NPR's Don Gonyea Is Long Gone From WDET, But He'll Always Be a Detroiter
WASHINGTON — His voice is familiar to Michigan public radio audiences who listened to his reports about the auto industry, labor unions, politics, Jack Kevorkian and other major news events during the 1980s and 1990s.
Then, for nearly a decade beginning when George W. Bush took office, Don Gonyea was National Public Radio’s White House correspondent and told the world what the U.S. president was doing: making his first trip to Africa, meeting at the Kremlin, visiting Graceland.
“You do kind of go, a-ha, I’m not in Detroit anymore when you’re high on the scaffolding, next to the U.S. Capitol building, and you’ve got an amazing view of the swearing in of the president of the United States. And it’s freezing,” Gonyea says.
For the past three-plus years, the 57-year-old Monroe native and Michigan State grad has been traveling the country reporting on elections, issues and trends in his role as National Public Radio’s national political correspondent. He fills in as an anchor on Weekend Edition when inevitably, he’ll find something Detroit to enlighten the national audience about.
“I do wear my Detroit-ness on my sleeve,” he says.
His desk, adjacent to the famed Nina Totenberg’s, NPR’s U.S. Supreme Court reporter, hosts a Tigers baseball hat. An “M-1” sticker is pinned next to his computer.
Gonyea will never leave Detroit behind, no matter where in the world his work takes him.
“It’s where I had great, great years working as a journalist, it’s where I learned how to be a journalist,” he says. “The stories Detroit handed me to cover were just a never-ending stream of really great and rich stories.”
The Detroit Edition
Gonyea joined WDET-FM shortly after college, and then worked for Michigan Public Radio and NPR all at the same desk at the Midtown station. His years of covering labor politics in 2000 drew the attention of national assignment editors at NPR, who tapped him to fill in for campaign reporters taking breaks from the George W. Bush and Al Gore campaigns.
A few weeks before the election, Gonyea got a call, asking if he wanted to leave his Ann Arbor home and cover the White House. Despite his wife’s good job at the University of Michigan and two sets of nearby grandparents to their then 8- and 3-year-old daughters, the family moved for what many journalists consider a top national beat.
Gonyea appreciates the stature of the White House reporting position, but is realistic about what it’s really like to chase the president around the world.
“It’s not glamorous. Obviously you are a witness to history, and you find yourself in some pretty cool places because where the president goes, you go,” he says. “You try to take a moment to appreciate where you are, and you do, but you’re certainly not a tourist and you’re not there to have fun.”
There was the night in St. Petersburg, Russia when the Red Wings, led by Russian superstars, were in a playoff game. Gonyea rounded up a couple of other White House press corps reporters who had Detroit connections, found a sports bar with a pirated feed, and cheered for the home team. They were surrounded by a Russian crowd pulling for their countrymen, and all shared “bad beer and bad pizza.”
An avid sports fan, Gonyea, who lives in northern Washington D.C., tries to catch at least one of the Tigers baseball games when they play a Baltimore series. Tigers’ broadcaster Dan Dickerson is a good friend, and the two former Detroit radio news reporters talk often.
“He wants to talk politics, and I want to talk baseball,” Gonyea laughs. “Thanks to Smartphones and the MLB app, we’ve got him on our back porch every night all summer long.”
Gonyea’s social media sites are active Detroit tourism promotions, and he’s quick to recommend places to colleagues, friends and acquaintances who plan visits: the Diego Rivera murals and the entire Detroit Institute of Arts, the lobby of the Guardian Building, Lafayette Coney Island, the showroom and shop at Pewabic, a trip on Lakeshore Drive along Lake St. Clair through the Grosse Pointes, Slows Bar-B-Q in Detroit and Shatila Bakery in Dearborn.
“It’s all part of that, ‘Yes, I know what you think of Detroit and I know it’s a big troubled city, and it’s going through bankruptcy, and we all know that story.’ But I also need you to know this is Detroit too and maybe you didn’t know that and maybe you didn’t give the place credit,” he says. “That’s what I try and do pretty regularly.”
But Gonyea also tackles more serious Detroit news in his reporting. He anchored Weekend Edition the Saturday after Mike Duggan was elected mayor and had this report, basically asking “Why would anyone want to be mayor?”
Among his favorite of his Detroit-centric stories for the national audience: his report about the Willie Horton statue at Comerica Park and his explanation of the Rivera murals and what they mean about Detroit’s auto industry.
Gonyea is closely following Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings and finds the topic of interest nationally. “There’s always been a certain gritty image but now Detroit is that city everybody is interested in as the place that’s poised for a comeback. Or is it?” he says.
All Things Detroit
He finds he’s discussing Detroit in personal conversations as much as he is in professional work as people ask the native what it’s really like in the Motor City.
“They’re very curious and they more often than not have an overwhelmingly negative impression of it. And I just talk to them,” he says. “I tell them what I like about the place and again I don’t sugar coat any of it but I like them to know that they’re not getting a complete picture and that they shouldn’t think of it as a caricature of this blighted area where most of it is no man’s land and you take you life into your hands.”
Just as he won’t predict the likelihood of a Hillary Clinton presidency or Obama’s ability to bounce back in the popularity polls, Gonyea can’t say how long he’ll be a Beltway insider reporting on the top national political stories.
“I would expect to do it for the foreseeable future as long as it’s still both fun and fascinating and it is endlessly fascinating,” he says. “I’ll keep doing it and hopefully people not just here but our listeners will want me to keep doing it.”