In Honor Of Mike Lawrence
May 23, 2016
When I saw the news of Mike Lawrence’s sudden passing over the weekend, it literally sent a shiver down my spine and an overwhelming sense of sadness throughout my body. Lawrence was half of the longtime “Mike and Dana” show that dominated mornings in Midland-Odessa, Texas from 1989 to 2014, doing so at three different Country stations: KNFM, KGEE, and KHKX. Dana was not only his on-air partner but his wife of 25 years.
Apparently, Mike died sometime Saturday (5/21). The chill I felt hearing that news was partially due to a nearly one-hour phone conversation I’d had with him and Dana on Thursday (5/19). We’ve been spotlighting all 2016 Country Radio Hall of Fame inductees on our “10 Questions” feature leading up to the Wednesday, June 22nd Hall of Fame induction ceremony and dinner. Mike and Dana were selected for this year’s class and were notified back in January.
After a few weeks of juggling, I was finally able to connect with them last week. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had many experiences where I’ve talked to someone so full of life, enthusiasm, and vibrancy only to hear of their passing within a day or two of that interaction. But it’s also heartbreaking on two other levels, because Mike’s death comes just 18 months after he and Dana retired from KHKX after a quarter century of success in the same market. It was their decision to shut it down – a decision so many talented air personalities usually have made for them. Additionally, we’re exactly one month away from Mike and Dana’s enshrinement into the Country Radio Hall of Fame – which will still happen – but the evening will now have a more somber tone, for obvious reasons. My heart aches for their entire family, but especially for Dana. Nobody spent more time with Mike, both at work and on a personal level. In both situations, the love and respect they demonstrated for each other was obvious – and inspirational.
I was originally planning to post my Q&A with Mike and Dana the week of June 6th, and I still will. But I thought in light of Mike’s untimely passing, I’d share a few highlights from our conversation that you can see this week. Before I get to that, however, a personal note.
I first met Mike and Dana in 1990, while working at KNIX/Phoenix. They were the morning show at KNFM/Midland-Odessa at the time. Our GM Michael Owens, OM Larry Daniels, and Dir./Sales Bob Podolsky had partnered with Tommy Vascocu – now General Partner of Texas-based Brazos Communications – and recently bought crosstown KGEE. One of their first brilliant strategic moves was to hire away Mike and Dana, the morning team, with Mike doubling as the PD. In 1990, they visited KNIX; we all got to meet them and hang out as they spent time familiarizing themselves with the culture and philosophy of the company – a culture that was formed by Michael Owens and Larry Daniels. Mike and Dana were a little starry-eyed – as they admitted in our interview last week – but at the same time, they had both been in radio a while and were trained professionals. Mike had already been programming KNFM, and they were already a terrific morning show. I can best describe Mike and Dana as wonderful, friendly, and down-to-earth people who stayed that way all the years I knew them and crossed paths with them.
I saw them mainly during CRS or at CMA Awards shows – where they were accepting either Station of the Year or Personality of the Year awards, which they won on behalf of both KGEE and KHKX. They made a career decision to stay in Midland-Odessa, even though very soon after seeing success at KGEE offers to go elsewhere came frequently. Their friendly, genuine personalities never changed. Mike and Dana will deservedly enter the Country Radio Hall of Fame, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this thought, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying it: Mike Lawrence is vastly underrated as a PD, because his morning show with Dana was always so good. But the stations he programmed were always ratings winners in their market, and as mentioned, won industry recognition, too, with KGEE and KHKX each capturing CMA Small Market Station of the Year awards in addition to their Personality awards. Here now is part of the conversation I had with them just last week.
On what the Hall of Fame Honor means to them.
Mike: Since we’ve been notified, it has put everything into a rather interesting perspective for us, in that we look back on all these things and we say, “Yeah! We did that. Yeah, we did those things because we wanted to do those things,” and once we’d done them, we moved on to the next. We never gave it much thought beyond that.
If there was a personal conflict, how did you keep it off the air, and if there was a professional conflict, how did you keep it away from the home life?
Dana: I can swear the audience never knew, but boy did the people we worked with know. We had a guy working with us when we won a CMA, and he would just go into another studio. He would just come in, do the news, and go into the other studio. When everything was good, he would stay in there with us, but boy you could tell when we were silent. We would just get silent. We would not talk to each other. So it was a show. The minute the microphone turned on, you were bright and cheerful, because we prepped the show so well. It was theater. And then when you turned the microphone off, you weren’t talking to each other. But that was early. After the first couple of years we were married, there just wasn’t really any conflict.
Mike: She began to see things my way.
You not only married each other, but the market too. What made staying in Midland-Odessa so important to you?
Mike: We worked there in Odessa for 25 years, and after about the first 5 years, we began getting offers. We were very quiet about it, and we were entertained by a couple of them, but never to the point of where there was enough solid there ... It was never more evident to us that we had made the right decision until the last week or so that we were on the air, and we were getting calls from listeners who were crying because we were leaving, and it was at that point that we knew that all those decisions that we had faced before and said no to – those were the correct answers. We had done the right thing and we were where we were supposed to be, doing what we were supposed to do. That was very reassuring.
Dana, you already knew how to work with Mike as a teammate in the control room, but he was not only your partner and husband, but also the Program Director. Was that ever challenging?
Dana: Yes, well, he was my boss. I never forgot that he was my boss. But he never acted that way. Michael and I – together – made one really great person, and that’s kind of what it was. Everybody in the radio station believed that – that we were just better together than taken individually. So Tommy [Vascocu] would have us both in the meetings, and then he made sure things got done. Because what Michael didn’t hear, I did. That really kind of fell to the wayside, that he was my boss. He was everyone else’s boss, and everyone came to me, to talk to him through me, so that was a problem (laughs). I was always in the middle.
Mike: Yeah, Dana’s middle name was “Conduit.”
Dana: Because they could talk to me as easily as they could talk to Michael.
Mike: It was nice, I would imagine, because we always had each other’s back and tried to make that a policy for all the members of the air staff. But it was especially reassuring knowing that I wouldn’t have to go to great lengths to explain a situation to her, because she already knew them. Dana was very good with her judgement, so if I had a question or if I said, “I don’t know if I should go with A or if I should go with B,” she would say, “Well, if you went with A the world will end, if you go with B, everyone will be happy.” It made decisions for me a lot easier. So Dana was a very good sounding board, not to mention partner.
On whether it was an advantage to stay in the same market for so many years.
Mike: Yes, it was. What we were able to obtain in Midland-Odessa was a relationship, which was much different than just being a jock on the air at a big station at a big city. We developed relationships. We went to listeners’ funerals. We have been there when their children have been born. We know their voices when they would call, and it’s one of these things that you didn’t pick up initially. You picked up more toward the end and said, “Dang, we’ve got a relationship with these folks.” Consequently, the advantages that we noted were, for instance, when we did our Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) radiothon. We went in one year and started this and raised over $100,000 for the CMN people, and over the course of the years, we were able to convince these folks to build our children’s futures – with this particular idea, CMN – was the way to go, and we raised millions for them.
On what they are most proud of:
Mike: I think the thing that we are most proud of in our 25 years is the relationships that we’ve formed with our listeners. I know there is a lot of long-term morning shows that probably agree with me on this, but we are still in contact with a lot of these folks, thankfully with social media as it is today, wishing them a happy birthday – all of the listeners.
Dana: They follow us on Facebook!
Mike: Yeah, every now and again they’ll send us a note. “How are you doing? How are you liking retirement?” I think that is the most rewarding thing for us, in that we just didn’t have jobs there, RJ. We just didn’t have careers there. We didn’t just put in our time. We, apparently – with the help of all of our mentors and poking and prodding and pushing and canoodling – we managed to form relationships with people.
RIP, Mike. Dana, there are a lot of hugs waiting for you in Nashville next month.