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Longtime Michigan Broadcaster Don Backus Retires

Don Backus

Veteran Michigan Broadcaster and broadcast equipment marketing professional Don Backus has announced his retirement.  Backus spent two decades on the station side, in ownership, management, sales, on-air and news.  He is also known for this work representing companies like Rohde & Schwarz, ENCO, BE and Audio Broadcast Group.

Backus attended Michigan State University in East Lansing, where he worked at the carrier current radio station. His early career included programming, production and on-air positions at WVIC in East Lansing, doing mornings and middays; WITL in Lansing doing afternoons; and WSJM in St. Joseph doing middays and FM programming.

“From early on, I saw engineering as the ‘how’ part of getting the message out there, and that always had interest for me. The technology and the people who make it work are just as interesting as the on-air talent, so I never found myself stuck in one camp or the other. At WVIC-FM for instance, I hung out with morning guy Dan Caruso as well as with engineer John Hanley. I tried to learn from everyone I worked with, and most of the time, the lessons were positive,” Backus told MAB’s Dan Kelley. “Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I watched Joe Buys manage at WVIC-FM and saw both his light touch and firm hand as he managed a group of individuals with their own ideas of how to get things done into a single, cohesive force. Telling people what to do is easy, getting them to follow your lead is hard but it’s worth the effort, and I took that from Joe as I went into station ownership after leaving WVIC-FM.”

For ten years, 1983 to 1993, he was co-owner, president and general manager of WDBI-FM (Tawas City), where he also worked on-air and as chief engineer. His final station role was as general sales manager of the Williams Communications stations in Longview and Tyler, Texas.

“I will say that there’s nothing more fun than owning and running your own radio station at 28…unless it’s doing so with someone who’s been a friend since grade school in Lansing – and that’s what I did,” said Don. “With Marty Pennoni, a friend since our days at Elmhurst Elementary School in Lansing, we bought WDBI-FM. It was on Lake Huron about an hour north of Saginaw in a part of the state that neither of us had really been before, but we quickly fell in love with the area, the people and the idea that we could make a difference doing great radio. We had big ideas and we executed them along with a talented team of on-air and sales people. I don’t think we ever said, ‘you can’t do that…,’ but instead our mantra was ‘I wonder if you could…” We were very ‘hands on’ because, frankly, that’s where a lot of the fun in business is, and you don’t buy a toy store if you don’t want to play!”

His career in technology sales started at Audio Broadcast Group, a Grand Rapids-based firm, which he joined in 1994 and where he was a sales engineer and digital systems manager.

Don Backus at WVIC/East Lansing in 1979.

He’s a past director of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Foundation and he served two terms as associate director of the MAB itself. For 25 years he has helped plan the engineering content of the MAB’s annual Great Lakes Broadcast Conference.

“Ironically, as a station owner, I wasn’t involved in the MAB at all. That didn’t come until I’d moved over to the technology provider arena, and by then I better understood the value that the MAB and the MAB Foundation had to offer. I think in retrospect, I’d have gotten more involved with MAB ‘back in the day’ had I better understood the benefits to broadcasters in all size markets,” said Backus.  Having served on the MAB board for three terms and then the MAB Foundation board for two, I’ve seen how competitive instincts are set aside to advocate and work for what would be best for our industry as a whole, and I was honored to be on these boards with some extraordinary broadcasters.”

“Even after moving to the technology supplier end of the business, I’ve never forgotten that the single most important thing remains the relationship between the broadcaster and the listener. All of the tech in the world can’t replace that link. Tech can improve the signal, make it easier to get out there, even make it cheaper to deliver, but content is king – and engaging the listener matters. One can argue that broadcasting is just another kind of business, but I disagree. Broadcasting is a calling, a mission, almost a holy thing. Sure, it’s a business, and one that we were very successful at, but when I hired on-air people I used to tell them that theirs was a job that could save lives…and not just one at a time. When you read that tornado warning, people will react by taking cover, and lives will be spared because you calmly and professionally did your job. How many other jobs are there that have that kind of potential impact on people, that will also allow you to play the hits and have fun doing it. What can I say? I’m a believer in the power of broadcasting in general and radio in particular…always have been!”

He and his wife of 48 years, Nancy, live in Grand Rapids. They plan to travel and spend time with their five grandchildren.  Thank you Don Backus!

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