This is the second installment in a new series called “Inside Jobs” in which reporters shadow locals performing unique and unusual jobs around the Iron Range.
HIBBING — Craig Holgate spins his chair toward the microphone and adjusts his headphones inside the booth at Midwest Communications in Hibbing. His animated voice so many recognize from his decades at WTBX rarely falters, but the upcoming announcement gives him pause.
“I have to collect my thoughts for a minute,” he says off air. “I’m doing this totally off the cuff.”
It’s the last Friday of June and the song “Almost” by Hozier is slowly winding down. Holgate stares ahead at his desk where two computer monitors hum quietly before him — one with a photograph of his 14-month-old granddaughter lit up as the background. A cool breeze blows in from the open window nearby and the music fades. He clicks on the mouse and he’s live, sounding like his usual, chipper self.
“It’s 7:08 a.m. on the morning show, and just giving you a little bit of a health update,” he begins. “I know some of the radio family out there, some of you would like to know what’s going on.”
The host of “The Early Morning Show” has been at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for the past several days trying to find out “what’s been going on between [his] two headphones.” Holgate has openly shared his cancer journey with listeners, beginning four years ago when a routine colonoscopy resulted in an ambulance ride into emergency surgery. It was then the avid biker and cross country skier was shocked to learn he had Stage 3 cancer; had he not gone in, he might have lived another six months tops. No signs. No symptoms. No history of cancer in his family.
While chemotherapy seemed to be improving the situation, in 2017 Holgate experienced a seizure on the left side of his body. A tumor had to be removed from his brain and resulted in six months of physical therapy to relearn how to use steps. Doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lungs. Holgate has since kept listeners apprised every step of the way in hopes that his experience will encourage others to get regular check-ups. Despite his reasoning for doing so, he’s not excited to share the latest update.
“Not what we were hoping for,” Holgate says. “...Yesterday they have discovered four areas in my brain that are, as they term, ‘progressing.’ That’s bad news, obviously. You don’t want cancer to be spreading across your brain.”
He sounds upbeat even as he shares that his diagnosis has been upgraded to Stage 4 cancer and the next step will likely be another brain surgery. That means more radiation and time away from the microphone in the months to come. “Like I said to my friends and family yesterday: the clock is ticking a lot faster than we’d like it,” Holgate continues, his foot anxiously bouncing beneath his chair. “It’s not like they didn’t tell me not to buy any green bananas, but yeah, the clock is moving in fast forward right now, so we need to try to take care of some things.”
In his usual style, Holgate finds the positive: he says he’s fortunate he can still enjoy his work, family and friends. He jokes that when he’s not in on Monday not to worry — he’ll just be gone on an annual fishing trip with a good buddy. “So that’s what’s going on Northland and radio family. Not good news at all yesterday down at the Mayo, but their bright minds… maybe they can fix my mind, we’ll see...”
He says a few more words and mutes the microphone. As a commercial kicks in, he turns around in his camo chair and says off air, “It’s like I told my wife, you know, I’m dying. Bottom line, I’m dying. I don’t know — it could be two months, it could be a year, it could be three years. But to have Stage 4 cancer and go four years is pretty good, quite honestly. I’m beyond statistics. I should have died two years ago. I’m beating the odds.”
‘This isn’t work’
Gray carpet covers the walls of the radio studio. It’s small but orderly and the desk where Holgate sits is crowded by electronics. There are CDs here and there, books on the window sill and a wheel in the corner for the occasional on-air Spin the Wheel game. Signed posters and memorabilia line the walls — there’s even a black leather couch for guests and, in his 32 years on air, Holgate has had a lot of them.
However, the co-host desk where Holgate once sat during the ‘Rich and Craig’ years is now empty. He’s been flying solo for some time and has learned to appreciate the solitude. Most days, anyway.
“Being on the air is extremely fun for me,” Holgate says, removing his headphones between commercials and songs. “I don’t feel like I work. I’m on the air from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., then I’m usually working until noon at my desk doing the music and the paperwork.”
Most mornings begin at 3:45 a.m. Holgate arrives at the office, organizes the weather and news and sifts through the “crazy stories” sent over from a show prep company in California. He also schedules the music for the entire station, trying to balance a fresh playlist while paying particular attention to the meaning of each song. A good beat alone just doesn’t cut it.
“I’m a lyric person; I’m not a music person,” he says. “I always hear the words.” For this reason, Dwight Yoakam is his all-time favorite artist. His favorite band? Boston, hands down.
Glancing over the sports update, Rob Thomas’s “One Less Day” plays as Holgate sings along, “I’m one less day from dying young.” He smiles and adds, “I am. I’m one less day from dying young.”
Holgate makes his job look effortless. He can cold read just about anything but says it wasn’t always that way. In fact, he nearly quit radio before he even started.
“I went to college because my parents told me I was going to go to school,” he recalls. “I had no idea of what I was going to do, but before I left my mother said, ‘You should go into radio because you have a good voice and no matter how bad things get, there has to be somebody on the radio to tell you how bad they are.”
On his first day of introduction to radio, Holgate tried to drop out after hearing the instructor say they’d be live on the air by the end of the week. He was terrified. But unable to find a suitable replacement, he faced his fear and by 1987 he graduated from Bemidji State University with a four-year degree in mass communication. Two days later, he was working overnights at AM country station WKKQ and hasn’t looked back.
“I knew I was taking a vow of poverty, but that’s OK,” he says with a smirk. “I always say I don’t work for a living. Never have. I love what I do.”
‘Enjoy every moment’
It’s the last day of ticket giveaways for Moondance Jam, an annual music festival that takes place near Walker in July. Caller nine to get through after the special sounder wins; Holgate cues it up. Before it’s through playing, the phone lines are flashing on the wall.
“Just like magic, there they are.” Holgate cautions that sometimes caller No. 8 has colorful language. Eventually caller No. 9 rings in and Holgate dings an old-fashioned service bell announcing, “You’re caller No. 9 and you’re off to Moondance in a few weeks!” He sounds just as excited as the caller and the enthusiasm is genuine. He loves this part of his job.
After the “Eye of the Tiger” plays, it’s time to read the list of celebrity and local birthdays. “If it’s your birthday today, remember to enjoy every moment,” he says.
That little phrase — “enjoy every moment” — runs deep for him. “You’ve got to take in the little things,” he explains off air. “Tomorrow’s not a guarantee for anybody so you need to enjoy every moment. Especially those little moments. That’s become my motto.”
This has never been truer than since his recent trip to the Mayo Clinic.
“Chemo weeks are tough,” he admits, noting that it takes days to recover, so it helps that no one can see him through the radio. “There’s a lot of times if I have two songs to play, I’m laying on the couch.”
Holgate reflects on how he recently celebrated his one year wedding anniversary with his wife, Tina, who he warmly refers to as his “angel.” He also has three daughters with families of their own and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel he’s nicknamed Pot Pie.
“My dog is also a good support system,” he says holding up his phone with a picture of his pooch. “She’s got just so much love. She’s so sweet.” Talking to his “radio family” also helps these days. It’s become a little like therapy.
Then there’s his granddaughter, who he’s absolutely crazy about and doesn’t want to miss a single second with. His eyes light up as he talks about her and how she’s constantly growing.
His recent diagnosis has him thinking a lot about the parts of life that matter most. It’s memories and laughter and spending time with loved ones. It’s love. That’s what’s important now. Looking up at his grandaughter’s picture on the screen, he suddenly smiles. “Sometimes I think that’s the stuff that keeps you going, though. I have a lot to live for.”
Without missing a beat, he spins back in his chair and reads the weather report. After Jamie Lawson’s “Wasn’t Expecting That” comes on Scotty Hanson, the USA Radio host, knocks on the door with an urgent report about a fatal helicopter crash that happened in Brainerd.
Holgate reads over the crash details looking somber. Meanwhile, the Facebook messages from friends and listeners are piling up. They heard his morning announcement and are thinking of him, encouraging him to keep fighting.
“What I like about this job, I guess, is that it’s the same,” he says. “I come in and know I’m going to play Papa Murphy’s Five-Second Rule at 8:20 a.m. And I know I’m going to do Clock Radio Classics at 6:30 a.m. I know I’m going to do birthdays at 10 to 7 a.m. But it’s different every day because all these elements will be different. There’s a different player on the line, there’s a different giveaway, a different song. Every day is new and fun.” He glances at the clock. There are seconds until he’s live. “Alright, let’s stack ‘em up.”
Putting on his headphones, he takes a sip of water and dives back into the headlines.
“...It’s so hot in Europe right now people have been doing crazy things, including a guy in Germany: pulled over for riding his scooter naked…”