Gene Purcell, the top Wisconsin public broadcasting leader and chair of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism board of directors, has died of injuries from a motorcycle crash.
Purcell passed away Saturday in Madison. He was 61.
Purcell was director of Wisconsin Public Media (WPM), the University of Wisconsin-Madison division that provides statewide access to public media through Wisconsin Public Radio and PBS Wisconsin, since 2018. In June, he was elected chair of the board of the investigative center, a nonpartisan nonprofit that collaborates with WPR and PBS Wisconsin.
“The passing of Gene is an unfathomable tragedy for his family, friends, colleagues and millions of people who benefited from his work at Wisconsin Public Media,” said Andy Hall, the Center’s executive director.
“His leadership as chair of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism board of directors, a volunteer position, exemplified Gene’s commitment to public service to ensure a strong news ecosystem and a vibrant democracy. Our thoughts are with all who knew and loved Gene and who grieve his passing.”
A longtime broadcaster and innovative leader in public broadcasting, Purcell steered WPM’s administrative transition to UW-Madison from the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He also led the state’s public media organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring uninterrupted service of essential news and information services and expanded educational resources for students, educators and families across Wisconsin.
Prior to becoming WPM director, Purcell was executive director of the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board (ECB) for more than a decade. That state agency distributes public broadcasting across the state in partnership with the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. Along with his earlier role as a broadcaster, reporter and manager of WPR’s La Crosse regional bureau, Purcell’s leadership shaped and informed nearly all aspects of Wisconsin’s public media landscape across his career.
During his tenure at WPM and ECB, Purcell served in leadership roles for the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the University Licensee Association.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Purcell also worked in commercial broadcasting earlier in his career.
Tributes to Purcell poured in immediately after his passing was announced by WPM.
“Gene brought a passion to his work,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told WPM. “He was deeply committed to the Wisconsin Idea that both Wisconsin Public Radio and PBS Wisconsin embody. He leaves behind him a legacy of excellence in these organizations. More than that, he was just a great person who drew people in. We will miss him.”
“Gene Purcell is a big part of the reason Wisconsin Public Media is the treasure that it is,” UW-Madison Provost John Karl Scholz said. “Fiercely devoted to the ‘public’ in his radio and TV work, Gene had a profound role in building and nurturing WPM. He was also a respected and loved colleague. Our world is a bit darker with his untimely passing.”
“All of the people at ECB and WPM loved Gene, and have been deeply affected by this sudden and tragic loss,” ECB Executive Director Marta Bechtol said. “It has been a joy to work side by side with him. He has left a permanent mark on our organization: he made us better.”
“Gene was a terrific boss and friend,” WPR Director Mike Crane said. “I admired him so much and will miss him deeply. He was also the quintessential broadcaster — totally dedicated to serving our communities — a model for us all.”
“Gene led a reinvention of Wisconsin Public Media that continues to expand and improve our service to audiences and Wisconsin schools,” PBS Wisconsin Director of Television Jon Miskowski said. “Everyone who worked with Gene knows his warmth and his kindness, and feels this loss deeply.”
“In three short years in his role, Gene became a trusted boss, friend and partner in leadership of our organization,” WPM Associate Director Heather L. Reese said. “ His devotion to public media and our state guided his everyday actions. I will miss him immensely.”
A Madison resident, Purcell is survived by his wife, Ruth, and his mother, Toni. Both are proud that Purcell’s legacy includes end-of-life organ donation. “To be able to give the physical parts of his body to help others is consistent with the way that he lived his life and what he thought was good and true and right about being a human being,” they said in a statement.
A celebration of Purcell’s life was held in Madison on Aug. 29th and in La Crosse on Sept. 4. More details are available here, and you can view photos of memories of Purcell on this page.