Art Timko wraps up long WEMU career with fond memories - and concerns
photo by Randy Mascharka, courtesy of Eastern Michigan University
A couple of cardboard boxes. Some framed jazz prints. Pictures of his family. That’s about all Art Timko, station manager and executive director at WEMU (89.1-FM), had left to carry out of his office in Eastern Michigan University’s King Hall recently as he prepared to close a 42-year career in broadcasting.
Remarkably, that entire career has been spent at Eastern’s public radio station.
“I feel pretty good. I’m ready,” Timko, who announced his retirement last fall, said during a mid-December interview. “I think, like with most people, once a person decides they want to do something they want to get to it. I am sure there are people around the university are saying to themselves ‘Isn’t he gone yet?’ But I’m looking forward to it.”
Molly Motherwell, the station’s general manager / marketing and development director, will serve as interim executive director while a search for Timko’s replacement is conducted.
Timko, 64, started at WEMU as a student in January 1968, stayed through August of that year, went into the military and served in Vietnam. He came back in the fall of 1970 for graduate school, finished that in a year, and started working at the station again.
“I was hired in August of 1971 as a producer and have been here ever since,” he said, adding that he has no regrets about staying at one station for his entire career.
“It’s really been good, in that the university has allowed me to do some things I don’t think I would have been allowed to do elsewhere.” Timko reflected. “I know as you go through your career you have different opportunities, you might think about leaving because the grass may be greener. But every time I really sat back and looked ...
“In my tenure here I’ve not only been able to be a program director and a station manager, but executive producer for record albums, produced national broadcasts, helped produce events like the winter jazz series, was executive producer for numerous stages at the Ann Arbor Art Fair — just a lot of different things I don’t think I would have been able to do elsewhere. It’s been rewarding,” he said.
With WEMU’s reputation for jazz programming — in fact one of the few stations of that genre left on radio — it might come as a surprise that it wasn’t Timko’s love for the style of music, but rather the results of a listener survey in the 1970s, that led the station to adopt the format.
And although he likes jazz, Timko said his knowledge is far surpassed by the station’s on-air staff.
“What’s important to me is the service we provide, We have people who know the music, who have a passion for it, promote it and provide it, that’s good enough for me. If it turned out that country western were the service we should be for this community, then I would be enamored with that, because it’s the service that counts.
“Somewhere along the line I realized I was not in the radio business. I was in the public service business. And that’s pretty much the way it is for all of us around here. .... I couldn’t see me asking people to send money just to send money to support programs, but I find it rather easy to do to support the service that we provide,” Timko explained.
Asked to name a career high point, Timko didn’t hesitate.
“There are all sorts of moments, but what jumps to mind is our involvement with the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival (in the early 1980s). We started that with the first year of the festival. Jim Dulzo, our music director, took some recording equipment down there and recorded some stuff. The next year we applied for a grant and were able to record material that developed into a 13-part series. In 1983 we did a live broadcast locally with WDET — we produced it and things went perfectly.”
The station was able, in 1984, to put out four albums of music from the first four years of the festival, with Dulzo producing. National broadcast of the festival followed, but the station’s involvement eventually ended because of rising costs.
“For us, it would have been more beneficial to put the money into our regular programming. So we stopped doing it,” he said. “The ’80s for me were probably the highlight decade because we did so much of that stuff. We were all a lot younger then, too.”
Although support for public radio remains high in this area, Timko said he is worried about a future that has younger people moving away from radio.
“I have some concern that the listenership for public broadcasting and radio in general is going to fall away, with the younger generation basically programming their own radio stations with Pandora for their iPods or MP3,” he said. “But I think one thing radio offers those other services don’t is companionship. I think that’s an important element, especially for a radio station that is connected to the community. Commercial radio I think has really sold its soul for the dollar. It’s a question of how much you’ve sold, there’s not the community involvement there used to be.
“I think public stations that are worth their salt are committed to the community; they want to better the community. In the news, they want people to be exposed to both sides of an issue and let the listeners decide. Appeal to the intellect, have people be able to decide for themselves and not feed them pablum of some one philosophy on one side or another. On the other hand, they also — as in the case of WEMU — want to improve the appeal of the community. “
As he signs off on his career with WEMU, Timko acknowledges the two biggest challenges ahead for public radio: money and balance.
“I think there’s a real threat to the federal funding that we get through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I think with the change in leadership in Congress and with the emphasis on balancing the budget, there will be some movement to eliminate funding for public broadcasting,” he saod.
And, that, Timko added, relates directly to the other challenge.
“While I think that we need to be fiscally responsible, I think it’s also important we don’t get caught up in a duplicitous argument. There are those who would dearly love to get rid of public broadcasting because we tend to balance issues. We will put on a right-sided argument or a left-sided argument the old Fairness Doctrine (abolished by Ronald Reagan in 1987) used to require that.
“But since that was thrown out, there are those who like to see things on one side and object to the prospect that others would look at the other side, that the other side would be promoted simply through its exposure. I think there’s a real ideological problem that we’re facing. If you’re not in the business of seeking out other viewpoints, it’s easy to get wound up in things that are not correct and believe things that don’t exist.”
Timko urged listeners to make their voices heard on the issue.
“There are 30 million people who listen to public radio each week and it’s going to be up to them to tell Congress that this is something that they want and this is the form they want it,” he said.
Roger LeLievre is a freelance writer who covers entertainment for AnnArbor.com