Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dave McBride

 Dave McBride was the newsman for two legendary Chicago radio shows, Murphy in the Morning and the Steve Dahl Show. He is currently program director and newsman at NewsRadio 1620 in Pensacola Florida.

Rick: Before we get to your legendary Chicago career, let's talk about what you're up to now. You wear a few hats at your station in Florida . Tell us a little bit about that.
Dave: Well, Rick, as the Program Director of a news/talk on the Gulf Coast in a part of the panhandle so far west we are in Chicago’s time zone, it falls to me to oversee talk content that leans so far to the right as to be horizontal. We are the Red State Riviera where there is a giant billboard rising beside a Publix that declares the building blocks of America to have been, “God, Guns and Guts.”  When I periodically backslide into compassionate conservatism, I ask myself, “What would dad do?”  And then I fit in just fine. I manage staff and anchor morning news and voice promos and commercials and was just awarded a local Addy for my stentorian performance on a Roto Rooter spot. 

The audience is a mix of small town, beach resort (whitest sand on the Gulf) and military (where one of every three dollars in the local economy is a defense department dollar). And I get to hang out with heroes at Naval Air Station Pensacola, the birthplace of naval aviation, where they have the coolest warplane museum anywhere and where I can show you where they park the Blue Angels. You can see my video tour of Pensacola at My name for purposes of squandering time on MySpace and Twitter is veterannewsman.

Rick: I've been a big fan of yours for many years for lots of reasons, but mainly because of your obvious talent as a writer. There aren't many writer/performers in radio anymore. Why do you think that is?
Dave: For many reasons probably, but I can think of three. Talent is farther removed from the epoch in radio when MOST content was written. They prefer to be spontaneous.  But my experience has been that spontaneity is often inferior to a crisply written paragraph over which one has cogitated for a spell. The exceptions to this observation are the great ones like Steve Dahl, whose mind is sufficiently fluid to write on the fly and who is an Olympic gold medalist in spontaneity. Second reason is that you can’t write if you don’t read. And I mean Dickens and not Drudge. Many young talents are students of radio and not of the wider world. They have squandered time on how to sound like a radio personality, and haven’t the depth of experience or understanding to convey entertaining insight. Also, the fault lies in radio programmers who no longer have a place in radio for writer/performers. 

Paul Harvey was the writer/performer whose voice pulled me into the transistor radio hanging from the bent coat hanger hooked to my ladder as I painted houses as an Ohio teenager. I used to write and perform a three to four minute radio essay daily on Chicago drive-time radio. It was the content that told me how long it would be. Today Paul Harvey would play his audition tape for a syndicator who would tell him he would distribute his commentary if he could get it under a minute to make it easy for the station traffic departments to schedule it in their computer automation systems. A radio segment of three minutes or twenty-three minutes is either too short or too long. That’s why there is NPR. There is stuff there that the commercial radio audience would love. Funny. Edgy. Often brilliant in insight. And scripted. But commercial radio has programmed brains out of radio.

Rick: We remember you in Chicago as the newsman on Murphy in the Morning on Q-101 and the Steve Dahl show at WCKG, and I'll get to both of those shows in a moment, but first I wanted to ask you about some of the other people you worked with in Chicago. You were at Q-101 before Murphy started and after he left. One of the pre-Murphy morning hosts was my old boss John Landecker's hero, the late Joel Sebastian. Joel was a very important voice in Chicago radio history. How was that experience?
Dave: Boy, Rick, you make me feel like the Forrest Gump of Chicago radio, popping up beside the radio greats across the years, but I guess that’s the sort of luck I had. I’ve worked with some of the funniest and with some of the smartest. Joel Sebastian was the warmest. Eleanor Roosevelt said nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, and the day I walked into the Merchandise Mart Studios of WKQX-FM, a formerly automated sister station to AM legend WMAQ (both owned by NBC) I consented to feel inferior.  I was thirty-two years old, and had worked in radio for ten years, but I felt completely out of my league. Because this was NBC Studios Chicago where Amos and Andy once lived and where The Breakfast Club had members coast to coast and where WMAQ Will Make You Rich!  I was hired at what would become Q-101 by Frank Beaman, the long-time newsman for the iconic Wally Phillips, and I felt the pressure of the rookie of which much is expected and nothing is guaranteed. 

When I delivered my first newscast on the Joel Sebastian Show, I was both visibly and audibly nervous. Joel leaned over and said he’d heard I was from Ohio . And he said the listeners are the same here and that Chicago is just the biggest small town in the Midwest and so don’t sweat it. Joel was a kind and classy friend and mentor and six years after his famous voice welcomed me to Chicago he died. He was 54.

Rick: After Murphy's show ended, you remained aboard for a little while with the new format, providing news for the former VJ Mark Goodman. I saw you once described that time as having "had less chemistry than the curriculum at Karate School ." That really wasn't a good fit for you was it?
Dave: No, but it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Q-101 Program Director Bill Gamble (who is now programming what used to be WCKG, oddly enough) was kind enough to keep me on after Murphy went away. I suppose it was a way to have continuity. And I appreciated it greatly. But Mark and I had little in common and I also had the sense that the listener to whom my stuff appealed had probably migrated elsewhere when Billy Joel was bumped by Toad the Wet Sprocket. (Photo: Dave speaks to the Grammy's)

Rick: Murphy in the Morning was one of the most popular shows in Chicago during the 80s, and you were a big part of it. I interviewed Murph a few years ago and he described you as "our venerable newsman, the intelligent and eloquent Dave McBride." How would you describe him?
Dave: Some call him Murph, and some call him Robert, and he hated it when anybody made the mistake of calling him Bob. I still call him Mr. Murphy. Mr. Murphy is a well-read wry wit (say that five times fast) who is always dapperly dressed to kill.  His name was on the show but he was not egocentric and was happy to showcase the talents of his support cast members. When Murphy retired, he packed us show-partners into his limo and we enjoyed a few hours ride to his log cabin in the Michigan woods, where we spent a farewell weekend discharging weapons and consuming alcohol.

Rick: Looking back on those Murphy years now, do you have any favorite memories?
Dave: When dementia takes my short-term memory, I wouldn’t mind reliving the Murphy years in assisted living. A recurring gag during my time with the Murphster was his pestering me about smoking. In the years when I still smoked, he would look for any opportunity (when the air staff gathered socially in restaurants and saloons) to find my pack of cigarettes unattended. When my back was turned he would insert a cigarette load. My cigarette exploded in my face on a half-dozen occasions and hilarity ensued. I was scrupulous about taking precautions but he would always find a moment when my guard was down to place the charge. To this day I am honored to be among the recipients of his occasional E-mailed poetry; droll verses about some current event in pop culture. We get together a couple of times a year and my wife Anita and I will reunite with Murf and his fianc√© Cheryl in Florida next week to lift a glass to good times. I’ll say hi for you.

Rick: Another one of the Murphy in the Morning show members was Joy Masada. A few years later you ended up working with Joy again on the Steve Dahl Show on WCKG. I know when you left the show, you said that "It was a pleasure to inhabit a studio in which the talent genuinely liked one another." I take it that your long working relationship with Joy contributed greatly to that.
Dave: Joy was well-named. It was great to work with Joy for so many years. A perfect female point of view in a radio roomful of testosterone. I count myself lucky for having been able to work on two great Chicago radio shows. But Joy was on three, supporting Danny Bonaduce on The Loop. But yes, I am glad to be able to call her a close friend in real life and Facebook. Same with Danger Dan Walker from the Murphy Show. A great person and one of the funniest men in the world.

Rick: You had a nice long run on Steve's show (7 years), and he really highlighted your writing ability. He allowed you to start and finish the show every day with Dave's Rave, which was always one of my favorite parts of the show. That was very un-Steve-like to turn over such an important part of the show to someone else, especially for a segment that was for the most part, completely autonomous from the rest of the show.  Did you realize that at the time?
Dave: Absolutely. But remember until Steve I was doing my short essays as a goofy sidebar to newscasts and it was Steve who picked the familiar soundtrack he would play under my monologues and it was Steve who named them Dave’s Raves. I had developed the feature, but it was Steve who made it a thing. (Photo: Steve in Cozumel)

When he brought me on to his show, others told me that Steve’s reputation was that of a difficult person with whom to work, but I learned the reality is that Steve requires complete control of his show because he alone recognizes everything it needs to be. And we enjoyed the most freedom from bosses I ever experienced in radio. The sovereign power of Steve shielded us all from the sort of constant tweaking programmers engage in to inflict their own impression (improvements?) on shows. You are correct that Steve was generous in book-ending the show with my comic commentaries but I don’t know that it should be called uncharacteristic, because he was unfailingly supportive of anything he judged of benefit to the show.

Rick: I know you have a lot of respect for Steve, as do I. He's intelligent, naturally funny, and brutally honest about himself and those around him. When people ask me what he's really like, I just say, listen to his show. That's the real Steve. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you look back on your years with his show, and how do you describe him to people who ask?
Dave: I have worked with talented people, but of all of them I think Steve is closest to what I’d call a radio genius. Because he lived on the radio. When he plays the old clips of himself speaking as a boy into a microphone, you can plainly hear the young Steve already developing the stream of consciousness never-ending soliloquies, questioning authority and examining himself for defects, of which he found plenty. And Steve’s appeal is that he is, like all of us, more multi-dimensional than talk radio cartoon characterizations of conservatives and liberals, and his reaction to events is from the perspective of an everyman, only funnier and more twisted. And sometimes when you figured you knew how he’d react to something, he’d surprise you and go the other way. 

Off the air we didn’t engage in a lot of small talk in the studio, because he didn’t see the point in it. Because the microphone wasn’t on. Like you said, I know as much about Steve Dahl as you do, because I listened to the show. Steve gave me the opportunity to do the most creative work I’ve ever done. How would I describe him? Complicated. Sometimes self-loathing. Evolving. To paraphrase Tom Wolfe: “A Shock Jock in Full.”

Rick: You were a big part of the Chicago radio dial for more than twenty years, and you obviously made a lot of friends here during your time in Chicago . Do you ever make it back to town?
Dave: Yes, because my son Jonathan, who listeners knew growing up as a small boy on the Murphy in the Morning Show and as a teenager and college student on the Steve Dahl Show, is still there working in Chicago recording studios. And I have friends and family there and so does Anita, who is Chicago born.  It’s nice in the tropics but it’s always great to come back to Chi-town My Town. I know nobody calls it Chi-town but it rhymes with My Town. If you want to put Chi-town My Town on a T-shirt, it’s yours. You’re welcome.