Mr. Minnesota Signs Off

Gary Eichten looks back on a life behind the mic

He’s been the conscience of Minnesota, an avuncular voice of reason and equanimity, for 46 years at Minnesota Public Radio, having joined the network just four months after it started. This month, Gary Eichten signs off from Midday for the last time. We asked him for some parting words of wisdom.

You cut your radio teeth playing polka records at KNUJ in New Ulm. How did you get into news?
They were pretty desperate at the station that became MPR. They had me spin classical music for a while, but I couldn’t pronounce any of the composers’ names, so I became the news director—I was the only reporter.

You’ve interviewed just about every important Minnesotan of the past five decades. What will you take away from that experience?
In about 1993, former Senator Eugene McCarthy—who was pretty tired of the media by then—decided I was okay and would drop by the studio whenever he was in town. And one of those times it hit me: this is Eugene McCarthy, why in the hell is he talking to me, this dumb kid from Mankato? I thought, “Be grateful, buddy, you really fell in the cream.”

You were just about the only local journalist that Governor Jesse Ventura didn’t view with contempt. Why was that?
I’d just wind him up and let him talk. But in the classic Midday moment, a caller started giving Ventura the business and I could sense the steam starting to come out his ears. He slammed his headphones down and walked to the door. We were only 20 minutes into the hour. I said, “Governor Ventura, put your headphones on!” And he did.

He must have appreciated your fairness.
Look, I understand that politicians spin things their way. Listeners can draw their own conclusions. But what really irritates me is when people lie. And, assuming I’ve done my homework, I’ll know a lie when I hear it.

We are now living in an era when people can hardly agree on the facts, much less discuss them. Has that made your job harder?
It’s very discouraging. For God’s sake, it’s not that hard to figure out the facts. To sit and argue about stuff that’s clear as the day and post things that just aren’t true, that are B.S., is beyond me.

Your career was nearly cut short in a dive bar. What happened?
It was on a Sunday after softball practice, at the old Cromwell Bar on University Avenue—just three of us guys and a woman tending the bar. And these two biker guys came in with evil intent and there was this dark talk about beating us. They wanted our money. We were terrified. Luckily, the most meek and mild guy among us just pounded his chest and told them off. I was certain the news would be, “Public-radio host found dead in alley.”

You used to play a lot of softball. What’s the best post-game bar these days?
Without a doubt, J.R. Mac’s on West Seventh in St. Paul. Pitchers of beer are cheap, the food is good—what else do you need?

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.