The alarm clock doesn’t go off at 3 a.m. anymore for Skip Walters.
The longtime Great Falls radio personality isn’t making any more morning police calls for “Montana Live” at 7:15, either. And no longer is he offering “Close Enough Trivia” at 7:45.
Skip, 65, has retired at Cherry Creek Media’s KMON after decades of disc jockey work that made his one of the most recognizable voices in the Treasure State.
The Montana music man is proud of his 41 years on the radio.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I could not have asked for a better career. I mean, I got to go to work in jeans and a T-shirt every single day. And it’s afforded so many opportunities.”
He paused a moment.
“It’s just been a great career.”
WALTER MALLARD III was born to a military family in Virginia. His father had been in the Navy and was called Bud.
“I was Skip, or ‘Skipper,’ because my dad was a Navy guy,” Skip says. “All my friends know me as Skip. I’ve never been Walter except for the official stuff. So when I got on the radio, I took my first name and made it my last name and that was that.”
Skip first came to Great Falls as a young airman in 1971. The Virginia native wasn’t really impressed.
“Like a lot of people from more urban areas,” he says, “I wasn’t a big fan. It was so totally different from what I was used to and had known.”
He was sent here from basic training, only a few months removed from the hustle and bustle of the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Portsmouth area. His first look at Great Falls was on the ride down from the airport on Gore Hill.
“I asked the guy driving the bus, ‘Where’s the base?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s out there at the edge of town.’ “
“I had never lived anywhere where you could see the edge of town,” he says.
Back then Great Falls was the second-largest city in the state. But Skip figured he was stuck in the middle of nowhere.
“Yes,” he says. “At the time it was true and honest culture shock, the physical location, emotionally – and just the way people live here.”
WHEN HIS TOUR was up at Malmstrom, Skip got out of Dodge. Then he came back.
“It struck me that this was really kind of where I wanted to be,” he says. “Slower pace. More laid-back lifestyle. It wasn’t necessarily Great Falls, but it was Montana.”
A few days after retirement, Skip looks relaxed while sporting a shirt adorned with the 560 KMON logo, which distinguishes him from others. As does his ever-present ponytail.
“You know the old saying, ‘I wasn’t born here but I got here as quick as I could.’ That was me,” he says.
The intimacy with people grew on him.
“In Montana you walk into the local bar and everybody turns to look,” he says. “That was not at all what I grew up around. Nowadays, it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just how the people are here.”
It’s not easy to be anonymous in Montana, especially for media folks.
“It was totally different than a more urban location,” Skip says. “And then of course living in a place like Miles City. You knew everybody …”
AFTER A FEW different jobs in Great Falls, and then Butte, Skip decided he’d put his voice to use. He attended Brown Institute in Minneapolis and then scoured the West for work.
His first radio job was in Miles City at KATL-AM, where he worked three years. Why radio?
“Everybody in radio,” he laughs, “is a frustrated musician. Every. Single. Person. And it’s all about the music in that point in your life.”
Skip was hired on the phone.
“So I drove across North Dakota in a car that didn’t have a radio,” he laughs.
“The car I had had died in Minneapolis. So I bought a $400 car and drove to Miles City,” he says.
It was May of 1976. A Friday morning, he recalls.
“I’d gotten there on Thursday,” he says. “The next day I walked downtown and wow … I mean, main street’s blocked off and the doors are open on all the bars and there are people all over the place.”
Miles City? More like Party City.
“It was Bucking Horse Sale weekend,” Skip laughs. “And I’d never heard of that before. But that was my first weekend in Miles City, and I thought, ‘These folks know how to have a Friday.’ “
SKIP CAME to Great Falls for good in 1979. He was hired by Al Donohue’s KMON station, where he worked with Dave Wilson.
“I was the overnight guy,” Skip says. “Which means I saw Dave every morning.”
After a year or so he shifted over to KEIN.
“Radio at that time was a pretty fluid thing. All the shifts were manned, and people came and went all the time,” he says.
Skip was at KEIN for 10 years, the station having shifted from Pop music to a Country format after the “Urban Cowboy” movie boom.
“I’ve always been kind of a folk-music guy,” Skip says. “John Denver, Eagles … But my mom and dad were Country music fans.”
“My dad must be laughing down from heaven, because I used to tell him I hated Country music and I’ve spent the majority of my career playing Ray Price and Faron Young and Ferlin Husky – all the people my dad loved.”
SKIP WENT BACK to KMON in 1990. He’s been there ever since.
Most of the time he’s been part of the powerful station’s morning show, where he joined Wilson, whose popular “Grass Roots Gold” show made him a star.
“Dave was the quintessential deep-voiced radio broadcaster,” says Skip. “He was great.”
It was Skip, though, who instituted the ever-popular “Close Enough Trivia.”
“At the time we only had phone line,” he says. “So if you required a correct answer, you’d have to disconnect and wait for the next one.”
And run the risk of missing calls during the first one.
“So we decided, no matter what you answered, you’re close enough for us,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just a different way to honor the first caller.”
SKIP’S PARTNERS OVER the years have included Wilson, Brent Stanghelle, Kurt Wiggers, Shawn Fladager, Jim Sargent and Bob (Baker Bob) McNamee.
“It’s a lot of guys. Good guys,” Skip says. “And if you look at KMON now and the people that are there, Steve Keller, JD Knight, Cory Wells, Nick Northern – really good folks. I will miss those people.”
Not just radio men worked with Skip. A lot of TV folks also came to know him.
“Mark May called in during my last show,” he says, referring to the longtime and highly popular KFBB weatherman who is now retired and living in California. “Charlie Heit (who replaced Mark) was in touch. And Fred Pfeiffer (formerly of KRTV), he popped in to say hi that last day. He came and sat in with me a little bit.”
Which makes a man feel good.
“Oh yes,” Skip says. “And I got calls from listeners like crazy. A lady called who lives out by Vaughn, and she says ‘When I heard you were leaving I cried.’ “
“She goes, ‘I live three miles west of Vaughn and I listen to you every morning all the way in,’ “ Skip says. “She says, I know where I’m supposed to be by what you’re doing on the radio.’ “
“Countless little old ladies say ‘I wake up with you every morning.’ “
THE THING HE will miss the most, he says, are the people.
“I had a chance to meet Garth Brooks when he was just starting in Nashville at a radio seminar,” Skip says. “We had him cut a liner for us ‘Hi, I’m Garth Brooks and you’re listening to 560-KMON.’ I had my little sheet with that written, and that’s what he autographed for me.”
Brooks and Dunn came to Great Falls. Skip was doing a ‘Meet and Greet’ with the Country duo backstage and had his group lined up. But another group was not in order, and the group’s road manager asked Skip to take over.
“I had given the road manager my card,” Skip says, “and three days later he called to thank me for being organized.”
Skip thought that was cool.
“First of all that he kept my card,” he laughs, “and then to take the time to call. Brooks and Dunn were really nice folks, too.”
SKIP MET MANY other acts that came to Great Falls for the State Fair. Sawyer Brown, with frontman Mark Miller, was one.
“The week after they were here my wife (Linda) and I were out in Seattle,” Skip says, “and I ran into Mark Miller at Nordstrom’s.”
“My wife was shopping and I was wandering aimlessly,” Skip says. “So I walked over to Mark and said ‘Hi I’m Skip Walters.’ “
And Miller goes, “You’re from Great Falls. We had a great time there.”
BECAUSE OF KMON’s long-reaching signal, folks all over have heard Skip’s voice.
“We’ve gotten calls and reports of people listening in Sweden and Norway,” he says. “It’s not at all unusual to hear from people in Calgary and Lethbridge. They call regularly to say they’re listening and like the radio station.”
KMON is 5,000 watts. Its reach north and south is huge.
“South our signal is blocked a little by the mountains,” Skip says. “But up north there’s nothing. Our signal goes all the way to the Arctic Circle.”
Skip has never been up there. But his voice has. Folks, famous and otherwise, will miss him.
Sen. Steve Daines last week recognized Skip by submitting the following to the official Congressional Record:
“From helping to guard the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile fields in the center of the state, to broadcasting good tunes across an even larger swath of the state, Skip has had a good journey. As he begins to enjoy his retirement, I would like to offer my thanks for his service to our nation, and appreciation for the artistic entertainment he provided to our state.”
SO WHAT NOW? Skip’s wife, Linda Ballew, is retired after a lengthy career as a teacher at Great Falls High where she taught journalism and directed the yearbook staff, but she’s still working, for the Great Falls Education Association. The family includes two adult sons living in California.
Skip was asked about filling his days.
“I don’t see myself sitting in front of the TV a lot,” he says. “I guess I don’t see myself not working. I’ll do something, but I don’t know what at this point.
“I’ve had a career,” he says. “What I’ll look for now is a job.”
NOTHING STAYS the same for long. The radio business is now, for instance, the business of radio.
“When I started we were playing records,” Skip says. “Now in a studio there’s nothing going around and around. It used to be records, cassettes … something was spinning all the time. And that doesn’t happen now. There’s a hard drive in a computer somewhere.”
KMON has been and likely always will be known for Country music. Skip – and his ponytail – fit in just fine.
“I’m a music kind of guy,” he grins. “I’ve always liked all kinds of music. When I first went to Miles City I was working nights and I was the evening ‘Rock Jock.’ So I brought my own records to the station. They didn’t have any Ted Nugent. They didn’t have any Aerosmith. They didn’t have any KISS.”
And how did those rock records go over with the cowboys in Miles City?
“They didn’t seem to mind,” he grins.
True enough. And nobody minds the gentle voice of Skip Walters. We’ve been listening to it for decades on the radio around here.
“I used the quote from Jerry Garcia the other day,” he says, referring to the late, great leader of the Grateful Dead. ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been.’ Because that’s really the truth of all of it. Who knew when I first walked into KATL in Miles City 41 years ago that it was going to end up like this?
“And I loved it. Every minute of it.”