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Mark Davis Was Always Fascinated Hearing Folks On Radio

Mark Davis told Barrett News Media’s Jim Cryns that growing up he was always fascinated hearing folks on the radio, leading to an eventual career.

Jim Cryns

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I’d only been speaking with Mark Davis for about thirty seconds when an epitaph for his tombstone occurred to me.

Here lies Mark Davis. An unapologetic conservative, but he was never a jerk about it. 

A few moments later we were discussing An Evening with Mark Davis and Mike Gallagher, to be held on April 18, 2023, in Grapevine, Texas, in the heart of Dallas-Ft. Worth.  Gallagher makes a daily appearance on the Davis morning show just ahead of his own program on the Salem Radio Network. I suggested it reminded me of the current tour with Steve Martin and Martin Short.  

“That’s a wonderful comparison,” Davis said. “During this event, you’ll see an obvious mutual affection that enables us to deliver a show reflective of the segment we do on the air. We’ll cover a lot of topics, put our spin on things and have a good time. I think that will appeal to a lot of people.”

Davis said it’s natural for him and Gallagher to do a joint event given their chemistry. It could be as natural as two old friends sitting on a couch in the middle of the stage, sipping Scotch or coffee. Whatever two opinionated old men drink. Two avuncular figures getting together for a chat, yelling at kids to get off their lawn.

“Mike is a true friend, someone I love to spend time with both on and off the air,” Davis said. “Our relationship on radio is our predominant connection, but we’re constantly on the phone with each other. I’ve been with him through loss, various moves, issues both large and small. He’s always there for me, in good times and bad.  He’s like the brother I never had.”

Davis said Gallagher is a guy you’d like to have a cup of coffee with, adding that his friend enjoys the rough and tumble of topical talk radio, but always with a giving spirit.

“We both want to do shows to make a person’s day better. Give people something to both think and laugh about. We go through tough times but that doesn’t mean we can’t approach things in upbeat tones.”

You can listen to The Mark Davis Show weekdays from 7-10 am on 660 AM The Answer (KSKY) in the DFW area, or online at 660amtheanswer.com

Growing up, Davis said he was always fascinated hearing folks on the radio. 

“As a teenager I was captivated listening to people having conversations.  This was before I ever thought of doing this for a living.  It made me appreciate the magic of hearing people in a studio across town, yet it felt like it was presented just for me.”

His father was a career Air Force man. His mother stayed home to raise her only son until he went to high school. She then sold real estate and was an executive with United Way in Washington, DC.

“I was given a lot of latitude to follow any career I wanted,” Davis said. “I was an only child, but we were solid middle class.  It’s not like I was pampered.  But do the math.  I got 100 percent of the parental attention.”

“They were always there for me,” Davis explained. “I was loved. If I had the choice, I guess I’d rather have had a sibling. To have someone who was in the same proverbial boat. A shared experience with the same mother and father. I never knew what that felt like.”

When he was 16 and growing up in the Watergate era, Davis was very interested in current events, news, and journalism. The imagery was all around, and he’d already enjoyed writing. 

Davis wanted to study something in school that would give him a chance for a job. He didn’t think a degree in history or English screamed employability. Both of his parents recognized their son’s interest in reading and told him covering news might be a logical career choice.

At the University of Maryland in 1975, Davis started taking courses in print journalism. 

“I learned to write headlines, turn column inches into certain amounts of space,” Davis explained. “But in my junior year I discovered WMUC, the campus radio station. That changed everything for me. Part of the charm of college radio is you get the opportunity to do it all. I was a disc jockey, I worked the record library, I did sports play-by-play, I covered news.” 

That’s when it dawned on Davis this was what he wanted to do with his life. During his junior and senior years at the University of Maryland–College Park, Davis was cutting tape, writing stories, writing into audio, anchoring newscasts.

“A lot of journalism is collaboration,” Davis said. “In a newspaper, your piece of writing goes through various editors, a group of people along the path to print. On television, the story you see on the airwaves is handled by a lot of people. On the radio, it’s just you, a tape recorder and a typewriter. You write around sound, anchor the newscast. If it’s all good, you did it. If it’s bad, it’s all on you.”

During the summer of 1973, the Watergate hearings were in high gear. Davis was still in high school when Richard Nixon resigned his presidency.

“I didn’t go into journalism hoping to bring down the next president,” Davis said. “I saw it as a force for good. To uncover secrets. Shine a light on things the government was trying to get away with.”

Davis looks back with gratitude on his full life. His family, his career, and his friendships. He said, ultimately, by virtue of being born, you’re lucky. It’s a gift from God. 

“Make the most of that, make the country or world a better place,” he said. “Support your family and find a sense of service. When you’re finally able to pull your own head out of your butt, you can discover it’s time to serve others. My faith guides me to this. If I start using my days in devotion to others, my life will be better. I imagine people driving around, hanging out in their homes and offices, and I have the opportunity to speak with them. They give their time to me, and there’s nothing more valuable than their time.”

Davis said his approach to being on the air is to welcome more people, not turn them away. “Now more than ever,” Davis explained. “We’re so entrenched in arguments. We may be bruised and even bloodied, but optimism and success are possible, even in the toughest battles I’m trying to fight.”

You can’t fake a daily show. People often ask Davis what it takes to be a talker on the air. 

“I tell them you need your unique picture of the world, know a little about a lot, care about a lot, be curious about a lot,” Davis said. “Figure out what you believe and make it clear you believe it. You might run afoul of some people, but you’ve got to find a way to navigate those times. People can agree, disagree, but let’s reasonably come together. Be welcoming.”

Davis explained he’s always been interested in inviting a reasoned argument from the other side. Does he consider himself a journalist? Yes, he does. “That doesn’t make me the sole definer of what is or is not news,” Davis said. But he doesn’t consider himself a reporter, as he was at the start of his career. 

“I did that years before talk radio landed in my lap,” Davis said. “To be a reporter you must be objective, give everything equal weight. I’m not required to do that, but I do try to be fair.”

Talk radio is opinion-based. You share your views, mingle with others, and offer up your ideas. Even though Davis has been working in what he calls ‘opinion journalism’ for 40 years, he’s still chronicling events as they happen. Interviewing people along a journalistic path. 

“I’ve always been open to opposing views,” Davis continued. 

“Is that vital in today’s terrestrial radio? Sadly, I don’t know. It may not be. It’s not that every show needs to be like mine. Some like mine succeed. Some come at you like a sledgehammer and some of those succeed, too.  Markets will embrace what they will embrace. I have to be honest with myself every day. I don’t know how people sleep after saying things they don’t believe. I have to derive some sense of satisfaction. Not just from getting calls, making a good living, but sharing things I believe. Dealing honestly in agreement and disagreement.  People may like or dislike me, but they’ll always know I’m sharing what I feel honestly.”

Davis said issues we used to talk about with friends and neighbors just don’t happen anymore. 

“It’s through talk radio we discuss borders, gun control, abortion rights, drugs, and education,” he said. “We’re reacting on the fly and discussing what people used to talk about at the water coolers and over the fence in the backyard. We don’t have those personal relationships anymore. We’re not talking to neighbors.”

I spoke with Davis about the current situation in Memphis regarding the fired officers and alleged beating of a suspect. He said one of the big problems in society is people are not getting all the facts before jumping to conclusions.  There are people that are going to immediately assume the police are guilty. 

“It’s my default setting to support the police,” Davis said, “until or unless I see evidence that they were in the wrong.  The George Floyd situation was enormously complicated. It was a horrible day of police work, but I have a tough time calling it murder. There are people who seek what they call justice by remedying past wrongs with current racial revenge.” 

I asked Davis if he felt today’s America was the most divided ever.

“Some of my listeners perhaps don’t recall 9/11,” Davis said. “Some don’t really know what happened in the 1960s. Some say we’ve never been this divided before. That’s crazy. We’ve probably always been a divided country. But cable TV shout-fests and social media make it seem worse.  The problem isn’t that we’re divided, the problem is we’re arguing with each other like we’re toddlers. Never listening.”

Regarding the kerfuffle over New York congressman George Santos and the web of lies he spun to get elected, Davis said not every story has an instant satisfying resolution. “He was duly elected. Many of the voters on Long Island are disgusted and want to get rid of him. Others still prefer him to a Democrat. The end of his term will come up fast and they’ll be able to get rid of him if they wish. Redemption may be at hand, but ultimately it’s up to the voters.”

We discussed our shared love of film and its ability to teach life lessons. 

“You’ve got the collaborative effort of actors, directors, set designers all coming together to create a visual experience,” Davis said. “When it’s at its best, it can change lives. When I was 12 years old, I saw George C. Scott in Patton.” He said Patton’s devotion to duty, history, and to his men was something he can’t shake from his head. “I revisit that performance in my mind. I think the most important thing is selflessness.”

Davis said another portrayal that has stuck with him is Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in the cult classic Being There. 

“Chance, the character played by Sellers, is the dimmest bulb imaginable,” Davis said, “but he was representative of the way our country behaves. There are many awesome moral messages in that film. Basically at his heart Chance is a good person.”

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BNM Writers

It’s Time for News Radio to Clean Its Clock

With radio, the top of the hour always begins with a self-aggrandizing, overly-produced introduction to a program I may have been listening to for half an hour already.

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A photo of clocks

News radio is an interruptive format that swiftly moves listeners from one informative topic to
the next but over the years we’ve gotten bogged down with an insufferable amount of clutter: too many commercials, endless promos and teases, and pointless production pieces. All of it
interrupts the flow and cuts into the interesting information you promise to provide.

Let’s clean the clutter, starting with the anachronistic basis for it all: your hourly format clock.

I’ve never understood why radio stations root themselves to the clock. The show starts at the top of the hour and you bury your boring features at the end. Why? Why should the top of the hour be considered the beginning of anything? It’s not how people live their lives. Radio isn’t like TV where shows start at specific times. Hell, TV isn’t that way anymore.

But with news radio, the top of the hour always begins with a self-aggrandizing, overly-produced introduction to a program I may have been listening to for half an hour already. This is especially true with morning shows, where simple logic would suggest that people trying to get to work by the top of an hour begin listening at various times before then.

Who even owns a clock radio anymore?

The 21st century is nonstop. There is no daily news cycle, no beginning or end to anything but
news radio programmers still think of time in divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds. We still draw empty circles depicting analog clocks to plot hourly radio formats.

On news and talk stations, the top of the hour almost always begins with the hourly network
report. It’s the biggest of big-time radio, steeped in tradition, professionally detached, global. In other words, it sounds nothing like your radio station in your unique market and it contains the least interesting content you have to offer.

We cling to the networks at the top of the hour for their prestige, because that’s just how we’ve always done it. Any national or international stories of real interest to Americans, the latest Trump-Biden court decisions, for example, will be well covered in talk shows and you’ll probably want to drop it into your local programming, too. How about a one-minute segment twice an hour, 60 seconds of just the big national and world stuff, in 10-15-second boil-in-the-bag headline segments? I’m just spitballing here. You’re the programmer.

In my heretical news radio mind, the networks do great journalism but they still sound flat,
stuffy, and old-fashioned. They don’t sound like anything else on my station. I’ll dump the top-of-the-hour five minutes and cherry-pick the network sound bites. We’ll deliver them ourselves.

While I’m carving up your format and trying to get you thinking outside the box, do you need
traffic reports every ten minutes? Or, at all? Heresy, I know. Catch your breath and read on.

When we had real-time airborne local reporters telling us what they were looking at it had a gee-whiz factor and the information mattered because it was live, local first-hand reporting. I could imagine the scene as it was being described. Now we have reporters in booths looking at
computer feeds and doing shotgun-style traffic reports for multiple cities. Words without
pictures.

I knew an L.A.-based traffic reporter who did reports for Salt Lake City though she had never even been there. These so-called “real-time traffic” reports are nearly always recorded and delayed for playback. Does this practice serve any purpose at all except to deceive listeners?

Not incidentally, traffic reports are a prime target for AI exploitation. How difficult can it be to
attach state and local transportation agency traffic data to AI voice-to-speech generators? For all I know this is already being done. You can argue it’s cost-efficient but as a longtime morning news host/anchor/personality, I despise it. One of the greatest assets to any morning news team is the interaction between news and traffic people.

When Amy Chodroff and I started working together at KLIF a dozen years ago we had that human contact with remarkable radio veteran Bill Jackson doing traffic from an adjoining studio. Bill wasn’t just a voice, he was a talented news radio veteran and a valued part of our show. He was so good the company, Cumulus, put two more stations on his plate, ripping a valued team member away from us.

As hosts, Amy and I had to assume Bill wasn’t able to listen to the show anymore because he
was too busy gathering and preparing his reports for the other stations. Then he was shipped out of the building to do his work from home which made his insights and witty exchanges
impossible. We couldn’t talk to each other off the air. We couldn’t exchange glances, smiles, and hand signals or bump into each other in the hall. Our show suffered and our audience became a bit more detached.

Bill Jackson, real name Dale Kuckelburg, was also significantly detached from his career.

But I digress. The biggest problem with traffic reports is the shotgun approach I mentioned,
telling everybody in our listening area driving to their unique destinations how traffic is snarled thirty miles away. Good god, we have apps in our cars that do a much better job in real time.

How about the weather? What the hell, we’re swinging the ax here. Let’s be realistic.

There isn’t a day in my life that I don’t wake up with a fair idea of what weather I should expect. I don’t need someone on the radio telling me to carry an umbrella. If it’s iffy the immediate and highly local details are now available at the touch of an app. When the weather becomes of critical and life-threatening importance it’s a major news story and that’s when local radio news shines, making it the center of our continuous attention, not just a regular feature at scheduled times.

It’s your radio station, do what you think is best. I’m only suggesting that you might want to
reevaluate all the things we’ve all taken for granted for far too long.

News radio has always been an interruptive format. We promise listeners “the news you need” in the time it takes them to drive to work. They understand that they’ll receive useful and
interesting content in exchange for frequent subject switching and sponsorships. The great news stations know how to capitalize on that agreement but too many have sold their souls to
commercial clutter that chokes a news team’s ability to serve the promised meal.

As if 22 minutes of inane and repetitive commercials per hour aren’t bad enough programmers, struggling to do their work in a hurricane of increasing spotloads, add to the clutter with recorded promos that simply beseech listeners to keep listening while offering nothing of substance. Meanwhile, the same programmers tell talent to tease, tease, tease the subjects they’ll talk about six, twelve, and twenty minutes from now.

I know the business reality. Radio — especially news radio — is struggling to meet the profit insistence of corporate boards and the overhead needs of staying afloat locally. But at some point, we must answer the question, who do we have to serve first, our clients or our audience?

Station managers and their corporate masters have to stop issuing profit mandates without
offering programmers the opportunity to do their jobs, to provide more valuable content while
limiting commercial minutes, sponsorship rhetoric, and eliminating distracting bells and
whistles.

Clean your clock. Stop filling empty circles with stuff that made sense 50 years ago but is merely clutter today.

The only way to think outside the box is to get rid of the box.

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BNM Writers

AM 680 WCBM Leapt Into Action As the Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapsed

Our employees live and work here and know what’s important to our listeners.

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As Americans woke up to a cargo ship hitting Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge Tuesday morning, the crew at AM 680 WCBM was already hard at work gathering the facts.

Just before 1:30 AM, a cargo ship lost power exiting the Baltimore harbor, striking a support beam that toppled the 47-year-old structure. In the wreckage, six people working on the bridge died, while drivers were rescued from the rubble in the chilly waters of the Curtis Bay.

The AM news/talk station — which celebrated its 100th anniversary Thursday — went wall-to-wall breaking coverage, something most outlets now avoid because of budget concerns. 680 WCBM morning host and Program Director Sean Casey told BNM in an email exchange how his crews handled the breaking news.


BNM: When did you guys hit the air with breaking news coverage?

Sean Casey: We first broke in with updates at 3:30 AM, approximately two hours after the bridge collapsed. Breaking news updates continued every half hour until 6 AM.”

BNM: How did you coordinate coverage in those moments?

SC: Full wall-to-wall coverage started at 6 AM and included full newscasts as well as interviews with state and local law enforcement agencies, eyewitness call-ins, and our national news partners. Our producer made call-outs and our news department shifted to full-blown local coverage.

BNM: How much experience did you have in putting together coverage of an event like that on the fly?

SC: Having been on the air during 9/11, I used the same formula that listeners want to know: Who, What, When, and Where? The why will come later.

BNM: How does your coverage show the importance of both local radio and AM radio?

SC: In times of breaking news events that impact our listeners, local AM radio stations are more in tune with the local listening audience. Our employees live and work here and know what’s important to our listeners. We also know the local players and officials and can get immediate reaction.

The talk component of our news/talk format offers listeners a chance to vent, share, and communicate with each other in good and bad times. This is why AM radio is still relevant. In some emergencies you can lose your cell service or have too weak of a signal, AM radio remains viable for in-car listening and at home with battery backup.

The AM 680 WCBM morning host and Program Director concluded his thoughts by noting the importance of a team effort, not only in coverage of breaking news events but also in operating a successful station and business as a whole.

“One of the biggest concerns we have is budgetary. More and more AM stations are abandoning the format because of its expense. Very few can afford a live and local news staff and show hosts,” Casey told Barrett News Media.

“Now more than ever, it’s vital that there be synergy between ownership, sales, and programming to maximize ratings and revenue so that we can continue to deliver vital information to listeners in our market.”

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News is the Only Thing Missing From Election Coverage

Coverage of the election is, as we’ve discussed, still very horse-race-centric, and there’s been, of course, coverage of the various Trump court cases, but where is the coverage of exactly what the candidates plan to do if elected?

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A photo featuring I voted stickers

The first thought I had when I heard NBC had hired Ronna McDaniel as a commentator for $300,000 a year was to wonder how many actual journalists they could have hired for that money. Then, I recalled that NBC had laid off dozens of news staffers just a few months ago. Then, I remembered that I had just recently written a column decrying news organizations throwing pretty much anybody on the air as a “pundit” and this….

This was worse. It’s one thing to grab some rando who happened to be a minor functionary for the Executive Branch. It’s another to hire someone whose job was to promote election denialism and pretend that her opinion is something valuable for viewers. And, yes, it’s just as ridiculous when news organizations hire former presidential press secretaries (that’s you, Jen Psaki and Sean Spicer), their very jobs were to spin everything in their bosses’ favor and now you’re going to pay them big salaries for, um, what? Because they “have a name” or you’re afraid someone else will snap them up? Why them?

The McDaniel deal lasted five days, one completely unilluminating interview, and one unexpected Chuck Todd spine-growing outburst, so it’ll all blow over soon enough. The problem is, though, the part about having fired several news staffers, and what it means in an election year on both the national and local levels. If you have the money to hire an alleged pundit – any alleged pundit – you have the money to hire reporters, and I don’t mean anchors or opinion show hosts.

Coverage of the election is, as we’ve discussed, still very horse-race-centric, and there’s been, of course, coverage of the various Trump court cases, but where is the coverage of exactly what the candidates plan to do if elected? Who’s probing Project 2025 and why isn’t it front-page, first-segment news? Who’s pressing the Biden administration on Gaza? Is anyone reporting on the candidates’ record on climate change?

Beyond prescription drug prices, is anyone digging into the broken healthcare system and demanding answers from the candidates about what they’ll do to fix it (and not letting Trump get away with “I’ll have a better plan, a beautiful plan” without a single specific detail, like they did in 2016)? Why didn’t anyone focus on, for example, the GOP candidate for governor of North Carolina and his incendiary past comments well before the primary?

Pundits are not going to do the legwork on the issues; they’ll just talk about swing states while John King and Steve Kornacki point at their touchscreen maps. We need reporting on the things that matter (and can affect that horse race, even if most people have made up their minds). It shouldn’t just be Pro Publica and scattered independent journalists doing the dirty work.

Honestly, I don’t want to hear the complaints about the quality of the candidates or how this is a rerun or any of that. (We’ll leave that to The New York Times.) We are a horribly underinformed electorate and we got the horse race we deserve. It might just be idealists like me who think that, just maybe, the news media can play a role in educating the public and bursting the bubbles and echo chambers. This country has survived and prospered for a few centuries with the press shining a light on injustice and corruption.

Now, when we need that most, they’re more concerned with what they think will bring them ratings and money (although someone will have to explain to me who thought having Ronna McDaniel as a paid commentator would draw a single viewer to NBC).

Here’s a thought: Don’t lay off reporters, especially in an election year.  Assign them to dig deep on issues that matter to the voters.

Let the pundits talk about that.

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