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Lisa Johnson quietly signs off in KUMD transition to 'The North'

The award-winning host of "Northland Morning" had been with the public radio station for 30 years.

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Lisa Johnson, of Duluth, smiles while photographing dogs at the Jean Duluth Dog Park on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at in Duluth. After 30 years of hosting "Northland Morning" on KUMD, Lisa Johnson's last day was Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Those who know Lisa Johnson, whether it's through her longtime public radio program or in real life, know that she is a reader. When asked recently what's next for her, after a seemingly sudden departure from the air last week, she put herself into the hands of an acclaimed novelist.

"I'm the heroine in a Nora Roberts novel," she said.

Johnson gave a plot outline: In Roberts' stories there is a tragedy, then a move or inheritance, or some other shift of life. The protagonist takes up a new hobby or opens a bed-and-breakfast. Enter the brooding widower or an old high school acquaintance.

"If I've got to have a narrative, that's my narrative and I'm sticking to it," she said and laughed, a familiar broad sound that has been greeting morning listeners for years.

Johnson, who spent 30 years at KUMD-FM and was host of "Northland Morning," did not make the move with her three other full-time co-workers last week when the radio station was sold to WDSE-WRPT and renamed "The North." Her last day on-air was Nov. 30.

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Lisa Johnson, of Duluth, checks in with her miniature poodle, Johnny, after dressing him in a sweatshirt on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at her home in Duluth. The longtime host of "Northland Morning" on KUMD couldn’t make the transition to the new ownership and feels good about her decision to leave the station. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

For now, her upcoming weeks will include time spent with her dogs, coffee dates, cookie baking, photography and figuring out how to respond to the longtime listeners who have come forward to say thank you and that they loved her show. Maybe she will write a letter, Johnson said.

***

Johnson got her start in media as a high school student at Rochester (Minn.) Mayo, where she was involved with the closed-circuit TV news show. Early in her career, she bounced from radio to TV a bit before finally setting into the former. Along the way were jobs in Fargo and Bismarck, North Dakota, and Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

In Duluth, she became the voice of "Northland Morning," a program that started in 1991. She has hosted segments ranging from astronomy to homelessness, environmental issues to pet adoption, local art to wellness, to the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

RELATED:

  • KUMD takes on new name, ownership under WDSE
  • University of Minnesota Duluth gets first approval in intent to sell KUMD The college wants to sell its radio station to WDSE due to difficulties financing ongoing operations.

Ira Salmela, who was at KUMD-FM for a decade that included a period as interim station manager, described Johnson as a true journalist and perfect fit for telling local stories.
"Lisa is one of those truly hardcore radio personalities that truly stick with the community," Salmela said. "She wants to make connections."

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Her work on "Don't Believe Everything You Think: Talking About Suicide," created as part of the station's focus on mental health, earned top prize via the Journalism Award Program for Excellence in Reporting on Suicide in Minnesota in 2016. That same year, she received the Broadcaster of the Year Award from the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations.

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Lisa Johnson, of Duluth, sits with her four dogs, Elifi, from left, Joey, Johnny and Sadie Rose, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at her home in Duluth. Johnson is passionate about dogs and photographing dogs. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In 2010, she was awarded the Media Environmental Stewardship Award for "promoting environmental education and its green building efforts."

She had a lot of passionate fans, said colleague Christine Dean, who had most recently served as interim station manager. When she found out Johnson wasn't making the move to The North, the station's new name, Dean collected well-wishes from listeners. "People reached out and sent amazing comments about what they've learned from the show and her compassion," she said.

"She did a lot of good with the stories she did."

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Under WDSE-WRPT, the radio station is expected to get a new general station manager, filling gaps that have been held on an interim level by current staff in the past five years. It's been a rough period, Johnson said, with little wiggle room for time off.

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By her last day, she had banked nearly 500 unused hours of vacation time.

The News Tribune first reported on the university's plan to sell KUMD-FM in February 2020, with UMD Chancellor Lendley Black telling the Board of Regents that the university was struggling to provide financial support. At the time, WDSE had reportedly been interested in buying it for more than two years, according to the story.

That was the first Johnson said she heard of the sale, she said, and in the months that followed there continued to be a shortage of information. When she was offered a new contract two days before Thanksgiving, and denied modifications to include a parking spot close to the station and time off in the case that her elderly mother got ill, Johnson said she felt rushed to make a decision before the looming deadline.

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Lisa Johnson, of Duluth, looks for photo opportunities while visiting the Jean Duluth Dog Park on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at in Duluth. Johnson is passionate about photographing dogs and is able to focus on her photography after leaving KUMD. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

She recalled her late-father's rule that if you need an answer now, the answer is "no."

After consulting with trusted friends, Johnson declined the offer.

"The minute I hit send, all of a sudden I felt like a human being again," she said. "Like I had not been a human being for two years."

***

So now what. Johnson doesn't know. She isn't retirement age. Are 60-year-olds allowed to have a dream job? she asked. She said she plans to take December, maybe January, to regroup.

Recently, she was thinking about the people she's had relationships with through her work: gardening guru Tom Kasper and naturalist Larry Weber , CHUM's street outreach coordinator Deb Holman, and Jason Rice of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Before he died, she had an idea for a collaboration with Family Freedom Center founder Xavier Bell .

"The gift that this community has given me, to do this job," she said. "This has been half of my life."

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