A Good Neighbor

WHBY’S Keene Retiring after 40 Years

by Tim Froberg

Kathy Keene’s story of a receptionist turned talk show host is something right out of Hollywood.

In fact, Dolly Parton followed a similar script in the 1992 big-screen comedy “Straight Talk.”

Keene’s improbable tale, though, is no movie. It’s a remarkable real-life journey.

Despite nothing more than a high school education, Keene has spent the past 40 years in radio broadcasting as host for WHBY’s “Good Neighbor” program. The 75-year-old Eagle River native is retiring, and her final broadcast airs May 28.

“It’s just time to move on to new adventures,” said Keene. “I’m really going to miss talking to the listeners every day, but it’s just time.”

Keene’s show featured everything from sharing recipes to interviewing community leaders and national celebrities. She did it all with no formal broadcast education. Keene joined Woodward Communications in January of 1981 as a receptionist and switchboard operator, with no intentions of getting behind the microphone.

Yet, eight months later, Keene was hosting “Good Neighbor” following the retirement of the program’s previous host. Station executives liked Keene’s soothing voice and upbeat demeanor and didn’t care about her lack of a broadcasting background.

“Soothing voice — ask my husband about my soothing voice and maybe you’ll get a different story,” said Keene with a hearty laugh. “I had no clue what to do when I started the show. I walked into the studio with a box of Kleenex and a lost dog. I had applied for a secretarial job, and that’s what I wanted to be: a secretary.”

For years, Keene went back to her receptionist duties following the show, but she made such an impact on the air with her wit, warmth, and common sense that she became a WHBY staple and a local broadcast celebrity. She was unpretentious and cared about her listeners and what they had to say, forming a strong personal connection with many of them. The show expanded to four hours and Keene worked with several co-hosts over the years. Keene also participated in countless station-sponsored events and travel trips across country.

“My main goal was to have interesting guests that were informative, entertaining, and non-political,” Keene said. “I stay away from politics and religion. Having listeners welcome me into their kitchens and homes every day meant a lot to me. The feeling of me sitting down with them at the kitchen table, having a cup of coffee and chatting — that’s what I wanted to come across.”

Keene’s self-developed broadcasting skills didn’t go unnoticed. She was awarded the Social and Digital Media Best Personality Award at the 2016 Wisconsin Broadcasters Awards and received the Wisconsin Broadcasters Local Legend Award two years later. Keene has interviewed countless celebrities over the years including Al Roker, Mickey Gilley, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tiny Tim, Red Skeleton, Phyllis Diller, and members of Brett Favre’s family.

But those simple conversations with everyday folks in the Fox Valley are what she’ll remember the most.

“I hope I’m remembered as someone who was kind and interested in them — kind of a smiling voice on the radio,” Keene said. “I wanted to make callers and guests feel comfortable, and I think I succeeded in doing that.”

Keene insists she won’t get bored during retirement. She and her husband, Ken, live in a busy apartment complex where she has numerous friends and is involved in countless activities.

“We’re absolutely going to miss her,” said Jonathan Krause, WHBY’s brand manager. “You can’t replace 40 years of experience and 40 years of relationships that Kathy has built. I think if you were to ask any of her listeners, they would tell you she’s not a person on the radio. She’s a friend that comes into their homes for a couple hours each day and provides advice, entertainment, and a sympathetic ear.”