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Local resident Vick Mickunas recently celebrated his 30th anniversary with WYSO 91.3 FM. (Photo by Lauren "Chuck" Shows)

30 years on the air with Vick Mickunas

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“My main passions — if I had to call them that — would be books, newspapers and music.”

So said local resident Vick Mickunas in an interview with the News last week. Since 1993, he has built a career out of sharing those same passions with listeners and readers in the Miami Valley and beyond: June marked Mickunas’ 30th anniversary with WYSO 91.3 FM.

Over his years with WYSO, Mickunas has reached listeners as a DJ, music director and — perhaps his most well-known role with the station — as the host of “Book Nook,” a twice-weekly author interview program. Via “Book Nook,” Mickunas has chatted with hundreds of authors — locally, nationally and internationally known — from every imaginable genre, netting more than 1,500 interviews for the local NPR affiliate. During that time, he’s also written a book review column for the Dayton Daily News — which will be due for its own 20-year anniversary in 2024 — and, up until a few years ago, crafted a semi-regular column for the News.

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Mickunas told the News that the arc of his vocation began in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, when he was a young adult — though that arc, he said, wasn’t following set coordinates.

“It was kind of accidental,” he said.

In 1979, Mickunas was managing a record store in Des Moines, where he was saturated in music, soaking up the work of emerging and established artists every day. Dartanyan Brown, an Iowa folk, jazz and blues musician and former member of Chase — a jazz-rock band whose star was on the rise before several of its members died in a tragic plane crash — was a frequent visitor to the store, and that year, he posed a fateful question to Mickunas.

“[Brown] would come in the shop all the time, and one time he said, ‘Gosh, you know a lot about music. We’re starting this radio station — would you like to be a DJ?’” Mickunas said.

The answer, he added, was: “Of course.”

For a year, Mickunas worked at the now-defunct WJAZ in Des Moines before moving to KBLE — still transmitting, now as KFMG. His time at KBLE, he said, gave him the opportunity to “really experience music programming.”

“And since I managed the record store, I was hip to all the new music coming,” Mickunas added. “It was music all day long: I would open the store at noon, play records all day long in the store, close it at seven. Eat dinner. Eight o’clock, go to the radio station, play records until midnight — and that was my day.”

In 1993, Mickunas left Iowa and landed in Yellow Springs. He started listening to WYSO and liked its vibe — enough that, in the spring of that year, he called the station to offer his services. He spoke with the now-late Ruth Yellowhawk, a 10-year WYSO employee and program director at the time, who told him to come on down to the station to meet her. By June, Mickunas was DJ-ing whenever there was a slot to fill.

“Back then, WYSO was a totally freeform community station — there were a million DJs, a different one every morning, afternoon and night,” Mickunas said.

In 1994, leadership and programming changes led Mickunas to a regular afternoon hosting slot. By then a recognizable on-air personality, he said he started getting calls from publicists asking if he’d interview authors on the air — requests that initially puzzled him.

“I said, ‘No, I host a music show — why would I want to interview an author?’” he said. “But I kept getting these calls. And finally the light bulb goes off: ‘Well, I like books a lot. Maybe I should do it.’”

Mickunas’ first author interview — before “Book Nook” even had a name — was with fantasy and sci-fi writer Anne McCaffrey, who was in Dayton promoting a novel she had co-written with another author. After he interviewed McCaffrey, the book’s co-author reached out asking for an interview as well — and suddenly, Mickunas had two author interviews in the bag.

“And I enjoyed it — so I kept on doing it,” he said.

In the following months, “Book Nook” gained a title, a time slot and a following. Though he had already worked in radio for more than a decade when “Book Nook” began, Mickunas said his skill as an interviewer didn’t originate on the air.

“In Des Moines, I never interviewed a single person — I just played music,” he said.

He had, however, worked as a market researcher while living in Iowa. He traveled all over the country, talking to folks and gathering political and consumer data.

“I interviewed farmers, I interviewed people riding around in cars in Los Angeles and Atlanta,” Mickunas said. “That showed me I knew how to talk to people — that showed me people want to have a conversation.”

And for its several-decade run, Mickunas has grounded “Book Nook” in a conversational style — no script, just two people talking. Mickunas, of course, always reads a book before he talks to its author — which is a crucial starting point to a good interview, he said.

“If you can get across, within the first five minutes, your familiarity with the book … it puts the [author] at ease,” Mickunas said. “That goes a million miles toward having a good conversation and connecting with people. Then you go down these little rabbit holes. You don’t know where the conversation is going to go.”

Mickunas’ interview style has made its impression on scores of authors — everyone from Anne Lamott and T.C. Boyle to Studs Terkel and Garrison Keillor to Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn. The work of his “Book Nook” guests has sometimes made an impression on him, too — it opened him up to the world of crime fiction, to which he said he’s become hooked.

“I never read crime fiction before I started interviewing, and there’s so much of it that’s really good,” he said. “It’s kind of addictive. It’s like, you can’t eat just one potato chip — next thing you know, you’ve eaten a whole freakin’ bag, and you loved it.”

One crime and mystery novelist in particular, James Lee Burke, has become a serial regular on “Book Nook” — Mickunas has interviewed him 22 times since 1997, and said he’s aiming to set up a 23rd interview with the 86-year-old author this month.

“I love [Burke] to death — he gives a great interview,” Mickunas said. “He writes fiction, but his politics come through in the books and I totally agree with his view on the world. I think he’s a brilliant writer.”

Vick Mickunas cruising through downtown Yellow Springs in 1995. (YS News archives)

In the early days of “Book Nook,” Mickunas said author interviews were broadcast live — and those that weren’t recorded have been lost to time. Since the 2000s, however, they’ve been recorded and edited — first at the former SoundSpace with local resident Chris Hertzler, and now at WYSO with Director of Operations Peter Hayes. Though he said edited interviews ensure a tight listening experience for the “Book Nook” audience — Hayes is able to edit out pauses and plosive consonants, for example — there was a thrill and charm to live interviews.

“One time I was interviewing James Lee Burke live — he was on the phone — and suddenly, he lets out this enormous belch and starts laughing,” Mickunas said. “And that’s the beauty of live radio — there’s no net.”

Operating without a net — and seizing an opportunity when it arises — is something of a running theme for Mickunas. There was a four-year hiatus of “Book Nook” from 2003 to 2007 due to leadership and staffing changes at WYSO, and he began writing as a book reviewer for the Dayton Daily News. During this time, however, public radio listeners in the Miami Valley — and elsewhere around the country — might still have caught Mickunas on the airwaves, this time on NPR programming.

The first of those instances happened by chance: In 2004, Mickunas was vacationing in Lithuania, where he has family connections — just as the Baltic nation was impeaching its president. Having heard about the impeachment on BBC World Service, Mickunas took a chance detour to the parliament building with his “little tourist camera.”

“Next thing I know, I’m in this press area with all these reporters, and here comes the president and they’ve just impeached him,” Mickunas said.

After the encounter, Mickunas called up former WYSO News Director Aileen LeBlanc, who put him in touch with an NPR producer, with whom he filed a story on the impeachment.

“And on ‘All Things Considered’ that night, people listening to WYSO suddenly hear, ‘Vick Mickunas, reporting for NPR from Lithuania,’” he said.

Mickunas appeared on NPR a second time a few years later, this time being interviewed on a subject that hit close to home. An NPR producer reporting on online retailer Amazon’s customer review function reached out to Mickunas after he wrote a column about Harriet Klausner, a highly — maybe even suspiciously — prolific customer reviewer of books. A book reviewer himself, naturally, Mickunas had noticed that Klausner posted multiple, sometimes dozens, of book reviews every day, leading him — and eventually NPR’s “Morning Edition” — to wonder: How is she reading all these books?

As Mickunas said during the NPR interview: “More mind-boggling is that she likes every book she reads. What’s wrong with this picture?”

That particular mystery was never really solved; Klausner died in 2015 and, according to a write-up in the Washington Post, she had more than 31,000 Amazon book reviews under her belt when she passed.

Though Mickunas’ long career has been built on following his interests where they might lead him, he said he doesn’t see those interests leading him away from “Book Nook” anytime soon. His tenure with WYSO, during which he’s seen changes and phases of every kind, he said, has fostered a deep appreciation for the Yellow Springs-based station.

“I’m happy doing what I’m doing for them,” he said. “I believe in the mission of the station.”

“Book Nook,” hosted by Vick Mickunas, airs Saturdays, 7–8 a.m., and Sundays, 10:30–11 a.m., on WYSO.

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One Response to “30 years on the air with Vick Mickunas”

  1. Bosley says:

    Simply the Best !

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