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Wednesday, August 15,2012

'Like a death in the family'

Downing’s strange, sudden 'retirement' leaves some at WLNZ in tears

by Rich Tupica

Retirement after a 37-year career would typically be a celebratory affair, with a jubilant going-away party hosted by co-workers and management that would honor the decades of devoted service. That is not the atmosphere at WLNZ, Lansing Community College’s radio station. Wednesday was former general manager Dave Downing’s last day in the studio he built from the ground up, but the mood was somber. 

“It’s devastating,” program manager Karen Love said during a phone interview, choking back tears. The two worked together for nearly a decade on the station’s popular program Coffee Break. “He put the station on the air, he built it from nothing. So this station has Dave’s imprints on it everywhere. It’s almost like there’s been a death in the family.”

While a short news release distributed by the college said Downing “has decided to retire from the college,” he and his co-workers seem pretty shaken up over this sudden departure that ends a career that spanned five decades. While Downing, 59, and his co-workers preferred not to comment on the reasoning behind the sudden exit, the “forced out” vibe is looming heavily. 

Since Thursday repeated calls have been made to LCC President Brent Knight’s office, but he has been either out of the office or too busy to talk about Downing. It leaves many questions about the future of WLNZ up in the air. As of right now, the station doesn’t have a general manager, which doesn’t necessarily point to a planned departure from Downing. But if he was forced into retirement, the college isn’t painting the picture that way for reasons unknown. With Downing out of the picture, could the college be planning to sell the station or cut funding? If there are plans in place, Downing was left out of the loop.

“If they wanted to sell it, they could, but I don’t know,” Downing said. “There have been times where they’ve talked about cutting the funding, but not selling.”

The release distributed (upon request) by LCC, closes with, “We wish Dave and his family the best as he begins this new chapter in his life.” Apparently that chapter is looking for a new job.

“Yeah, I’m definitely going to be looking,” he said. “Just a couple days ago I was elected to the board of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which is an organization of community stations. WLNZ is a member, I’m not sure if they’re going to maintain their membership now that I’m gone. But I just got elected to the board, so it’s really going to be exciting.”

It’s no surprise Downing was elected onto a prestigious broadcasting board. He’s been at it for a long time. 

“I got my first job in radio when I was 14,” Downing said. “So I already had, like, seven years of experience when I left WFMK to go to LCC to run the station and teach in 1974. I had just turned 21.”

WLNZ is a non-commerical station that switched from a jazz format to adult alternative format three years ago. The station currently airs on 89.7-FM from LCC´s Technology and Learning Center building, but when it started, it was heard in only one room on campus: the cafeteria.

“That’s how the station was when I first got there,” Downing said. “It was 16 speakers in the cafeteria, which was the only place you can hear the station. The DJ was in the personal services building in a tiny little studio.”

From there Downing began his mission of localizing WLNZ to the fullest, unlike the trend of most stations.

“Our programming decisions and operations decisions are done there, at the station,” Downing said of his former workplace. “At commercial stations they’re done at corporate offices somewhere out of state. That’s always been the selling point of what we do. When we’re on the air, you know the programming decisions are made just across the hall. To me, that’s where radio and broadcasting should be — local.”

With WLNZ not being a concern anymore, Downing said in between scouting for jobs he plans to spend more time with his wife of 38 years and a more time doing what he loves: Civil War reenactments. Downing said he’s even brainstorming ideas on how to keep alive his annual Old Time Radio show, held each year at Dart Auditorium during Silver Bells in the City.

“Audio drama — that’s been a passion of mine for at least 30 years,” he said.

In the end, Downing said he looks back fondly at his years building the station.

“I can sum it up in one word, and that’s ‘satisfied,’” he said. “I feel very satisfied knowing I did the best I could do. I got the station going and a lot of local musicians were able to get their music on the air and exposed, which is something that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I’m hoping they keep that going.” 

Even though he may not be at the studio anymore, Love said she and her co-workers will always feel his influence.

“He is actually everywhere here,” Love said. “He is a big history buff and loves radio, so there are old radios that he has collected all over the station. He kept a lot of equipment that is no longer used, but allowed us to put together a mini radio museum through the years … so, in many ways, Dave will always be here.”

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