'Loved Public Radio To Her Core': Friends, Colleagues Remember WUNC President Connie Walker
Connie Walker, a longtime public radio leader and president and general manager of North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC, died on May 19 in Durham, North Carolina. She was 59.
The station’s acting president, Nora Casper, said Walker had been on medical leave since February but the specifics about her cause of death were not shared by the family.
Walker had been with the station for 16 years and led it for 12 of those years. During her tenure, she oversaw tremendous growth, including expanding a signal in Fayetteville, guiding the station through the Great Recession without a single layoff, and, most recently, expanding the station’s digital audio content with the creation of a new team dedicated to podcasts and other new ventures.
I think that Connie loved public radio to her core, and her personal mission was to extend it and high-quality news to as many people as possible.
"I think that Connie loved public radio to her core, and her personal mission was to extend it and high-quality news to as many people as possible,” said WUNC Board Chairwoman Hannah Gage. “The Triangle is important, but Buxton in Dare County was equally important to her."
Walker’s radio career began in 1979 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, her home state. She moved to public radio in 1988, and never went back to commercial radio. She had deep roots in the Badger State and was a lifelong Packers fan.
Casper described Walker as a warm, caring person who was “incredibly dedicated to public radio.”
“It was her life,” Casper said. “She put her heart and soul into it."
Walker joined WUNC in 2005 as the station’s news director. Before coming to North Carolina, she also served as news director and reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and commercial radio stations in the Midwest.
When she arrived in North Carolina, Gage said WUNC was in a different place.
"Connie came on board when WUNC was struggling,” Gage said. “It was not the successful, respected radio station we have today and we all know today."
In 2009, Walker became the station’s general manager. Since then, the station's annual budget has increased 80% to nearly $13 million. In 2015, WUNC acquired WFSS, a public radio station licensed to Fayetteville State University. She adapted to changes, including adding a suite of now-blooming podcasts.
"She extended [the station’s] coverage across the state, the quality of the programming and the amount of locally-originated programming all happened on her watch," Gage said.
That success happened in no small part because of Walker's push to improve the newsroom. Former Program Director David Brower said he distinctly remembers when she first interviewed for the news director role.
"After only a couple of pleasantries, she got right to it and asked, you know, ‘What are the top three stories that you're covering today?’," he recalled. “And so she wanted to get right to the stories. And she really helped WUNC during that time move from kind of a boutique news operation to a must-have news operation. And that took a lot of work."
And, Brower said, she never lost the editor's touch.
"She was a very good copy person,” he said. “If you gave her a piece of copy, she was really good at helping you craft it."
Of course she doesn’t get all the credit, but at heart – and by profession – Connie was a journalist. She used to report and host Morning Edition in Wisconsin, and while she led the business side of things here, she remained a reporter at heart. 4/— Jeff Tiberii (@j_tibs) May 21, 2021
Walker loved serving the station’s audiences and was a familiar voice during WUNC's pledge drives. She put in long hours, but always sounded fresh when it was her turn to pitch.
She also became a leader in the public radio system at large, serving on the NPR Board of Directors for seven years, and as president of the now-Public Media Journalists Association for two terms.
“She was smart, kind, thoughtful and more,” said Wisconsin Public Radio Director of Radio Michael Crane, who served with Walker on the NPR Board, via Facebook.
In 2016, North Carolina Public Radio added WUNC Music, a 24-7 Triple A music stream. It complimented the long-standing Back Porch Music program, which is almost synonymous with WUNC. Brower said Walker spent many hours at the fiddle and banjo concerts affiliated with the show, even if it wasn’t exactly her scene.
“I think she wouldn't mind me sharing that she shared a soft spot with her longtime boyfriend for, you know, hair metal of the 80s,” Brower said. “Which was a far cry from the Back Porch music concerts, but we used to talk about music quite a bit and yeah, she'll be missed."
Arrangements for Walker’s funeral are being handled by Hafemeister Funeral Home and Cremation in Watertown, Wisconsin.
Editors Elizabeth Baier and Amy Jeffries contributed to this report.