EAU CLAIRE — Dean Kallenbach will never forget his first gig in radio.
Kallenbach was attending UW Center-Barron County and was hired in August 1975 to work as a part-time soundboard operator during Milwaukee Brewers games at WJMC radio in Rice Lake.
“It was like stealing money,” he said. “Getting paid to listen to Brewer games, which was something I was going to be doing anyway.”
Forty-six years later, Kallenbach’s love of radio hasn’t diminished.
“It’s the feel of the medium,” he said. “When you are broadcasting on the radio, you should think of yourself sitting across the table from an individual.”
“When you are listening to the radio, whether in the car or doing chores, you are usually by yourself,” Kallenbach said. “I like that personal connection.”
Kallenbach, whose 46-year broadcast journalism career included serving as a newscaster and western regional manager at Wisconsin Public Radio for the last 35 years, retired on Friday.
One man who will miss Kallenbach is Al Ross, who spent several years working in commercial radio in Wisconsin and Florida “before Dean called me in 2008.” Ross has now worked with Kallenbach at WPR’s Eau Claire office for the past 13 years.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with Dean. He’s the best example of a person doing what his calling was,” Ross said.
“He’s a good radio guy. He loves the medium. He lives the medium,” Ross said.
“And he’s been a wonderful mentor for young people getting into the business.”
Kallenbach, 63, grew up on a dairy farm near Hillsdale and graduated from Barron High School in 1975. It was his part-time experience at the Rice Lake radio station that made him seriously consider radio as a career, particularly broadcast journalism.
“The idea of doing radio news was attractive to me,” he said.
After two years at UWC-Barron County, Kallenbach majored in radio and television broadcasting and minored in journalism at UW-Platteville. He worked part-time as a “weekend news guy” at a radio station in Dubuque, Iowa, while attending UW-Platteville.
After graduating in December 1979, Kallenbach’s first full-time job was as the sports director at an Antigo radio station. He remembers paying high school students $10 to do 20-second reports on their schools’ games.
In January 1981, Kallenbach became news director at a Rice Lake radio station.
“My first day on the job was when the Iranian hostages got released and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president,” he said. “So we had a lot to talk about.”
In February 1984, Kallenbach got an offer to be assignment editor at a Wausau television station.
“But after two years, I was wondering about my career at that stage of the game,” he said. “It wasn’t long before I realized I belong in radio.”
As a television station assignment editor, Kallenbach was drawn to public radio.
“I always stole a lot of my news story ideas from public radio,” he said.
After seeing an ad for a job opening with Wisconsin Public Radio, Kallenbach got a job at WHWC in Menomonie hosting local morning newscasts. He also did news for WPR’s WHSA radio station in Superior.
“I was pretty much doing news for the northwestern part of the state,” he said.
Kallenbach started in Menomonie when Wisconsin Public Radio began installing regional radio stations around the state. He became western regional manager in June 1990 when WPR moved the Menomonie station to its current Eau Claire facility on Clairemont Avenue.
“The West Side” show was created in 2002. Kallenbach was the show’s executive producer and became the host a few years ago. The show focuses on western Wisconsin issues.
“My on-air time wasn’t extensive,” he said. “I worked mostly behind the scenes, supporting programs.”
Kallenbach describes his attraction to public radio.
“We’ve seen information radio become opinion radio. Public radio provides a niche. It provides in-depth information, civil conversation and fairness that is critical,” he said.
“It is our job to get those political sides out there for people to digest, and then let them make their own decisions,” Kallenbach said.
For the past 20 years, Kallenbach has invited candidates for every western Wisconsin state legislative race to come on the air for a conversation with their opponents.
“That sort of engagement is hard to come by. And only one candidate has refused to come on in the past 20 years,” he said.
“Candidates know they are going to get a fair shake and talk about what they want to talk about,” Kallenbach said.
“I’m proud of that,” he said. “And political candidates for the same office rarely appear jointly anymore. It’s an important thing to do.”
Kallenbach believes public radio has a strong future.
“I really feel good about the people who are managing and producing public radio,” he said. “They are still getting the people the information they need to make democracy work.”
Public radio’s listening audience is holding steady, Kallenbach said.
“We still need to make people aware of who we are and what we do,” he said.
Mike Crane, director of Wisconsin Public Radio, said Kallenbach helped establish the regional model that the network continues to rely on.
“Dean is a wonderful advocate for the power of local radio. He truly believes in community service and his entire approach to work and life exemplifies that commitment,” Crane said.
Kallenbach is a member of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association board of directors, where his experience has been a benefit to broadcasters throughout the state, said Michelle Vetterkind, president and chief executive officer of the WBA.
“I’ve been fortunate to know Dean for many years, “ she said. “He has always been the rock solid broadcaster that you can count on. He’s simply an all-around terrific guy who’s been a tremendous asset to our industry.”
Kallenbach lives in the town of Union with his wife, Sandy. The couple has three grown daughters.
He started keeping bees a few years ago and raising chickens a year ago. In retirement, Kallenbach plans to grow those activities, maybe do some volunteering, and help his wife with her business, Myra’s Mercantile.