By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Bob Beck has a word of advice for up and coming broadcasters: “Try not to suck.”
In his 34 years behind the microphone at Wyoming Public Radio, Beck has reported on major events, covering stories ranging from legislative happenings to criminal cases to tragic accidents, all of which have captured the attention of audiences around the Cowboy State. He has helped to earn the Laramie-based news station over 100 national, regional and state news awards, and has inspired a generation of would-be broadcasters and journalists.
At 61 years of age, Beck has lived most of his professional life in the state of Wyoming, although he had a more urban upbringing.
“I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Wheaton, Illinois, which was just about 30 miles from the city,” Beck told Cowboy State Daily. “I went to college down at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I worked down there while I was in school for a couple of radio stations, and then I came to Sheridan, Wyoming in 1983 and worked for KROE.”
After a year at KROE and then another four years at stations KOWB and KCGY in Laramie, Beck was pondering opportunities that would have led him away from the Cowboy State. Then the job of news director at Wyoming Public Radio became available.
Choosing a Career In Wyoming
After a decade in Laramie at Wyoming Public Radio, Beck said both he and his wife had been offered job opportunities elsewhere.
“I figured, well, we could stay in Laramie a couple more years and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do,” he said. “And in 1998, I was offered the job to be the news director at KJZZ in Phoenix.”
But he said the job wasn’t an exact fit, so he decided to use the offer as a negotiating tool with his boss at WPR.
“He didn’t really want to lose me,” Beck said. “And I said, ‘Well, if I can get this much more money, and one more reporter…’ and there was this ugly vase that was on his desk, and I said, ‘and if I can have that vase, I’ll stay.’”
The next afternoon, Beck said his boss walked into his office with the ugly vase and asked him to stay.
“I think that may have saved me from a divorce,” he said. “I wasn’t real sure my wife was excited about going to Arizona.”
Beck said that was the last time he seriously entertained a move. And his decision to stay was a timely one, given the major news story that would break that fall that put Laramie in the national spotlight.
Major News Stories
Beck said in a way, choosing to stay in Wyoming rather than taking the job in Phoenix actually helped his career, because the Matthew Shepard murder that occurred in October of 1998 put Wyoming Public Radio on the national map.
“NPR (National Public Radio) realized we were really pretty good, and they could take stories from us,” he said. “And they started to take quite a few stories from us after that.”
Three years later, another major story would affect Beck deeply. On Sept. 16, 2001, eight members of the University’s cross country team were killed in a collision on Highway 287 south of Laramie.
“I actually knew the coach very well, Jim Sanchez,” Beck said. “The morning of the day they were killed, I was at a bagel shop in Laramie, going up to the mountains. I actually followed their van to the mountains that morning, they had done a workout up there.”
Later that night, the crash occurred that killed eight of the twelve members of the cross country team.
“It basically wiped out their team,” Beck said. “And I just remember being just so shocked that I had just seen them.”
The tragedy added to the raw emotions experienced by all Americans, as the crash occurred just five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I later interviewed Clint Haskins, who was the driver, and did a piece on that,” he said. “And it took a little while to get access to him, but I think it worked out that it was the five year anniversary of (the crash). And people outside the state would say to me, ‘Gosh, I don’t even remember that story,’ and I said, ‘You don’t remember it because it was 9-11.’
There are other stories that have made an impact on Beck over the last 34 years, as well – like the execution of convicted murderer Mark Hopkinson in 1992.
“I wasn’t in there, but I was across the street with the other reporters, doing a live broadcast with KOA (Denver),” Beck said. “I brought an intern with me, and they had a stenographer sending notes over, and (the intern) would grab the notes and what they were saying, and I remember reading on the air that he was dead. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Covering the Legislature
Beck said reporting on the work of the Wyoming Legislature has been a highlight of his career.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve been through so much history.”
Beck said he thinks he’s one of the few people still involved in Wyoming politics that was at the Capitol when the Legislature passed a sales tax.
“It was I think ‘92 or something, but it was a long time ago,” he said. “And I saw them pass the Martin Luther King Day bill, and the seatbelt law we have right now. I’ve just got to see a lot of Wyoming history and a lot of interesting laws and debates take place.”
But he would cover many of the same issues at the Legislature repeatedly.
“Joan Barron, who used to work for the Casper Star Tribune, and I would always laugh, that maybe we really only covered six issues in the state’s history, because they just never go away,” Beck said.
That’s why Beck looked forward to covering new issues that would come before the state’s lawmakers.
“COVID made it sort of fun, because they could argue about that stuff,” he said. “I actually won an award for my coverage on that this year.”
The Lighter Side
Because Beck covered Wyoming, from time to time he was required to go “on location.” He recalled a story that required him to go on a long horseback ride in a wilderness area, which was no mean feat for a city guy from the Chicago suburbs.
“There was a wilderness area they were trying to do just between Sheridan and Johnson counties, and they were trying to convince the Johnson County Commissioners to go along with this – long story short, it never came to be – but it required me being on a horse for like four hours one afternoon,” Beck said. “It wasn’t necessarily that safe. I mean, I almost lost all my equipment in a river.”
Beck said he was on this particular trek with local representatives, along with then-Representative Cynthia Lummis and future governor Mark Gordon.
“We were on this trail, it seemed like thousands of feet up with big rocks down below, and I kept thinking, ‘One false move and we’re all dead.’ Boy, I was very pleased when we got off of that trail.”
Beck said he’s been pleased to oversee growth at Wyoming Public Radio after his negotiating tactics worked in 1998.
“We were getting better here and had a chance to grow,” he said. ”So (expanding) allowed us to do ‘Open Spaces,’ which is our news and public affairs show, and do it well.”
Beck said that starting “Open Spaces” in the mid-2000s allowed Wyoming Public Radio to produce features and interviews at a high level of quality.
“This allowed me to focus,” he said. “Get some of the top people and topics on the air… I could produce this thing once a week with music and good writing and editing and all that, and turn it into a thing that has won 11 national awards, either a first or a second. And I’m really proud of that show and what we’ve done with it.”
Because Wyoming Public Radio is licensed to the University of Wyoming, much of what happens there is training for future broadcasters.
When Beck took over as news director in 1998, he had a small pool of talent to work with.
“I think I inherited two or three part timers, and then we eventually built that up with interns who would become part timers,” he said. “So if they did a good job, I would keep them on and give them minimum wage.”
Many of those interns were students of his at the university.
“(From 1998-2008) I taught broadcast writing, reporting, and then towards the end of the ‘90s, we did a capstone class,” Beck said, explaining that the class put together an hour-long news magazine television program once a month.
“That was fun, because it was the students who had been through the television production, and the students who had been through radio classes and then had taken my news classes. They did all the technical stuff, set the lights, wrote and reported the stories.”
Beck said the Matthew Shepard murder occurred during one of those capstone classes.
“My colleague and I pointed out that, ‘Good schools would jump on this, they would do a really good show on this,’” he said. “I remember that (the students) were like, ‘Oh, all the networks have already done everything, there’s nothing we can cover,’ but we made them do it. And that actually won a regional Emmy.”
Beck said there are still broadcasters in the state who started their careers as interns at Wyoming Public Radio.
“It’s a luxury to be in a campus community where you can find some of these people,” he said. “Whether it’s students, or people that we’ve sort of met along the way, we’ve been able to create some of our own reporters, and that’s been kind of fun.”
Beck said that he is leaving the state for very personal reasons – he’s getting married.
“I’m a widower, and I’ve met somebody in the last year or so,” he said, explaining that his bride-to-be has been offered a job as the director of admissions at SUNY Morrisville in New York state.
“I thought, since we’re going to be married here in another couple of weeks, maybe I should go live where she lives,” he said.
Beck said he has no plans to work in radio once he moves to New York – but then again, he said, he never planned to move to New York.
“It’s just going to be a brave new world,” he said. “I never would have expected either to live in Wyoming, or in the state of New York, and here we are.”
Beck said he’s leaving Wyoming Public Radio in good hands.
“I think there’s a good group of people that are doing some good work, and they will continue to do that,” he said.
His last day on the job will be October 14, after which he will be actively packing to move across the country.
“We have movers coming over on the 15th, and we will leave that day at some point as soon as they get us packed up,” he said. “So I’ve been getting rid of all my stuff – if any of your readers are interested in an old couch, I’ve got that and a few other things.”
Try Not To Suck
Beck’s advice to people who are new to the broadcast industry is, “Try not to suck.”
“That’s what we all do,” he said. “I’ll have these kids, who will be new, or young people and it’s their first time on the air, and they’re terrified, right? They ask for advice, and you know, ‘What do I do?’ I say, ‘Try not to suck.’ And it’s become a running joke around here, but if you take that approach, it usually works out for you.”