PITTSFIELD -- For Larry Kratka, it hasn't sunk in yet.

Today is his last day as news director at Gamma Broadcasting, which owns six of the county's eight commercial radio signals.

"It's a life-changing event," he said, "but a radio guy never really hangs up the microphone."

He won't need to wake up at 3 a.m. anymore to begin his early shift at WBEC and WUPE, where until last August he was the voice of local news. Since then, he has been writing the newscasts for the Pittsfield stations, as well as for WNAW in North Adams and WSBS in Great Barrington.

Kratka said it was his decision to step away after nearly 30 years on the air in the Berkshires. "It's been a quite a run," he acknowledged.

"I turned 66 in August and I said, maybe it's time, because there's been a lot of pressure since Tommy [Tom Conklin] left," he said. His original retirement date last summer was pushed back repeatedly.

In an ironic twist, Conklin, the newsman who was let go in November 2012 in a downsizing, has been rehired to succeed Kratka.

"I love it," Kratka said. "You can't find a better guy to do it. I used to say to him, someday this can all be yours. Little did we know."

Today, Kratka will be given a luncheon party as he begins to "write a new episode in my life."

"Larry has spent almost three decades providing news to the residents of Berkshire County and his voice has become very recognizable as a familiar source of trusted news," stated Gamma Broadcasting's vice president and market manager Peter Barry in an email message.

"Thousands of Berkshire County residents have literally grown up listening to Larry deliver the news, and to have a career that spans decades in this marketplace is truly impressive," Barry added.

A native of New Britain, Conn., Kratka recalled how he was "bitten by the radio bug" in middle school when he met the local station's program director.

"He showed me around, and I got bit," he said during a conversation Thursday afternoon at Taconic High School's radio station, WTBR (FM 89.7 "The Brave"), where Kratka has served as student adviser for seven years and plans to expand his involvement there.

Barry cited Kratka's "tremendous passion for the news and radio in general," as demonstrated by his role at Taconic. "Thanks to Larry's efforts, many students now have the opportunity to experience working in a radio studio firsthand while still in high school." Gamma has donated equipment to the now higher-tech station.

Morgan Holm, 16, a junior, credited Kratka for "figuring out my career. Before this, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Larry guided a path for me so I do have a plan to work in radio. I love everything about it, getting involved with the music and hands-on with the equipment."

"Larry is my favorite adult in this entire building," said Vanessa Purcell, also 16 and a junior. "Whenever he talks about the station, he gets so enthusiastic."

After attending Graham Junior College, part of Emerson College in Boston, Kratka landed his first job at a tiny station in Berlin, N.H., as the nighttime DJ. "I had a ball, playing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, talking to God knows who -- moose maybe."

"Looking back, I have always been on the air somewhere," Kratka noted, even during a brief stint as a TV director at Hartford's WVIT.

After working at central Connecticut and Florida radio stations, in September 1985, Kratka landed at WBEC (AM 1420) in Pittsfield, hired by Joanne Billow, then the program director.

His first job here was as wake-up host on WBEC-AM before the station picked up the syndicated "Imus in the Morning" show in 1992. A day after he was let go, Phil Weiner, then the owner of WUPE, hired Kratka.

"When he offered news, I said ‘oh boy,' " said Kratka, who stayed there until Vox Radio Group (now Gamma) purchased WUPE in December 2003, a year after the company had acquired WBEC's AM and FM signals.

Kratka returned as news director for the Vox group of stations, establishing the Berkshire News Network to provide countywide coverage. He also took over WBEC-AM's midday interview show.

"My opportunity to interview everybody from governors on down was most enlightening," Kratka said. "A guy from a little town in Connecticut interviewing governors, lieutenant governors, selectmen -- that was always fun to do."

His most memorable moment came when he interviewed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

"He was talking at the Crowne Plaza and we were told, media wait in the lobby outside the ballroom," he recalled. Although all the region's TV stations were chomping at the bit, "Ted Kennedy comes over, the TV lights were flashing, he stops them and says, ‘Gentlemen, ladies, give me a few minutes with the guys in radio.' We all looked at each other -- us?! Here's a famous U.S. senator, talking to little guys in radio. He looked at us like, you guys are earning a living and I'm going to talk with you. It was nice."

His most searing moment came on Sept. 11, 2001, when news of the terrorist attacks broke near the end of his morning news shift with the WUPE host at the time, Alex Seseske.

Although Kratka said he feels upbeat about "passing the baton," he hopes to fill in at WBEC and WUPE when needed -- Barry confirmed the arrangement -- and will substitute for John Krol occasionally on WTBR's "Good Morning, Pittsfield."

Krol, the Pittsfield Ward 6 City Councilor and host of the 7:30 a.m. interview show, saluted Kratka as "definitely someone who's very fair, definitely not a ‘gotcha' journalist. He gives people an opportunity to voice their thoughts; that's his style."

Krol, president of OneEighty Media, a local marketing, communications and advertising firm, called Kratka "someone who truly loves radio. You can see that in his passion for WTBR."

For Kratka, despite the dominance of the Internet and TV, radio endures.

"The epitaph can't be written for radio because it's still the main source of information when the chips are down," he said. "Radio always comes through. When there are emergencies, people will turn it on. Most people don't give it a second thought, but it's always there when you need it."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto