Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
September 28, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Tim Emmons wanted to become the next Larry Lujack, the legendary “superjock” from Chicago’s WLS radio who is still famous for his funny stories about ill-fated animals.
And as Emmons earned his bachelor’s degree in English and mass communications at Illinois State University in the late 1970s, his rich baritone voice reached the airwaves.
“But I found out that I was better off the air than on the air. You have to have something special to be on the air, and I always thought I was OK on the air but never great,” said Emmons, longtime director and general manager of Northern Public Radio, the broadcast arm of Northern Illinois University. “I’m still on the air when we’re fundraising, but most of my work is in helping other people to be better.”
Now, three decades after his career in radio began, Emmons has won the Don Otto Award given by the Public Radio Program Directors Association (PRPD) and Audience Research Analysis, two of public radio’s leading professional organizations.
He received the award Sept. 17 at PRPD’s annual meeting in Cleveland. The Otto “honors public radio originals whose talents, smarts and humor have helped move the system forward over the course of their public radio careers.”
Emmons is the fifth recipient of the Otto.
“I was very flattered and honored,” said Emmons, a Sycamore resident who took his first job in public radio in 1978. “The gentleman for whom the award is named was one of my early mentors in the public radio business, so this means a lot to me.”
Steve Olson, president of Audience Research Analysis, praised Emmons for his work to improve public radio through not only station administration but also through teaching and mentoring at conferences and workshops.
“He has improved the sound of our stations, our programming, our fundraising and our management skills,” Olson said. “He’s done all this with intelligence, skill, caring and good humor, all qualities we look for when we give out the Don Otto Award every year. (He is) someone of whom it can be said: ‘There will never be another one like him, and without him, we wouldn’t have come this far.’ ”
Emmons first came to NIU in 1988 as assistant manager after stints at a public radio station in Normal, Ill., and a commercial radio station in neighboring Bloomington – his only excursion outside public radio.
After hiring and supervising a WNIJ news team that won 32 national, regional and state news awards, he left for KWMU in St. Louis.
At KWMU, Emmons hired and supervised a news department that won nearly 20 awards in three years despite having won no awards in the three years before Emmons arrived.
In 1995, he returned to DeKalb as station manager.
Fifteen months later, he became the interim general manager and, after a national search, made that role permanent in the summer of 1997.
“Working with Tim is great because he’s a radio programmer at heart and he understands the public mission of what we’re doing,” said Bill Drake, program director at Northern Public Radio. “He’s just a good guy to work for, both personally and professionally, and I was not surprised to hear he had won this award. Tim always puts our audience first. Whatever major changes happen on the public side of the radio operation are always for the benefit of our listeners.”
Susan Stephens, news director at WNIJ, also regards Emmons as a kindred spirit.
“Being in news,” Stephens said, “it’s a real pleasure to have someone as a general manager who has a news background. He understands the issues that happen between management and the news department. Also, he was an English major, and he always keeps us on our toes with our grammar, which I appreciate.
“Tim always has been such a supporter of continuing our education in our field,” Stephens added. “That’s one of the things I have always been able to tell people who are considering a job here: There’s a strong commitment to training, to always getting better and doing better. We’re never satisfied, and Tim has been the reason for that.”
Public radio’s style of news programming is what drew Emmons to that end of the dial.
“Early on, I just fell in love with the way public radio does news – the in-depth approach to covering issues and events – that is completely unlike what you find in commercial media, whether it’s radio or TV or anything else,” he said.
But his own lasting mark comes from behind the scenes.
He’s a proven leader in building ratings and market share, doubling the audience for KWMU in less than two years. Locally, the audience for WNIJ has doubled over the past 10 years. He has won numerous awards, including the 1994 Missouri Broadcasters Association award for program promotion and the 1992 “FLO” award from the Public Radio Program Directors Association.
In DeKalb, Emmons guided the radio operation through a change in frequencies. WNIJ, which had the more popular programming, took over WNIU’s 89.5 FM frequency and its larger coverage area.
He also steered Northern Public Radio through a rocky period in the summer of 2005, when public broadcasters feared Congress was about to slash $100 million from the grant already approved for Fiscal Year 2006. That threatened rescission would have erased as much as $130,000 from the spending plan for WNIU and WNIJ.
And although Northern Public Radio remains healthy – “The fiscal year that just ended June 30 was our best year ever financially and one of our best in terms of audience,” Emmons said – the general manager is optimistic and cautious about the continued patronage of loyal listeners.
“What people tell us is they really appreciate public radio’s treatment of news in a way that no one else does it – particularly as newspapers are changing and, in some cases, failing, and other media are changing in ways that our listeners don’t tend to like all that much, they appreciate our coverage,” Emmons said. “On the classical music side, having a 24-hour classical music service in what is a pretty small media market is unusual, and people appreciate and support that.”
For his part, Emmons appreciates and supports his staff.
“Really, the best thing for me is when I see the light go on in somebody else. It’s a big thing for me when I can pass on something that I’ve learned,” he said. “We’ve got really great people here, many of whom have been around my entire time the station, which is unusual in a market like this – and I’m happy to work with them every day.”
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