Even though I no longer live in the listening area, I still tune in to WBBL– “West Michigan’s Sports Leader”– from time to time when I want a dose of local perspective on Michigan-based teams, and I did so this morning, expecting to hear “Bakita & Bentley,” the station’s usual morning show. I heard Ray Bentley, but the other voice was one I didn’t recognize. At first, I assumed it was someone filling in for the show’s usual lead, Bret Bakita, but as the conversation between Bentley and “Doc” continued, I began to get the feeling that the two were working on developing a more lasting rapport between each other and with the listening audience. Bakita was never mentioned as being out sick or on vacation. Before leaving for work, I found this story, which confirmed that Bakita had left the show and the station.
This isn’t the death of Pat Summerall— the voice of the NFL, along with John Madden, for a generation– or even the departure of Paul Finebaum from WJOX— the temporary silencing of the voice of the SEC– but Bret Bakita was WBBL, and WBBL was West Michigan sports radio. He joined the station in early 1994, and he was the most prominent on-air voice across the station’s programming for the nineteen-year period that ended in late February of this year.
I was eight years old when Bakita first took to the WBBL airwaves, and although my interest in sports ebbed and flowed during the last two decades (and I never did– including this morning– learn to spell Bakita’s name), Bakita was nothing but a steady, growing presence in West Michigan, expanding into television in addition to his radio work. Bakita’s upbeat, professional (but not too glitzy) approach to covering Michigan’s high school, college, and professional teams always struck the right tone: critical only when necessary, and deftly keeping the spotlight on the teams, players, and coaches he knew his audience cared about most, all of which came very naturally to the West Michigan native.
Thanks to radio magic, he’ll get to stay in GR for his new role, but the substance of his coverage– Wisconsin sports for stations in Milwaukee and Madison– means his voice will fall silent in West Michigan.
As another voice of Grand Rapids writ large, Tony Gates, put it: “Shame on us for letting you leave us . . . but congratulations on your bright future.” This listener adds a thank you, and his hope that Bakita will be able to immerse himself in a foreign sports scene such that it will give voice to the easy enthusiasm that characterized his coverage of his home community.