Ray Ekness remembers watching old footage of the Columbia Gardens in Butte burning to the ground as part of his work for the Montana Broadcast Media Center in the 1990s.
Ekness, who returns to the broadcast center this month as its new director, remembered his friends in college at the University of Montana who talked about the amusement park and flower gardens built by a Copper King and politician.
"It was such a romantic place in their minds and in their memories," Ekness said last week.
He had put out a small ad asking if people had pictures or film of the park for the MontanaPBS show he produced called "Remembering the Columbia Gardens."
Entries poured in, and Ekness remembers watching film of the fire in a room in the PAR/TV Building.
"It was just quiet. Eerie. Watching this ghost from the past," he said.
Now, Ekness is turning a page on his career that puts him squarely back at the Broadcast Media Center. In his past work there as former director and producer – as well as a professor of journalism – Ekness saw the far corners of the Big Sky state and mentored young journalists.
This month, he takes the helm at the media center, where he will lead the broadcast of public radio and television in Montana into the future.
To Ekness, the future is bright and the possibilities are energizing despite the challenges in media.
"These next 10 years I think are going to be an exciting time, and possibly frustrating as well," he said.
On the whole, though, he's eager to help shape for Montana an industry that's still finding its financial footing. At KUFM Radio and KUFM-TV, the former producer of "Backroads of Montana" is jazzed about telling stories that connect with Montanans in new ways.
"I think content is the big thing right now, so if we can come up with more ways to highlight the state of Montana and the people of Montana, the better off we'll be," Ekness said. "And hopefully, the listeners and viewers will come along with us."
He's also excited about the "jolt of energy" he knows students from the J-School will bring to the center.
The North Dakota native first experienced the east side of Montana, and he saw a whole different state when he headed across the Continental Divide.
"When I grew up, a lutefisk feed in the fall was a normal thing," Ekness said.
In western Montana, though, no one had heard of the Nordic dried fish feast. When he started traveling to do the "Backroads" stories, he appreciated Montana all the more since he had the chance to stop in communities he'd only driven through.
Over the years, he's seen the characteristic that binds Montanans.
"It doesn't matter where you are in the state. People are just really, really nice," said Ekness, who radiates goodness himself.
While he continues a long career in journalism, it isn't his only pursuit. Ekness and his wife take bicycle rides, including fundraisers such as the Tour de Cure for diabetes, a 50-mile ride based in Three Forks.
They golf, and hang out at Flathead Lake with Friday, their goldendoodle.
Friday doesn't swim, but the rescued pooch likes to wade, and when he was younger, he wouldn't get out of the water. He would wade in up to his neck and make doggy announcements from the lake.
"He would stand there and bark at you," Ekness said.
People would have to wade in after him when they wanted to go home.
Ekness said he'll no doubt make mistakes as he learns the ropes, but as far as his former colleagues are concerned, Montana public radio and television audiences are in good hands.
UM assistant professor Jule Banville, also host of the Last Best Stories Podcast, talked with the finalists for the job at the media center. She said Ekness had a unique understanding that National Public Radio member stations, such as Montana Public Radio, must pay attention to innovations in storytelling.
To connect with audiences, journalists must meet the needs of their core traditional listeners as well as those newer listeners who want "on-demand radio" such as podcasts, Banville said. She said Ekness knows the stations in Montana will be players in meeting those new demands.
"You have to have a leader with a vision in order to figure that out. ... Ray was the one who understood that the most," Banville said.
William Marcus, who retired last year as the center's director after 40 years in Montana public broadcasting, recalled a story that illustrates the type of leader Ekness will be.
He said Ekness pitched the idea of honoring the 50th anniversary of the "The War of the Worlds" radio drama by doing the original script – and broadcasting live. Ekness also wrote an adaptation of the radio script based on the H.G. Wells novel about aliens invading earth, and he set it in Montana with Martians landing in Butte's Berkeley pit.
"There were many of us who thought, 'Why don't we just record it?'" Marcus said. "He insisted it be live because it was live the first time. We put our faith in him, and he carried it off.
"I think that shows the fact that we were willing to trust him just on the force of his confidence that it would work. And I think that's a really good example of the kind of guy he is. He inspires you to climb on the bus, and let's go do things."