the folks here at the station today that, you know, what we're doing here, I mean, this is important work. It's not just some goofy way to pass time. I mean, this is really important stuff -- and it can be fun too by the way -- but it's really important for people to have really good solid information. That's what we're in the business of providing. And so, you know, it's maybe not quite as important as being a great doctor or something, but it's pretty darn close, when it's done right. So if you're a good, talented young person, if you can tough it out and try to figure out how to make a buck at it, why -- there just isn't a better way to make a living that I can see.
CP: Anything about your routine you're excited to be over?
GE: Yes. Absolutely. I get up at a little after 3 a.m., 3:10, every morning. And I'm not going to miss that at all. That will be the -- probably the best single thing about this decision to retire, is that I get to sleep until a more reasonable hour and that means, in turn, that I get to stay up later at night.
CP: What time do you go to bed?
GE: If I'm being responsible, which isn't always the case, 7 o'clock, 7:30, maybe tough it out to 8? Well, you know know, that kinda messes with your social life.
CP: Anyway you'd like to sign off on this Q&A?
GE: Oh, heck I don't know. I'm just humbled and honored that people care enough to ask.
Listeners can still catch Gary Eichten on "Midday" on MPR every morning at 11 a.m. until January 20, and live in the booth during the Minnesota State Fair.