WGVU General Manager Challenges World Mountains
-by Karen M. Hogan

 

Michael Walenta
Michael Walenta, general manager of WGVU radio and television, stops for a photo while climbing Mount Ranier in Washington. Shortly after the photo, the climbing group was forced to retreat back down the mountain because of high winds and a pending storm.

Michael Walenta is a man with an active schedule. He not only runs Grand Valley's public radio and TV stations, but his recreational pursuits have included scaling heights and saving lives.

The general manager of WGVU radio and television may be trekking through Nepal, rappelling some of the country's most challenging mountains, or clipping along Lake Michigan aboard the 50-foot Champosa in the Chicago to Mackinac yacht race. And when the snow flies, the National Ski Patrol member is kicking up fresh powder.

That is how the 46-year-old recharges his batteries to fuel a dynamic, behind-the-scenes job. Move beyond his occasional on-air appearances during fund-raising periods and you'll find a focused, determined professional, orchestrating the dramatic growth and reach of West Michigan's public broadcast radio and television stations.

During his 16-year tenure at WGVU, Walenta has increased local programming by 400 percent, secured the acquisition of three radio stations, maintained a $6 million operating budget with 52 full-time staff members, 40 student interns and 1,700 volunteers.

If high energy is a prerequisite for broadcast, Walenta has the market covered. He's been driven to new heights since his childhood in Petoskey, when Lake Michigan served as his family's year-round playground. The northern town and its lake-effect snow allowed all four Walenta children to enjoy winter and water sports. During high school, Walenta's father, Thomas, steered him toward the reins of the family-owned pharmacy.

RopeIt was one formula that did not mix. After taking several pre-pharmacy courses at North Central Michigan College and Ferris State University, Walenta knew another career path was in order. A professor knew Walenta had dabbled in sound work for a local band and suggested that he enroll in a broadcast class.

"I just fell in love with television and never looked back," he said. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Central Michigan University, he worked for a variety of stations around the country, and along the way discovered a passion for mountain climbing.

"It's very liberating," he said. "It's a release from everything."

Some of his climbing highlights include a two-day hike at Nevada's Boundary Peak. The mountain is 22 miles from civilization. "It was just me and 10 million stars," he said.

 

Michael Walenta
Walenta clubs Mount Elbert in Colorado, a 14,433-foot mountain.

The adventures continued.

Walenta was climbing Borah Peak in Idaho when he saved the life of a man who had suffered a partial stroke. The veteran climber also helped rescue a woman during a two-week aid mission in Nepal. A fierce thunderstorm hit 22 trekkers and 24 porters as the group ascended to 11,000 feet. The thunderstorm then quickly turned into a blizzard.

Walenta said one of the trekkers was not properly dressed for an abrupt change in weather, and quickly developed hypothermia. Walenta provided nourishment and encouragement, and carried the woman to warm shelter as "her eyes rolled back into her head and her speech was unintelligible," he said. It took six hours for the woman to recover. The National Ski Patrol recognized Walenta for both efforts.

While living in Texas, Walenta received a phone call from a former Grand Rapids colleague, encouraging him to apply for a position with Grand Valley, which involved enhancing the radio station and moving WGVU from Allendale to its current home at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center in downtown Grand Rapids. Sixteen years later, Walenta remains in awe of the station and its impact.

"We can make a decision on programming and how it will enhance the lives of this community," he said. "Public broadcasting gives freedom that commercial stations can not."

For example, supported by a grant, Walenta and another GVSU staff member traveled to Europe for two weeks and filmed two documentaries. The first showcases interviews with two of the youngest Auschwitz concentration camp survivors; the other examines the Polish underground.

"It was an extremely moving, extremely powerful experience," Walenta said.

BootA small, rusted piece of barbed-wire, part of the fencing that secured one of the crematoriums, sits on Walenta's desk, serving as a stark reminder of his trip, and the film's potential impact.

"We're very proud to produce both of these moving and emotional programs," he said.

Walenta also radiates pride when discussing raising Kevin, 12, and Kristen, 9, with wife Nancy. Family time includes introducing his children to kayaking, climbing, sailing and other outdoor adventures.

His pursuits have provided their own rewards, both large and small. "I've chosen not to sit still," he said. "The sunsets I have seen are amazing. You don't get to see that when you sit inside."

Page last modified March 17, 2014