STRAIGHTtalk with Walt Lindala of the Walt and Mike Show on Sunny FM. He’s a lifelong Yooper who loves news, loves the Blues, and loves his community. He talks about that, and also tells Brian how he proposed to his wife.
BC: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
WL: I’ve had an affinity for radio ever since I was a little kid. I used to record myself. I’d record songs off the radio and then play DJ. I remember as a kid going to locations around Houghton and Hancock because my father was a sign-painter. He would do lettering for some of the radio stations, and I’d go with him to those jobs and I found that fascinating. So I’ve wanted to be in the radio business ever since I was a kid.
BC: A happy childhood?
WL: Yes. I grew up an only child with Finnish parents which gave me the ability to learn Finnish first, before English. We didn’t come from a lot but I never really wanted for anything. My mom was a homemaker and my dad painted signs and we ran a small resort on the shore of Portage Lake. So I got to meet a lot of different people and I grew up outside of Chassell with a nice piece of property that I rode bikes on, and my memories of that time are pleasant.
BC: Is there a single moment or event from your childhood that really stands out as you think back on it?
WL: A few things come to mind. Moon shots on television, Vietnam war footage on television, Walter Cronkite, and All in the Family. I remember going to the radio stations that I mentioned. There was a station in what is the Douglas House. I remember going there as a small child and just looking in the windows and thinking to myself, “What is this??”
BC: Now what about the other side of you? When did you decide that music was also in your future?
WL: Well, my dad was a drummer so I grew up with music in my house. One of my absolute earliest memories is sitting on my father’s lap while he was playing a wedding reception or a dance and he’s got my hands and I’m holding the drum sticks and I’m playing the drums. But the defining moment for me occurred at a musical concert at Michigan Tech, and it was the Southern rock bands Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot. That was probably 1984 or 85. The sound, the spectacle, the bigness of it. I said to myself, “I have to do this. This is it. Playing it or being a part of it somehow.”
BC: The Blues. That’s what you and the Flat Broke Blues Band are associated with. Why the Blues?
WL: The emotion of the music. I’ve always connected to the emotion, the feeling, the soul of it. When B.B. King would come on TV, my dad would say, “Watch him!” Dad didn’t know the terminology but he would say something like “Look how he shakes that note.” It just evolved for me. I went through the Led Zeppelin stuff—there’s a lot Blues in that—and Stevie Ray Vaughn for my generation was really important. It was the sheer emotion, the improvisational style, the sweat and the soul of it.
BC: For us non-musicians, what does it feel like standing on a stage, looking out at a sea of faces and creating magic with your music?
WL: It’s validating. When I say validating, I mean it’s very rewarding that those hours you spent practicing and maybe not going out with your friends or doing some things and just playing guitar or whatever the instrument is and mastering it…it’s validating. The other word I’d use is “addicting” because when it’s good, it’s like nothing else because you’re having success in something you’re passionate about and you’re also connecting. Anybody can practice in your living room or your basement or your bedroom but until you interact with people with that creative energy, there’s nothing like that.
BC: Tell me about a time when you were playing your music onstage and everything just fell flat.
WL: (Laughs) I remember playing a job outside of Menominee-Marinette—it was a little roadhouse on the side of the highway—and we were playing, I think, to the bartender, the doorman and maybe one other guy at the bar. Everything was lined up so that things should have gone well but there was a competing establishment just over the hill, and when we went out on set break, we could see just over the hill, all the lights and we could hear the music and all the people…They went to that bar because it was some sort of special night. And that’s tough because you have to try to do the best you can even though the spirit’s not there because one thing I have learning playing a lot of dates over the years is that you never know who’s watching. We’ve had shows that we thought were rotten but there was that one person or that one couple that was dancing…My dad used to say if there’s just one couple dancing, then play for them. Just play for them and they’re going to have a good time.
BC: Back to radio. Some say that radio is an old, dying 1940s medium. I’m guessing you don’t buy that.
WL: I do buy it to a certain extent. I do believe that radio, with its influence, has diminished. With the new technologies, appointment listening doesn’t exist the way it used to.
BC: So what attracts you to radio?
WL: What I like about radio is it allows me to utilize voice, sounds and music to create an experience in your mind. And that may be as simple as sitting down and doing an interview but a compelling interview that really moves someone. Or creating a commercial or some other segment that puts all those elements together—That allows you to have that experience without actually even seeing it. I’ve always liked the illusion of radio because it goes back to what I was talking about as a kid: The first time I went to what was my favorite radio station, I walked into the studios with my father and I was like…This is it? It was a typical office with late 70s shag carpeting with a couple of old turntables and not much more. And I thought, this is where it comes from every day?
BC: Tell me about your most embarrassing moment in radio.
WL: (Laughs) Well, we’ve all had trouble with mispronounced words. I remember one time doing a news story about something that happened in the Keweenaw…the Copper Country. And I mispronounced “Country.” Instead, I said “Copper Cuntly.”
BC: How about your most gratifying moment or day on the air?
WL: What comes to mind as a really defining moment for me was when we covered what was called the Tower Lake Fire in the summer of ’98 or ’99. It was a fire that started on the other side of Republic and was heading toward Champion. This was in the days before live TV trucks. We had old radio bag phones in our truck and we covered the fire the best that we could, and we had a moment when we were recording the Sheriff talking about Champion needing to be evacuated, and we were able to turn that around and get it on the air within seconds. And that was important, really important to the people who lived out there. And there was a celebration later, after the fire, for the camp owners groups where they thanked the DNR and the firefighters. And we went there as well, and we were approached by so many people thanking us for the work that we did. And I was thinking…”This is it. This is why we do what we do.”
BC: So you’re a musician and a radio journalist. What else is there to Walt Lindala?
WL: Well, I think it’s important to give back to the community. I’m currently the chairman of the Arts and Culture Advisory Committee. I’m also involved with Marquette County United Way, I was their co-chair about ten years ago. I try to get involved with as many groups as I can. I really understand that economics in the county is important, jobs are important. We need people to stay here and work, but the other thing that makes living here enjoyable are those other, slightly more esoteric things like the arts, culture, music. Those are the things that give us that Cool City designation.
BC: Your wife April. What attracted you to her?
WL: She was a broadcasting student at Northern. I was fascinated by her presence and…I don’t know, I guess I just fell for her eyes! (Laughs) I pursued her actively and she didn’t see it my way right away. Eventually, though, she did, and we just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
BC: Where did you propose to her?
WL: Well, I stacked the deck. When she was having a sorority initiation celebration, the girls all gathered at Vangos to have a dinner as a group, and I showed up there and proposed to her in front of that group knowing that there was no damn way she was going to say no!
BC: Any kids?
WL: No, no kids. Both she and I are only children and I, at least, am not cut from the cloth of being around large families. And that’s funny because a lot of Finnish families are big. We chose the path to follow our careers and we were never quite ready to have children. I’ve thought sometimes that maybe it’s one of the experiences of life that I’m missing out on but I’m comfortable with the fact that plenty of other people are having children right now, and I’m okay with it.
BC: You’ve been in Marquette for a few decades. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed?
WL: The biggest change I’ve seen has been the influence of younger people on this community. When I was an undergrad at Northern, there was a lot of pushback. We were trying to get a fraternity house together and we had to deal with all the zoning ordinances, and we got a lot of pushback from the old guard in the city. They didn’t like change especially from young people. But today we have all the successes with the breweries, restaurants, bike shops and the outdoor recreation, and it’s the young people who are doing most of that. The Forty Below group. None of that would have happened thirty years ago.
BC: Are there any possible changes out there right now that worry you about this community?
WL: No, I’m an advocate of doing things that are going to benefit the future of our community. And that means getting jobs and getting upgrades to facilities that are going to bring people to Marquette and keep them here. Some people worry that this is going to become another Traverse City. There’s some of that happening but there has to be evolution or we’re going to dry up and fade away. The hospital project is very exciting to me because that’s the next 50-75 years of this community. When I started here in Marquette, the Landmark Inn was full of pigeon droppings and no windows. Now look at it. And what is now the Hampton Inn and all the condos along the shore was an oily rail yard. And I’m really excited about this Orphanage project. I don’t think it’s bad that we’ve gone where we’ve gone.
BC: Do you ever contemplate retirement?
WL: I contemplate it. I’m 48, almost 50, when I’ll probably make some changes. But I got a job that I love to do right now and I certainly don’t have to stop at 50. The hours get to me sometimes. Actually it’s not the show and it’s not the hours, it’s the getting up when it’s frickin’ cold outside. When I do eventually retire, I’d probably be interested in getting into municipal politics…City Commission to start with. I care about those issues and I’m passionate about them, and I’d be willing to devote my time to politics if and when the time comes.
BC: What’s perfect ordinary day for you?
WL: The ordinary perfect day for me is getting up, coming in and doing the show, maybe having two or three really good, diverse guests. Could be politics, the art scene, music, theater. Getting some good laughs, telling some good jokes. Then finishing up, getting a chance to relax in the afternoon, then going out with my band and playing a gig somewhere, maybe at a festival, somewhere outside. That would be a great day.
BC: What happens after we die?
WL: Wow, that’s a question I didn’t see coming…I’m not a very religious person but I do have faith in higher powers. I would have to say that our spirit lives on in some fashion because the energy is there. I’ve seen people and animals die and I’ve seen it leave them. I believe it goes somewhere but I don’t know where that somewhere is, and I don’t think any of us truly do.
BC: Thank you, Walt.