A Man and His Mic

It's just after 8 on a Friday morning in Fitchburg. Mitch Henck, morning talk show host, settles into his chair, slips on a set of headphones, and welcomes the 1310 WIBA-AM Outside the Box radio audience. "It's happy Friday!" he exclaims to his listeners. What follows will be three hours of discussions covering everything from the day's news to America's obsession with nudity.

While Outside the Box is Mitch's show, it's also his second show of the day. He's been on the job since 5:45 a.m., helping to awaken the drive-time audience during the station's Madison in the Morning program, together with co-hosts Robin Colbert and her father, John Colbert. He enjoys it immensely, despite the time of day. "I like the pace of it," he says, "the pulse. [The Colberts] are sharp-witted, while I'm more Johnny Carson than Jerry Lewis."

Like Carson and Lewis, Henck understands his role and relishes it. "I am not crusading," he says, "I'm entertaining." That's what he brings to Outside the Box, as well as a great gift of gab.



Bantering for Betty White

Comfortably perched behind the microphone, Henck, a professed NCAA basketball nut, begins his show with some early morning basketball banter and a brief mention of the upcoming NCAA tournament, before quickly changing to the day's news. In the past week, two elderly women had their purses stolen at a local grocery store, and Henck takes it on.

"What would the appropriate punishment be for these offenders?" he asks his audience. "I have a suggestion. Let's put these assailants in front of the senior center, line up all the elderly women, and have them beat them with their purses – in plain sight!" Through a glass window, producer Chandra Lynn sits at the ready, pressing all the buttons, fielding calls, assuring Henck gets all the commercial breaks in, and adding short audio clips to enhance the discussions. "Ken" is the first caller, offering his opinion, then Terry. Clearly, it's a fun take on a disturbing trend. "I want Betty White out there with her purse!" Henck quips.

Through the headphones, Lynn warns, "Thirty seconds!" and the talk show host trails off the conversation to allow for a commercial break.

Henck searches for show topics "24/7," and he books all the guests himself. The program is structured, he explains, like a newspaper. Heavy, headline-grabbing topics come first, followed by local, living, leisure, comics, music, and arts and entertainment. Fridays are different, in his mind. "People don't want heavy stuff on Fridays."

Just then, Pastor Alex Gee, a frequent guest on the show, and Tim Lewis, introduced as world-class speakers, squeeze into the studio, positioning themselves in front of extra microphones. "We're having a positive discussion this morning," Henck says to his audience. "Keeping a positive attitude." He introduces the guests and the three chat like old friends about staying positive and emitting positive energy.

Minutes later, from the other room, Lynn counts Henck down to another commercial break, and on cue, he instantaneously launches into a live spot for a weight-loss program, glancing only slightly at notes in his hands. It's clear he can talk about anything with great fervor.

Heading into the top of the hour, Henck teases the next segment: "Democratic and Republican attack dogs, next!" and with that, he's freed up for about 10 minutes while the family Colbert handles news duties from another part of the building.

Dave Travis and Sunny Schubert arrive next, for the morning's political debate. Travis, a former legislator who served 26 years in state politics, and Schubert, former editorial writer for the Wisconsin State Journal, take their corners in the small studio. Travis, the Democrat, sports a Badger sweatshirt, in honor of the afternoon's Badger basketball game versus Indiana. Schubert, from Indiana, displays her Hoosier socks. They don't look like attack dogs, but they're ready for battle, in a respectful kind of way.

Topics range from whether a Dane County judge should have recused himself from a decision on the Governor's voter ID bill, to the killed mining bill vote. Schubert says yes to the former. "Oh boo-hoo!" cries Travis, and the heat intensifies. "I'm an equal opportunity offender," Schubert pronounces at one point, finding fault on both sides.

Henck, arms crossed, is amused by the exchange. "I just try to move the conversation along," he says. "I couldn't tell people how to fix a carburetor, but I like current and world events." His deep-rooted interest in politics comes, in large part, from his mother.

"My mom taught me that if you didn't know what was going on, Hitler could come back. She always talked about the need to know history, and that it's important to watch the political campaigns. She was a liberal Democrat."

As a young child, he watched – and was fascinated by – the Watergate hearings. "I was a weird kid," he admits. Regular listeners are well aware that Henck was a delegate and volunteer for the Gary Hart campaign in college, even opting to postpone his graduation by several months so he could travel to New Jersey in preparation for the Democratic primary.

Back in the studio, after the political opponents leave, Henck welcomes Ben Smith, a local songwriter who sings and strums his guitar to help promote a charity event the following day.

Next on the docket: a live telephone interview with Michael Foster, author of a book on America's obsession with nudity. As planned, it was a short interview. "A minute can seem like an hour, and an hour can seem like a minute [in radio]," Henck says. "You can upset people in three seconds."

He finishes the morning with an off-the-cuff segment inviting listeners to suggest their favorite "underrated and underplayed songs." The topic is slow to develop, but Henck has no trouble filling the airspace – a testament to his gift of gab. His eyes wander around the room as he lobbies for calls, using a keen sense of humor to connect with callers.

It works, and Patsy calls first, requesting, "I Want to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" by Lloyd Price. Other requests follow, and a different producer behind the glass frantically tries to find and play snippets of each.

From straitjacket to "shtick"

Henck began his radio career in high school as a sports reporter, and continued into college at Butler University, where he graduated in 1984 with a degree in radio/TV, a fine arts major. "I didn't have to dance," he assured.

He spent over a dozen years in television, starting at WSBT, the CBS affiliate in South Bend, Ind., where he transitioned from sports anchor/reporter to news after the news director noticed he was always correcting the news staff on political issues. That led him to WLUK-TV in Green Bay for four years, followed by eight years at NBC 15 in Madison. In what seems an odd disconnect, Henck also spent nine years in the mortgage industry, until it crashed.

In retrospect, he wishes he'd never left radio. "In TV news, you bust your butt for eight hours, all for a three-minute report. It was a grind. The only time I liked it was on election nights because I didn't have to read a script, which was like a straitjacket for me. Radio is my absolute love. This is much more fun."

A good day, he says, is when he is able to entertain, enlighten, educate, and inspire his audience, "but the first one has to be present in the other three." A bad day? "When the same callers try to dominate the airwaves at the expense of other potential callers." That said, the key to being a talk show host, in his opinion, is to begin with substance. "Style cannot carry the show. Without an interesting and relevant subject, we have fluff."

Besides his two teenage children, other passions include performance comedy and Frank Sinatra, and he combines both in The Big Show, a Las Vegas-type program he developed and performs regularly around the city. The combination of his singing, stand-up comedy, and a trio of local musicians continues to draw a crowd. "As a kid, I loved to watch Rich Little. Loved the impressions. My uncle was the entertainer in our family. He'd tell jokes, do impressions, and I'd stare at him for hours, in awe. He made you feel good and made you laugh. I hope I do that for people when I'm entertaining," he said.

The self-deprecating performer's "shtick" is that he's a divorced, single father looking for a date, always striving to become more organized, and in a constant battle with both his weight and his golf score (he's a nine-handicap). "I get emotionally unglued by golf," he admits. "It's the only time in my life I'm not smiling or in control. Golf controls me."

He dreams of one day taking The Big Show on the road, perhaps even to Chicago, but he really hopes to break par for 18 holes.

The 50-year-old admits he gets to bed earlier and earlier these days, usually around 9 p.m., and awakens at 4 in the morning when he begins checking headlines. His day is usually over by 11:30, though he often returns to the station in the afternoons to plan upcoming shows. He receives a salary, and an opportunity for endorsements.

"It beats workin'," he smiles.


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