After an impressive 45-year radio career, the velvet-voiced Herb Trix will be retiring Sept. 15, 2023 at age 70.
He’s been news director at WVIK, the Augustana-based Quad Cities NPR station, since 1987.
“In a lot of ways, Herb Trix is synonymous with WVIK,” Jared Johnson, the station CEO, said Thursday. “It’s going to be hard to imagine us without that voice on the air. He’s been doing it for a very long time and has been doing great work. He will be sorely missed by us and the Quad Cities.”
A friendly, even-keeled native of Detroit, Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, N.M. (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport, Ill., for three years.
In Roswell, Trix was hired sight unseen. “At that time, we were actually playing records, 45s,” he said Thursday. “My favorite times were Sunday mornings, we would tack through gospel albums, because every country artist had at least a couple gospel albums.”
In Topeka (where he worked for a year), Trix recalled working in a house one summer it was 100-plus degrees for a month. He did some shows wearing a swimsuit. “It was fun playing good music, but I was in my bathing suit, sweating,” he said Thursday morning.
An alum of the University of Michigan, Trix was a graduate student in the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield (then known as Sangamon State University) when he got his first taste of public radio, covering Illinois state government for WUIS.
“It had a really good placement program,” Trix said of Illinois.
Here in the Quad Cities, Trix worked for WHBF Radio in downtown Rock Island for three years before coming to WVIK at Augustana in 1987. For many years, he produced and hosted the weekly public affairs feature Midwest Week – covering the news behind the news by interviewing reporters about the stories they cover, through this past December.
First, the National Public Radio affiliate (founded by Don Wooten in 1980) was in the former biology building (since demolished), on the second floor, next to the current Hanson Hall of Science. The current Doris and Victor Day Broadcast Center (just south of 7th Avenue on 38th Street) was built on the site of a former home in 1996.
Covering bad news
When he started at WVIK, the QC was plunged into an economic depression, so he had to report a lot of bad news.
“I knew I wanted to be in the serious side of newsrooms,” Trix said of radio. “I grew up watching Huntley/Brinkley with my parents, reading Time, Life, and Newsweek, all those things. It was sort of a matter of time.”
“When I got here in ’84 with WHBF, one of the first stories I covered was McCabe’s department store closing in downtown Rock Island,” he said of the building where today’s Stern Center is. “That was one of the first signals. Then they announced the Farmall plant was going to close (3,000 jobs); then they announced that J.I. Case was going to close. It went on and on. 1987 was kind of the doldrums, after those plants closing and all those people leaving.”
Trix said it’s nice covering good stuff, like development of riverboat gambling and opening of The MARK in the early ‘90s, but news is news, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
“You realize one of the reasons something is news is because it’s out of the ordinary, and sometimes it’s awful and sometimes it’s much nicer than that,” he said. “People buying the Farmall plant to turn it into an industrial mall. And how long did it take for riverboat gambling to get passed? Like four or five years.”
It was always interesting to keep up with how the Rock Island casino had to compete with the Davenport and Bettendorf sides, Trix said.
In Roswell and Topeka, he had to read news copy as well as a DJ, and described it as acting, which he did in high school.
“This calls for something serious and this calls for something not so serious,” Trix said. “Each story, you have an attitude you bring to this. You don’t want to have a smile on your face when you’re talking about a triple fatal accident, or something like that.”
He did theater in high school (one of the Jets in “West Side Story”), partly to get out of track. “There were many more pretty girls in the theater department than the boys track team,” Trix recalled. “To me, track was boring.”
With his deeply comforting, calm voice, he says part of the job is not letting your emotions take over.
“We all have to compartmentalize our lives,” Trix said. “Crappy stuff happened at home this morning. At 9 o’clock I’ve got to be ready to rock at work. Or work sucked today and I’ve got to go home and don’t yell at my wife. It’s the same thing with news – some days are harder than others.”
One of the first stories he covered for WHBF was the Klindt murder trial (1984), when they were finding body parts in the Mississippi River. James Klindt was a former Davenport chiropractor who was convicted of second-degree murder for killing his wife in March 1983, dismembering her body with a chainsaw and disposing of it in the Mississippi.
“I’m looking at things going, ‘I need to go back to Springfield’,” Trix recalled. “State government could be ugly, but it wasn’t like this. You’d read this stuff and go, ‘Oh my God,’ but you have to do that sometimes. Or the plant closes and 3,000 jobs disappear. How horrific is that?”
One of the challenges of public radio (versus commercial stations) is that the staff has to raise money from the public.
“We have this crazy business model, if you like it, you give us some money,” Trix said. “It’s also in a way, it’s a more direct way of appealing to the audience. You sort of know, right now, whether you’re doing it right or not. If you’ve done something right, people will write checks and send in money.
“Public radio audience is usually not shy about telling you what they think,” he said. “Also I like public radio because there’s more an emphasis on longer-form stories. In public radio and TV, there’s more of a chance of we know what you’re interested in, but something you might become interested in if you hear it from us.”
Of NPR anchors, Trix has always admired Robert Siegel of “All Things Considered” (a host for 30 years through early 2018).
“He could talk to anyone,” he said. “He could talk about sports; he could talk about national economics; he could talk about war crimes, about a play in downtown D.C. He was just good at all that. I always thought that was someone to admire.”
At WVIK, Trix said staff has been active in everything, including the pledge drives each fall and spring (“other duties as assigned, like keeping the place going”).
“We’re still alive like 40 years later,” he said. “There’s ups and downs in the economy. There’s natural disasters. People only have so much money they can give out to worthy causes – something like the Red Cross may seem more worthy at certain times, than public radio.”
“Augustana is extremely proud of the relationship we enjoy with WVIK,” Kent Barnds, Augustana executive vice president, said this past March. “The service that WVIK provides to our community and beyond is truly remarkable. We are extremely excited about this expansion, especially the expansion of classical music to our community.”
Separate from the college
It’s comforting to be part of the larger NPR and Augustana worlds, though WVIK has “an odd relationship” with its host. The private liberal-arts school owns the broadcasting license for the station and WVIK is part of Augie’s outreach to the community. But the station is self-supported and not funded by the college.
“This is the third college president I’ve been under and they’ve supported the station. They like the fact we say Augustana Public Radio usually once an hour, and things like that,” Trix said. “It’s nice to be associated with NPR, even though I am many steps separated from them.”
Over time, the station and college separated, which was good for WVIK, he said. In recent years, many public universities have cut funding to their radio stations.
“We had some years to adjust to the changes,” Trix said, noting Black Hawk College used to own the QC PBS station, WQPT, and gave up that license many years ago (transferred to Western Illinois University). Augustana still believes WVIK helps advance its core mission, while costing it little to nothing, he noted.
The station employs a few students as interns each year.
Trix said that among his WVIK highlights, getting to meet and cover presidential candidates is up there (because of the history of the Iowa caucuses). He was among media throngs covering former president Donald Trump at Davenport’s Adler Theatre last March.
“You’re walking with someone through a cafeteria, or standing on a street corner across from Planned Parenthood, or with someone standing on a flatbed on a county chairman’s house in northern Scott County,” he said. “There’s interesting people who come through – authors like Kurt Vonnegut, various visiting artists.”
“I like just the idea of interviewing normal people here,” Trix said. “That’s one of the things I like here better than Springfield. I felt people may not be as smooth a speaker as the Speaker of the House or president of the Senate, but I think they are a bit more honest with me, more straightforward.”
He hosted Midwest Week for more than 20 years, which started as a half-hour program with two reporters, but in recent years it shrank to about nine minutes.
Planning for splitting into two stations was in the works about four years. WVIK News (all talk) at 90.3 FM and WVIK Classical (all music) at 98.3 FM started on May 1, 2023.
Trix didn’t really have to adjust his schedule with the separated format, since he’s not on the music station. “I don’t know that anyone’s really missing Midwest Week, except the reporters who liked to listen to themselves or hear the other reporters,” he said.
Public radio has a solid, respected reputation of providing unbiased, middle-of-the-road reporting that people can depend on, Trix said. Covering stories like on transgender kids or the Palestinian conflicts doesn’t make them liberal, but raising issues that are interesting and deserve attention, he noted.
“We hear from people who complain, and it’s not that we covered something badly, but they heard someone say something they didn’t agree with,” Trix said. “We say, we’re glad you’re involved and that you care.”
Trix lives in Moline with his wife Diane, and their dog Augie (an Australian terrier). The dog was partly named for Augustana, but also since one of Diane’s favorite authors is Augusten Burroughs (“Running With Scissors”), and they got Augie on an August 1st.
In retirement, the news veteran said he hasn’t decided what he’s going to do, which “might take months or years.”
“I’ll still wake up early in the morning, turn on the headlines and see what’s been going on,” Trix said. “I’ll always do that.” Johnson said there’s no set timetable to hire his replacement.