Milwaukee Talks: WUWM Executive Producer Mitch Teich
Mitch Teich, the executive producer of WUWM's "Lake Effect," isn't a native Milwaukeean. In fact, he's traveled around the country building his radio resume, but for the past seven years, he's called Wisconsin his home.
And it shows. The 43-year-old host of the local interview show has taken the time to become an expert in the issues he covers on "Lake Effect." Teich says his job is like taking a midterm exam on a different topic every day.
We caught up with Teich recently at WUWM's Downtown studio to talk public radio, moving to Milwaukee and the future of the industry. Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me the Mitch Teich story. How did you wind up in Milwaukee?
Mitch Teich: For a long time, I was a public radio nomad. This is stop number six for me on the radio tour. As of February, we're closing in on the longest of stops I've made. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, outside the Beltway. I went to college in Iowa and did my first radio internship in Cedar Rapids. My first radio job was in commercial station in Decorah, Iowa. I was there for two years. I spent two years in Rochester, Minn., at Minnesota Public Radio. Two years in far northern New York. I got out of radio for nine months, which was about eight months longer than I was happy to be out of radio. I got back in radio, and worked in Flagstaff, Ariz., for seven and a half years.
OMC: That seems like a good NPR community.
MT: It was a perfect NPR community. Flagstaff was the rare place where the public radio station was the top-rated radio station in the market. It was the kind of place where the public radio people were noticed when they went out.
OMC: Why did you leave the paradise of the mountains, where you were a rock star, to come to Milwaukee?
MT: We had just had our first child. We knew that we weren't going to be lifers in Flagstaff. The rub at the time was that it was a lifestyle more than a community. My wife is from Minnesota, I'm from the East Coast. Milwaukee is not exactly splitting the difference, but we were interested in coming back to the Midwest. It was really a lifestyle move. From the moment we got here, Milwaukee was the comfortable pair of bluejeans that you forgot about in your closet.
OMC: Is it unusual for people in public radio to move around as much as you have?
MT: There are social climbers in this business. I think it's not unusual for people who are relatively young and unattached to move around. I was that person, looking for the right chance. I was moving my way up to see what I could accomplish, but you get to a certain point in your career and you realize the thing that got you into public radio was being a part of the community. You can't truly be a part of a community that you only stay in for two years.
OMC: That being said, do you plan on sticking around Milwaukee for a while?
OMC: What is Milwaukee's relationship with public radio?
MT: It's interesting. In some ways, I'm still trying to figure it out. It's not the same as Flagstaff or the north country of New York. Here, where you not only have 25 or 30 stations, you have four public radio stations in the same market. It's always a question that we're asking. Is it peoples' relationship with public radio or a relationship with media, in general? I think "Lake Effect" fills a particular niche. The reason that we do this show the way we do it is because people are hungry to feel like they're eavesdropping on a conversation.
OMC: So is Milwaukee a good NPR city?
MT: It is, actually. And I hope we're making it a good NPR city. I've been in radio for 21 years, but radio has really changed. I think public radio has been the beneficiary of how it's changed. People still want to hear a local voice when their clock radio goes off in the morning. There are fewer and fewer of those truly local voices out there. Even if I didn't work here, I'd probably be listening to WUWM exclusively, with the exception of Brewers games.
OMC: Listening to "Lake Effect," I'm always impressed that you become an expert on every subject that you interview people about. How do you do that?
MT: I tell people it's like taking a midterm every day on a different topic and not having taken the class until that day, as well. We really take it seriously that when someone sits down in this studio. We prepare to interview them. We've done our homework. We come at it with the attitude that you are doing us a favor by coming in here and subjecting yourself to being interviewed. It shows up the most when we interview authors who are almost, to a person, pleasantly surprised to find out that we have read their book.
OMC: Now this isn't a criticism, because I do it, too, and I'm doing it right now, but you tend to ask very long questions. Has anyone ever told you that?
MT: Yeah, and I say it to myself. We edit everything that goes on the air. When I edit my stuff, I will listen and cringe at the point where I realize that I could've stopped the question. Part of it is trying to make people comfortable. I'll ask the question, then I'll give them the rationale for asking the question.
OMC: What's a day in the life like of an executive producer?
MT: It starts with hopping on the bus at 7:45 a.m. from Wauwatosa. Every once in a while, there's some unfinished business for that morning's show. People don't realize we pre-produce the show. Interviews will typically start at about 9 or 9:30. I try not to have more than three interviews in a day.
OMC: How far in advance are you recording?
MT: It's a mix. There will be interviews the day of, it's a breaking story, but the newsier interviews we'll do a day or two in advance. There are interviews that we'll do that won't air for two weeks. Once in a while, we'll do an interview when someone is coming to town, but there's no timeliness to it, and we'll leave it on the shelf until we have just the right time for it.
OMC: What's the story generation process for "Lake Effect?"
MT: It's funny, because we reformulated the show in 2006, and at that point, it was two hours long, which we rapidly realized was an hour too long. We started by having pretty religious meetings for a couple years. Since then, we have developed a process of having an ongoing meeting. We're just all talking to each other all the time. The need to have a daily meeting has sort of diminished. People will pitch us an interview, and unless it's totally self-serving or not right for our audience, I can almost always find out how we can take that topic and turn it into 10 or 11 minutes of interesting radio. But it's not always the exact story people pitched to us.
OMC: How hard is it do your pledge drives?
MT: You know, I don't dislike it as much as you might think. It's a chance to break out of our usual mold and talk off the cuff. We wouldn't be in this business if we didn't really care about it. It's always a little uncomfortable to be in a position to have to ask the people who are listening to you if they'll step up to the plate and support what you do.
OMC: What's the future of public radio, both locally and nationally?
MT: People have been writing obituaries for public radio for years, and all that has happened is that public radio's audience has grown. I don't think I'd still be in it if I didn't think it would last for a long time. It has had to sound more professional, and that's a good thing. The problem is that we're all doing more with less. Hopefully budget contractions won't go on forever, but the rule of thumb is to the best you can. We're able to take advantage of contributors from the community. It's a way for us to do more with less.
OMC: Is NPR too liberal, or is it just not conservative?
MT: What we do on "Lake Effect" and on the station as a whole, is give people a fair shake. Society has become fairly fragmented. Anytime someone sees or hears something that they don't agree with, they become uncomfortable. Liberal or conservative, there are plenty of outlets where people can hear something they agree with. The best thing we can do is let people hear newsmakers in their own voice and let people form their own opinions.
People ask how come we didn't challenge a guest more. What I try to say is that there are radio shows who's job it is to argue with a guest and push a point. We don't see ourselves as that. I have no problem with confrontational radio shows, but I don't see ourselves filling that niche.
I have a friend who is very conservative. Almost without exception, when I do a politically themed segment, I imagine her in my mind listening and I ask myself what would she question? The beautiful thing about us is that we're accessible. Frankly, if you have a concern, you can send an email. We're going to read it, and someone is going to get back to you. I don't think that happens on "CBS Evening News."
OMC: What's your favorite show, other than your own, on WUWM?
MT: I like "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."
OMC: What's your least favorite?
MT: My least favorite, uh, is "Speaking Of Faith." I think there's a place for talk about religion, I'm just not a fan of how Krista Tippett does it.
OMC: Have you had been recognized in at the grocery store?
MT: After seven years, it happens more often than I expected it to happen.
OMC: Do you like when it happens?
MT: I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Public radio is the perfect kind of celebrity. You're not recognizable by face, and the people who recognize your voice recognize it because hopefully they enjoy listening. But I like to put air quotes around the word celebrity.
WUWM does a great job as an NPR outlet....that said, can you guys can the musical "interludes" that are tacked-onto EVERY announcement? What's wrong with a few second's worth of silence?
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