Saying goodbye to Dennis Reese after four decades
It was May 1, 1981, when Dennis Reese started work at WSUI Radio in Iowa City. Just a few months later, he became the program director of WSUI. He invested in programming and better technology to build a news service that eastern Iowa relied on until WSUI became a part of Iowa Public Radio in 2006. At that point in his career, Dennis decided to take on an essential role at the network as the midday host, among other duties. His steady presence and wry sense of humor has been a beloved part of daily life for IPR listeners — and staff — ever since.
Now, after almost 41 years with this organization, Dennis is retiring and, after a little bit of arm twisting, Talk of Iowa host Charity Nebbe convinced him to sit down and talk about his career before we let him go.
Nebbe: Hello, Dennis.
Reese: Hello, charity.
Thank you so much for talking with me, and I want to go way back in time because you grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and you always knew that you wanted to go into radio. How did you know?
Well, I was an only kid and a lonely kid. I had my radio in my room, in our two bedroom house in Cedar Falls on Grand Boulevard, and I would tune in these distance stations at night on the AM Band, discovering the Great WLS, the Great W ABC in New York, listening to Top 40 deejays like Larry Lujack in Chicago, Jay Reynolds in New York City. And I thought, I just I want to do this. I want to be on the radio. This is great.
And when you graduated from high school, you immediately went to work in radio, you went to UNI, you went to grad school at the University of Iowa. And while you were in grad school, you did work at WSUI. You were a graduate assistant, right?
I was. They put me on the morning shift. That was really nice of him, wasn't it?
So you had some experience with public radio, such as it was at that point, but you had worked in all these different formats. So when you got the job, the full time job at WSUI, what drew you to public broadcasting?
Well, I tuned in to WSUI when I was a kid on my hallicrafters a.m. Shortwave, AM 910, it was just strong enough to get that signal up that far north. And I thought, this is really an interesting service. It's obviously not Jive and Top 40, but there's some really cool stuff to listen to. Discussion programs, there's some news, there's some classroom lectures. I learned a lot from those. I thought, this is OK and there's no commercials. It's all kind of neat. And I thought, OK, this may be a good place for me in the long run. You can't be a top 40 deejay forever.
When you got to WSUI full time in 1981, what was it like?
Well, it was an AM station that was struggling. I'm not putting anybody down that was working there. There were really fine people there. But the programming was way out of date, kind of the old educational radio from the 30s and with lots of lectures and roundtable discussions, and the signal we had problems, it didn't sound very good. So I thought I really need to rejuvenate this place, and it was a challenge. By 1985, we were getting some really good ratings,
It's incredible. I want to point this out for people who aren't radio nerds. When you started in 1981 and you only had an AM signal, that's really significant because if FM was on the rise and starting to totally eclipse AM radio.
Yeah, it was. In fact, 1975 FM caught up to AM, It was 50 50, so AM was sliding pretty quickly. But I knew there was life and WSUI. It just needed some new programming. It needed some technical improvements -- to the tune of all of $5,000. I had to convince them to spend that for this piece of equipment called and optimized that made that AM signal sound almost as good as FM. So we got it together, and it turned out to be a pretty good station, really.
So in '81, Morning Edition was brand new. So you put Morning Edition on the air. And what other shows? Because a lot of the NPR shows were fairly young, but also are names we still know today. What else did you put on the air?
Well, Fresh Air for one .
But we — when I started, we were just switching from the old landline distribution, which was basically a glorified phone line that connected NPR in Washington, D.C. with the stations. It was just kind of lousy quality. If you listen closely in the background, you could hear people having phone conversations, and it just wasn't very good. So we got this huge satellite dish, and then Morning Edition signed on and then NPR started feeding some really interesting, innovative programs.
Tell me about getting people to listen to AM Radio, because, like you said, you got some pretty good ratings, you really, really found your toehold in this community, but convincing people that AM even existed had to be a challenge.
I was like a minister or something, going from door to door, convincing people to tune over to AM. It was a problem, because you would run into people who had been in Iowa City for three or four years, new faculty. And they would ask what I do, and I said, 'Well, I'm on WSUI 'What is that on the FM?' 'No, no. It's on the AM It's AM 910 . It was always the same response. 'There's public radio on AM?' but we didn't publicize it very much. So it was just word of mouth. I just talked to all these people. And finally, I think half of Johnson County discovered this AM station with really good programming. I just thought that was a great idea to revive an AM station that had been on the air since 1919.
That is great. And at that time, the wisdom coming out of Washington, D.C. coming out of the NPR network was that forget about AM you shouldn't even try, right?
Right . The audience gurus at NPR — and I knew them pretty well — would basically say, 'Just give it up, you know, unplug it. It's just not worth it. Everything is on FM. Don't worry about the AM.' I thought they were wrong. I think they were wrong, and I think we had some success with that ancient station. And it's still on the air.
Of course, I am still an AM 910 listener. Iowa had, of course, three public radio stations that were affiliated with the three Regents Universities and KUNI is kind of the baby of the family, right? Because WUSI the University of Iowa and WOI at Iowa State University are two of the oldest radio stations west of the Mississippi, and we are celebrating our centennial of those stations this year. Although as you mentioned WSUI and WOI both did some broadcasting starting in 1919. ... There was AM 640 coming out of WOI that was this giant signal, and AM 910 that was a powerful signal. And that was a really important part of Iowa culture, I think for a lot longer than most AM stations.
Yeah, tremendous history here. And it just I've been discovering it by — we were off the air from the studio for seven weeks last fall, and I got to spend the seven weeks in the archives, and we can talk about that more. But discovering all of these old recordings going back to the 1920s. I mean, back then there was only a few stations on the dial. So WSUI, WOI were big deals.
When you became program director and really built this service up, there was KUNI and there was WOI, and that's where I started my radio career many years later. But there were some really incredible and innovative broadcasters doing work. And I know the WOI folks best, of course, Doug Brown and Don Forsling. And what was the relationship like when you were all separate stations and you were all doing your own thing? What was that connection with those other public stations?
Well, we were all sort of competing against each other, so there was a rivalry and that was good in a way. Thought occurred to me, though, not long after I started that we're duplicating a lot of things, like news coverage, and why don't we do an Iowa public radio? In fact, we talked about that way back. But the idea never really went anywhere back then. But I learned a lot from talking to my colleagues. They were great to work with. You mentioned Doug Brown. He was so fantastic, Don Forsling. Then at KUNI, I actually worked there for a year, Carl Jenkins, the program director, Just a terrific, smart guy. Doug Vernier taught me a lot. And when I was down at WSUI, why we would talk and I would learn a lot, and they were always nice, and we traded tapes with each other when we would miss a recording off the satellite or something. So we all got along just fine. But I think we're all better off with IPR, but that had to wait until 2006.
Yeah, yeah. Well, and I remember during my college days at WOI that there was some program sharing. We took Live from Prairie Lights from you guys and you took the book club from us, right?
So thinking back over all of these years, I mean, you were involved in some pretty big news stories over time. What stands out in your memory?
Well, it's it would be a tragedy because unfortunately, that's the news biz. The big news stories are often bad, but I mean, it would have to be 1991, November 1, the shootings and the physics professors and some other people that were shot and killed by Gang Lu. it was a crazy day-- The weather was terrible. It started snowing and sleeting. We were setting up for a live broadcast in Shambaugh Auditorium. It was Jane Smiley who was hanging around. She was going to read from A Thousand Acres, I think, her book
Maybe even before it had won the Pulitzer Prize, a pretty big deal already, though.
I interviewed her earlier in the day, and we were setting up, and then I heard all these sirens and thought something is going on. We went back to the engineering building the old studios, and for several hours we'd pick up the phone and it would be WCBS Newsradio in New York, what's going on there in Iowa City? And we would try to tell them what little we knew. Hang up, pick up the phone. It's Channel 7 in Washington, D.C. on Channel 7 NBC or whatever. And what's going on there in Iowa City? I mean, this went on for hours. The BBC called. It was a crazy time. A tragic time, unfortunately.
One of the other things that you have done quite a lot of over the years, and I think you've done it very well, is conduct interviews. You've done a lot of interviews, and I'm going to ask you a really unfair question, because I don't know how I would answer this question, but I'm still going to ask it: do you have a favorite interview?
I'm going to have to ask you that at some point. Oh my gosh, you would put me on the spot. Yeah, I could say — I would have an answer to that. And you may think this is odd, But my favorite interview, and I still think about it a lot was with a 95- year -old woman, who I absolutely adored, named Kitty Carlisle. For years, she was on What's My Line and a bunch of panel game shows, but she was in the early movies with the Marx Brothers. She was so fantastic. For some reason, she was in Iowa City, and she actually called and said, ‘Do you want to talk to me?’
She called the station? I love that.
She called, and somebody pulled up with a car, right in front of the door dropped her off. She looked beautiful, she had her makeup on and a great dress and shoes, and she sat down and we talked. I was just thrilled to talk to Kitty Carlisle. Of course, I wanted to find out what it was like to work with the Marx Brothers. That was my ulterior motive on this whole conversation. And I knew what she was going to say, and I said, I said, Miss Carlisle, what was it like to work with the Marx Brothers? You know, Night at the Opera and those great movies? 'Oh, they were just crazy guys on and off the set. There was just nuts all the time.' That was their answer.
Which is exactly what you wanted?
I wanted that. I wanted to hear it. And I grew up loving the Marx Brothers. I've seen the movie so many times. They're so fantastic. Yeah, Kitty Carlisle.
Thinking back, you are such a big part of the legacy of public radio in Iowa. Such an important force in building public radio, as we know it today in the state of Iowa. Tell me how you have witnessed the evolution of public radio in the state.
Well, it's gotten more sophisticated, and technically there's been huge improvements, the signals sounds good. IPR was a great idea. Working together, we can accomplish so much more. And I'm thrilled that it happened. It just took a lot longer than I thought. But when I started, we were hauling around these heavy 10 inch reels of 3m magnetic tape and we had this fabulous man, I just loved him, Our operations director...hauled these tapes around on this cart with wheels, took the elevator in the old building because you couldn't take these heavy things upstairs . Then we went to, you know, DAT tape. We went to cassette. We went to all sorts of different formats that have all faded, and now everything is on computer, which is kind of scary in a way to me.
Although so much easier than razorblade and tape.
Yes. Well, that's true.
That's how we used to edit in the olden days.
Yeah , we put pieces of tape on the wall that we edited, and they would be hanging there looking really strange.
So obviously there have been so many changes, and I hope you feel really proud of the legacy that you have helped to create here in the state. You have also been doing a lot of looking back in the past year during the fall. You were off the air for seven weeks because they were renovating the Iowa City studio, so you couldn't do that midday shift and you shifted your attention to the archives at WSUI . Tell me what you've been finding deep down in the dark basement.
Yes, the the bowels of the building. Sorry, I am sorry, But I had seven weeks of heaven there, Charity, I got to be off the air. In 1997, when Mary Sue Coleman decided to tear down our old radio building, they were going to toss all of these old tapes and recordings. I gathered together student assistants and people with pick up trucks that I knew and we didn't — We had very short timeline to get that stuff out of there. We hauled tons and tons of tapes and recordings and electrical transcriptions and disks and you name it, the six blocks south. All of that's been downstairs, here in this building, an old A&P grocery store, for all that time. And it's a treasure of interesting recordings, and I'm so glad I had some time to spend with all of that, and I will be volunteering now to keep working with with these, these archives in the weeks ahead.
Well, I'm so grateful that you're going to be volunteering, because that means that I still get to see you and spend time with you. And I'm so grateful that you're doing this archive work because you have so much more knowledge and depth of understanding of what you are looking at than anybody else in the organization. So I'm certain that you will find things that nobody else could find, and we're celebrating our centennial this year, so you'll also be sharing some of that sound with our audience as well.
Well, it's so funny Day one, I took up a couple of old tapes. Put them on this machine, that reel-to-reel machine. And lo and behold, there was a lecture given at the University of Iowa in 1962 by Meredith Willson, the music man. He was talking about The Music Man. He played the piccolo. The sound quality is fantastic. The tape has held up very well. So we want to try to restore some of these tapes and get them, if not on the air, at least on our website, so people can click on and hear the sound.
Yeah, that's so cool. Well, Dennis, before I let you go, I just have to say thank you to you. Because, again, not only have you helped to build this legacy of public radio in Iowa, but I've gotten to work with you for almost 12 years, and I have so loved working with you, learning from you, laughing with you. We have made some great radio together and we've had a great time. I credit you with keeping me sane through the early months of the pandemic as the only person outside of my family that I actually saw face to face. So I just love you, Dennis, and I'm really, really going to miss you. And I'm so grateful for our time together.
Thanks, Charity, that means so much to me. It really does. It's been great working with you. We've had a huge amount of fun. And during the pandemic it was just you and me, basically, here for the longest time. And of course, I'll still be tuned in and I will probably be in the building. Just make sure I have some coffee to drink. That's all I'm asking for at this point.
We will do our best. Dennis Reese, thanks for everything.
Thank you. Charity.