Museum News

Don Munson Named 2018 History Maker Honoree

March 19th, 2018

Donald G. Munson was born September 26, 1941, in Gibson City and attended Gibson City schools. Growing up an only child, Don spent a lot of time listening to music, reading, and listening to the radio, a seemingly very metropolitan source of news and entertainment. 'When I graduated I had never seen a radio station; Gibson City did not have one. We listened mostly to Chicago stations, and I listened to the radio maybe more than they typical teen.' He has fond memories of growing up in Gibson City, despite it having no television or radio station of its own. 'Everyone knew where everyone else was,' he wrote years later in his book 'Morning' Was My Middle Name: 35 Years of Watching Current Events become History on WJBC. 'Word would spread quickly through the kids in town when somebody was getting up a pickup baseball game on one of the vacant lots or when everybody was riding their bikes down to Bryant's Drug Store, the town's only retailer with air conditioning, for cherry cokes. ' It was, in short ' a wonderful town in which to grow up.'

After graduating from high school, Don headed out to Mattoon and began college at Eastern Illinois University. It was here that he first got a taste of broadcasting. 'I took a speech class [in college],' Don explained. 'The speech instructor told me I had some qualities that might work in radio, that the station in Mattoon were looking for part-time, weekend announcer, and that I should apply. I went over, and it was the first time I'd ever been in a radio station. They must have been desperate because they offered me the job,' he joked. Don, known for being fairly shy and reserved, quickly took to this. 'Once I started speaking, I realized this is for me. It's like you're anonymous, yet you can let some of your private side out. That's why I enjoyed it.'

This realization led Don to transfer to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his bachelor's degree in journalism and communications in 1963, and spent some time working at Urbana's now-defunct WKID as a 'daytimer,' licensed to broadcast only from sunrise to sunset. This 'daytimer' work was enough to make Don's application stand out to WJBC Station Manager Tim Ives, however. In 1964, Tim offered Don $525 per month to move to Bloomington-Normal and become a WJBC news reporter. Don accepted, and that summer he loaded his mobile home up and moved to Normal.

Recalling his beginnings at WJBC, Don said that it was a 'great time for AM radio, particularly for a community-based station like WJBC. The Peoria and Champaign TV stations seldom covered Bloomington-Normal news. There was no cable TV, and the percentage of local radios that could receive FM signals was very small.' This was the environment in which Don Newburg taught Don Munson the ropes. 'I did [the news] for less than a year, going to council meetings and the courthouse, and I enjoyed it a lot,' Don said. He quickly took on other roles in the station, as well. 'They heard I had some experience as a disc jockey and asked if I wanted to take that on, too. Then the sports director left, and I said 'I think I can do that!' and I ended up doing that for a couple of years.'

By 1965, at the 23, he was given his own morning show. The Don 'Morning' Munson Show'so named after a tongue-tied mix-up of 'morning' and 'Munson' that stuck'was his longest-running program and that one that he is best known for. For 35 years, the community spent their mornings listening to Don talk to newsmakers and average citizens alike about the news of the day. Not only did Don report many of the events now considered local history, he also used the show as a platform to highlight causes close to his heart. One such cause was the promotion of a 'Welcome Home' parade for veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars, many of whom faced tepid or even hostile receptions upon their return. The parade was a success, and one of his proudest moments in broadcasting.

The Don 'Morning' Munson show was a huge success. Not only did he reach an unusually large share of listeners, he has the distinction of having more broadcasts than anyone else in station history.

Don speaks humbly of his popularity. 'I've been allowed to the member of many families. They invited me into their home, their cars, their earbuds, and that's just remarkable to me.' The affection the community felt for him led to the development of many other programs and projects such as WJBC's Great Escapes, which took Don and a few lucky listeners to far-off locales around the world. Uneasy about the future of local radio stations that get bought out by large conglomerates, Munson signed off from his morning show for the last time in 2000, after the station was taken over by Citadel Broadcasting Group. His final show was broadcast from a local restaurant, and more than 1,600 local fans stopped by to wish him well.

Looking back, Don has only fond memories of his time with WJBC. 'I was involved in so many events over 35+ years. I cherish every day I got to be on WJBC.' Yet this was not the end of his broadcasting career; after retiring from WJBC, he moved to WGLT to dust off his disc jockey skills and host 'Radio Munson,' a musical 2-hour variety show featuring music from the Big Band era, a genre close to his heart. 'It was the music I grew up with; it was the music my parents listened to,' he explained. 'My mom grew up in the 1920s, they experienced the big band era, and the radio was always on in our house.'

Don remains glad he had the opportunity to work with WGLT for 17 years. 'It worked out great for GLT,' Don said of Radio Munson. 'I was a known quantity, people knew my name, and I was probably responsible for some people listening to WGLT for the first time. I probably helped them out and Lord knows they helped me out!' Don, feeling that it was prudent to sign off permanently before his performance declined with age, signed off for the final time on December 28, 2017.

In spite of his prolific broadcasting career, Don also found time to remain very active in the community. He served on the boards of the McLean County Museum of History and the McLean County United Way, and was additionally very generous with him time when asked to participate in one-time fundraisers such as shooting free throws for charity. He also founded some beloved local projects, such as The Brotherhood Tree'a seasonal charity that donates toys to low-income families for Christmas'and the Sounds of Christmas.

Additionally, Don has always had a deep love for history and the McLean County Historical society. 'To me, the McLean County Historical Society is one of the most important organizations in McLean county,' Don said. 'They're the keeper of our roots, everything that's good and (unfortunately) everything that's bad, too. It's such a strong organization, and we take it for granted in our county that history is an important part of our past.I think that's due in part to the society's work since 1892.'Don himself was deeply involved in local history.

His local history projects ranged from authoring two books with McLean County Museum of History Executive Director Emeritus Greg Koos in 1982 and 1991, writing 'Morning' Was My Middle Name: 35 Years of Watching Current Events become History on WJBC and donating all the proceeds from that book to the McLean County Historical Society, and even writing some of the historical markers that line the Constitution Trail (a project he supported from the get-go). The awards and recognition he has received are almost too numerous to fully recount. For example, on the occasion of his retirement from WJBC, Mayor Judy Markowitz gave Don a key to the City of Bloomington and announced that the road to WJBC, Greenview Avenue, will also bear the name Don Munson Way.

On the same occasion, The House of Representatives of the 91st General Assembly of the State of Illinois passed a House Resolution congratulating Don on his retirement. Munson won the Spirit of McLean County award in 2000 in recognition of his years serving the community through his work at WJBC.

Today, Don and his wife Carol spend about half of their time in warm and sunny Arizona, although they always come back for the summer. 'Even in in retirement, I still can't leave Bloomington-Normal behind,' Don explained. Don says he is honored to be recognized, but remains extremely humble. 'I am a little uncomfortable being responsible for some amount of history,' he said when notified that he will be honored as a History Maker. 'I didn't do much; I just reported it. I was just there as the eyes and ears of the people, doing what a reporter was supposed to do. I was interviewing news makers, I wasn't a newsmaker. I was interviewing politicians, I wasn't a politician. I was playing Benny Goodman, I wasn't a musician. I don't have talent in any field at all. All I did was show up.

Lauren Lacy