Final broadcast: Jan Tucker retires after nearly 60 years in local media
ONTONAGON — As Jan Tucker’s retirement approached, people sent her memories of the radio show.
One woman came by Tucker’s house with a folder full of yellowing recipes her aunt had jotted down from her radio program in the ’60s. Another remembered waking up in the morning as a child and hearing her mother and aunt listening to the show and talking.
“I suppose that when they listened as kids, with their parents listening, it’s a tie with history with them,” Tucker said. “It’s a tie with their families … some of them, it’s the news. Some of them it’s the recipes. Some of them is just the jokes and helping them laugh.”
Tucker, 85, hosted the last episode of her long-running radio program Wednesday. She also retired from her role as writer for the Daily Globe in Ironwood, for which she covered Ontonagon for more than 50 years.
Tucker’s first journalism experience came around 1963 with the Daily Mining Gazette. Hannah Fowler, an organist with the Siloa Lutheran Church in her 80s, was stepping down as the Ontonagon stringer. She asked Tucker to take her place.
She would cut and paste her stories, then measure them before sending them in — stringers were paid by the inch. She would also assist the Daily Globe’s elderly stringer in Ontonagon with calling in obituaries and other tasks.
Tucker stayed with the Gazette until 1970, when the Daily Globe in Ironwood offered to make her a full-time staff reporter.
The Gazette work had been items like weddings and obituaries. At the Globe, Tucker began taking on harder news, covering meetings and breaking stories.
Her reputation helped smooth relations with sources who were otherwise wary. Russ Wood, one of the three people who helped reopen the White Pine Mine in the 1980s, didn’t trust reporters, Tucker said. But Copper Range Co. spokesman Larry Chabot vouched for her, saying she could be trusted to keep off-the-record talks off the record. So Tucker got frequent updates from Wood about how talks were going with the steelworkers’ union and getting an agreement with the state to reopen the mine.
One day Wood called her and told her he had been informed Copper Range would fill the mine with water. He gave her the OK to publish.
“We had reported that Copper Range was setting the date to water that mine, and apparently the governor at that time said ‘OK, that’s it, it’s got to be settled,'” she said. “…The day they signed the document, Russ Wood called, and we got that scoop.”
Another time, Tucker faced jail for refusing to name a source. When companies were bidding to reopen shipbuilding, one was a shadow company from overseas. When Tucker called to find out more, the man said ‘I’m not going to talk about that,’ and hung up.
A “highly credited anonymous source” told her the company was under investigation. The FBI could not confirm or deny. Although Tucker rarely used anonymous sources, there was “no doubt in my mind” as to the source’s credibility, she said.
When the company couldn’t come up with earnest money for the shipyard, they went to federal court. The company claimed the investigation’s reporting had caused them to lose overseas backing.
Tucker was subpoenaed. On the stand, she kept her promise to her source. The judge adjourned the court until the next day, telling her, “Mrs. Tucker, we’ll convene in the morning, and then we’ll have to decide what to do with you.”
The next morning, Tucker got back on the stand. The company dropped the question.
“Those were the times that I’ve been most proud of the fact that you do the news, and you take the bumps that come with it,” she said. “The news was the important thing in my career.”
That’s not to diminish what she accomplished with her radio show.
“I love what we did,” she said. “And I love the action and the immediacy of radio.”
Her radio career started while she was still stringing for the Gazette. Joe Blake and Bob Olson of WMJS in Ironwood came to her Ontonagon home. They would come to Ontonagon to broadcast basketball games. Afterwards, she would talk with Olson, the state’s on-air manager, who had the same hometown of Superior, Wisconsin.
“The two of them came into the living room, plopped themselves down on the chair, and said that they wanted me to be on the air with them … I said, ‘Well, I’ll try for three months,'” she said. “That was 57 years ago.”
Tucker, who had four small children, was able to broadcast from home. The station put a transmitter on her front porch and drilled a hole into an area off the living room, where she had a tiny table with an “archaic-looking microphone,” and a dial phone on the floor.
“You’d have to dial in, and that’s how it was transmitted every day,” she said. “Then as technology increased, pretty soon people could call in and I could put it on the air.”
Her son later did a remodeling job for her, adding a bedroom and laundry room. She was able to move to a bigger desk in the living room.
When she started at WJMS, the show was mostly music, with a bit of banter sprinkled in. One day, her co-host asked her what she did that weekend. Tucker said, “I spent the weekend trying to get a Kool-Aid stain off one of the counters.”
“I laughed, and all of a sudden the phone line started to light up like mad, and people called in with their suggestions and what they could do,” she said.
The feature took off. It wasn’t long before people started calling in with their own problems, which birthed another long-running part of the show. One woman called in to see if anyone had a particular recipe she had lost. After people called in with suggestions, Tucker read the recipe on the air the next day.
The recipes have gotten shorter, with fewer ingredients, as fewer listeners were at home all day. But it’s a segment the audience demands.
“To this day, if I skip that, people are calling and saying ‘Where’s the recipe?'” Tucker said.
It became so popular that people would sent in 10 cents for postage to have the radio station mail out a flyer with recipes. The station had to hire an extra person to handle the mail, Tucker said.
After Olson and Blake left WJMS IN 1970, Tucker departed out of loyalty.
“I thought, ‘My career is over,'” she said.
Four weeks later, they plopped themselves down on her living room again. They had bought WMPL in Hancock, and they wanted her to do her show.
She stayed with WMPL until 2005. Olson had left, while Blake had bought the station in Ishpeming. There was also a signal problem preventing her show from reaching listeners in Ontonagon.
“People would stop me on the street and say, ‘I really miss you,'” she said.
She moved to WUPY in 2005, where she’s been broadcast since. After J&J Broadcasting purchased WUPY, WIPI and WMPL, Tucker was simulcast on all three.
Tucker had been thinking about retiring at the end of the year. That timeline was accelerated in March, when she suffered a transient ischemic stroke as she was finishing a broadcast.
It was “very slight,” Tucker said, but the garbled speech alarmed listeners. She didn’t realize what had happened at first. Her grandson-in-law, who works with the sheriff’s department, said they had gotten calls from listeners. So had others in her family.
“That’s when I decided I didn’t ever want that to happen again,” she said. “I respect my audience too much to put people through that, because they were so upset.”
Tucker advised anyone thinking of retiring to do it younger than she did, when “you’re still young enough to go places and do things.”
Tucker’s retirement plans are still up in the air. She still plans to tune in to the morning radio shows. Beyond that, she had never planned for it, she said.
“I’ll sleep late in the morning, because I won’t have to get up at 5:30,” she said.
Tucker’s been amazed at the letters and cards that have come in. Many are from people whose mothers and grandmothers listened to the show.
“I’ve gotten a letter from Hawaii, letters from all kinds of places, people that have relocated from the U.P. to all over,” she said. “It’s very emotional for me.”
Looking back, Tucker is filled with gratitude for the people who helped along the way. When her 7-year-old son, Tim, became sick from the cancer that ultimately took his life, Tucker had planned to quit the radio show. Instead, the Ontonagon Herald’s then-editor, Irene Wolf, spent 11 months preparing news items for her to read the next morning. 45 years later, Tucker still remembers the clink of the news being put in the mailbox.
“People like that did things I can’t forget,” she said. “They extended themselves for me, and I’m very appreciative both for things people have done in the past and that they’re still doing.”