Vaughn Zenko found his “perfect” job two decades ago.
And he has no plans to leave it.
“It will be 20 years on Jan. 4,” he said Tuesday.
The road to Baker came via an advertisement he saw while watching the Super Bowl as a college freshman. He posted a job wanted ad on an online service he saw during the Super Bowl game.
It took five years, but he got a response from a radio station in Baker.
The Great Falls High graduate packed up his gold-colored mini-van and headed to eastern Montana at the age of 22, ready to start work not far from his hometown and his parents.
“I was working in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, at the time. The first time I was ever in Baker was when I moved here Jan. 2,” he recalled. “I started on the air the day after that.”
He had been working in radio while in Joliet, IL beforehand. “But I didn’t like the corporate radio stuff so I quit and started doing a sales job in Milwaukee.”
He said he was advising businesses on how to get the most out of their advertising when the post on the Monster.com website drew a response – five years later – from a radio station in Baker.
“I got an email. I said that sounds like fun so I packed up my stuff and moved out here,” he added with a chuckle. He still has the minivan that brought him to Baker. “Its name is Buffy. It doesn’t run anymore but I am committed to that minivan. We have been through a lot of adventures together. It still is sitting in my backyard waiting for me to fix it. It is enjoying its retirement for right now,” he added, with a laugh.
“Originally, that was my parents’ minivan back when I was in high school. I just sort of co-opted it and took it for myself.”
“I loved that minivan. We’d take it to concerts and stuff. We’d sleep in the back. It was like the perfect vehicle for a 20-year old kid,” he recalled.
One of the biggest road trips was the one which brought him to Baker.
“I had quit radio, but my parents lived out here (in Great Falls), so it was a little bit closer. They (the station) wanted me to come out and do sports announcing here. I decided, yeah, lets go.”
“I dropped everything in Milwaukee. I wasn’t having a super fun time there and moved out here to give it a shot.”
“It turns out that I could do more than sports announcing, so it has worked out well,” Zenko said.
He graduated in 1999 from North Central College, a small liberal arts college in Naperville, IL. “It is a western suburb that’s next to Aurora … everybody knows (Aurora) from Wayne’s World.”
For Zenko, getting into radio wasn’t quite what he expected at first. “You watch all the movies and stuff and you think it is this lone DJ playing his own music and saying all this important stuff.”
“When you actually get into radio, in Chicago anyway, it was like some billionaire in Texas telling you what to say all the time. I hated it.”
“My dream job for retirement was someday to find a nice small radio station where I can go and they are going to let me do anything I want. That was going to be my retirement. I’d just hang out and do my show.”
“What do you do when you get your dream job for retirement when you are 22 years old?
“I wasn’t about to leave this (Baker). This is perfect. This is everything I ever wanted in radio,” he said.
He did sports announce for Baker and Plevna schools and even in Ekalaka or Wibaux, depending on what was going on, Zenko explained.
Just a few months later, his role at the station expanded. “They started the rock station in July of 2001. I had hosted a morning show for a little while in Chicago. I kept lobbying … to let me be the morning guy. Eventually, when the rock station went on in July, they let me be the morning show host, he said, explaining how he got the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. slot in the morning during the week.”
“There is not exactly a ‘drive-time’ here. If there is, it is only about two to two and a half minutes. When I first moved here I thought about moving to Plevna because I missed the commute. I missed having like that hour drive to work where I could sip coffee and listen to the radio and stuff. Instead, it is now like five minutes to get here to the old radio station. In Chicago, I lived 26 miles from work and never made it in less than an hour and a half,” he recalled.
“Drive time here is a lot different. Here, I might get the pipeliners on their way to work because they have to drive a little bit further,” Zenko said.
KFLN (AM 960) originally hired him, but he also spends a lot of time with the rock station KJJM (105.5 FM – The Rock), both operated by Newell Broadcasting.
“I still fill in on the AM station when they need me, but mostly I am on the rock station, which is KJJM,” he explained. “We were technically the first rock and roll station in eastern Montana.”
Sometimes, he can even be on both at the same time. He recalled one time when the announcer for one of the stations had car trouble and couldn’t get to work. That left Zenko doing both shows simultaneously, going back and forth between the two studios.
Finds family, connections
For Zenko, the job in Baker also had a big impact on his personal life.
His parents eventually moved to Baker and several years ago, he got married.
Now, he has two children.
But even that hasn’t kept him from doing more than just being on the radio.
“One of the first things I’ve done is put on the Baker Rock Show. It was a big rock-and-roll show we did in the outfield of the softball field by the lake. I brought seven bands in and it was a live event.”
“It was super cool. It was the first rock concert ever in Baker,” he added.
“Over the years, I have emceed every single Relay for Life they have done in Fallon County.”
“We needed a musical for the centennial and we did a play called ‘Wagon Wheels West’ for the Fallon County Centennial. Even though I can’t sing a lick, I wound up as the lead in the musical,” he recalled with a laugh. “I did the best I could. Everybody else in the whole thing could sing, so they covered for me.”
“I have hosted the talent show at the Fallon County Fair several times.”
“I played bass in a band for a while.”
But his outside work as a local disc jockey has him seeing the involvement with his community even more. “I have done darn near everybody’s wedding over the last 15 years.”
“That is actually super fun because I am at the point now where the kids whose games I was broadcasting when I first got here... like their kids are now old enough to get married.”
“Twenty years later, it is super fun. I did their weddings and now their kids are old enough to be in high school. I am doing their (the kids’) games,” he said, adding that he has been able to find the time to be an umpire for Little League Baseball.
Zenko is also the chairman of the Fallon County Port Authority. “Right now, we are working on building a child care center in Baker.”
He readily admits that he seems to get around in the community so much that it is likely that every resident in the county has probably met him at one time or another over the years. “I’ve announced for the Demolition Derby... and the Bump n’ Runs. I have been all over the place in 20 years and it has been a wild ride.”
“What is neat for me living in a small town like this is whatever you can think of, you can do it and you are going to get support for it,” he said.
“If anybody here says that they are bored, they just are not trying hard enough. There is plenty to do. You just have to put in a little effort,” he said.