10 Questions with ... Brian Wilson
August 2, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Started my career in local radio in Odessa, Texas right after completing (barely four years) at the legendary Permian High School (MOJO). I worked for what were the dominant AM stations in the market, starting with KBZB and KRIG, and then became the News Director of KOZA (the number one station in the market at the time) at age 19. By the time I turned 21, I moved to Amarillo, Texas to begin a TV news career with KAMR-TV, followed by a stint at KFDA-TV in Amarillo. I returned to my hometown at age 26 to anchor the 6 and 10 pm newscasts at KTPX-TV. That was followed by an 18 month run at WKRG-TV in Mobile, Alabama.
In April of 1986, I was hired to be the Capitol Hill Correspondent at WTTG-TV in Washington, DC, just as it was being taken over by Fox Television. After six years on the Hill beat, I moved to the anchor desk and spent the following six years as co-anchor of the Fox Morning News. In 1998, I moved to the fledgling Fox News Channel where I served in various capacities: Reporter, Anchor, and for a while, Washington Bureau Chief. In the fall of 2010, I resigned from Fox News after 12 years to start Right Tone Communications, a media training and message development firm. I was lured back into daily broadcasting at WMAL in June of this year. Educationally, here's a weird little factoid: I graduated with a Masters Degree from American University in 1998, but I have no underlying undergraduate degree.
1. Radio isn't new for you -- you started in radio news -- but how has the transition been from anchoring and reporting on TV for so many years back to radio, and being able to voice opinion to a greater extent than as a reporter?
After 35 years trying to avoid offering opinion, I must admit that it was difficult at first to enter the world of talk radio. Journalist are taught to stay neutral and offer up both sides of the debate. Now, I really enjoy the ability to offer what I hope is informed opinion supported by many years of real-life reporting experience. I've covered the Hill and the White House. I think that gives me a perspective that many in talk radio do not have. It also helps to have a sizable reporter's rolodex. I love it when I can actually pick up the phone and talk to those who are making news in the nation's capital.
2. You've worked in Washington for two decades, now that you're on talk radio, what kind of market is it for that kind of opinion? Is it difficult to balance appealing to the political wonks versus the people who don't work in or around government -- the "regular folks" in the audience?
You really have to stay on your toes because the people who live in the DC area are very smart -- and very well informed. I can guarantee you that there will always be someone in our audience who knows way more about the given topic of the moment than I do. They are not shy about picking up the phone to give us a little schooling. The debt debate was interesting because many in our audience were ready to shut the government down rather than raise the debt limit. At the same time, a lot of our listeners actually work for the federal government and would be directly impacted by a government shutdown. The other thing I notice is that the audience doesn't need as much setup on a given topic. They are well read and up to speed on most important issues of the day.
3. What is your sense of the mood of the electorate?
Today, I honestly believe the feeling of the electorate beyond the Washington Beltway is, "a plague on both your houses." The mood is ugly. As it stands now, many incumbents could well find themselves with out jobs after the 2012 elections. That said, this debt debate is a game changer. Without boring you with a rundown on all the possible scenarios, it could fall in a number of different directions. Voters are watching very, very closely and will not look kindly upon those they view as not working toward a viable solution to our spending problem.
4. How do you do show prep? What is the process of getting your show together?
Well, the first thing I do is constantly stay plugged into what is going on. I carry an iPad with me everywhere and I'm constantly surfing in my spare moments. If I see something interesting, I flag it and email it to my co-hosts, Bryan Nehman and Mary Katharine Ham. We all roll into the station around 3:30 AM. At 4:00 AM we meet with show producer Heather Smith to winnow down what we will talk about over the course of our 4 hour broadcast. We all make our case for the "talk" segments we like -- and offer up other stories that are just "tells." Nehman is very savvy about where to place topics into the rundown. Nothing makes it to the board unless one of us is very passionate about the topic. When we fill up our eraser board, we go through and assign who will lead on each topic. The prep generally ends just minutes before the broadcast begins at 5 AM. The good news is that each member of our team is exceptionally well-read -- and so we don't need a lot of time to "read in."
5. How do you use social media?
I am very big on Twitter as a way of staying on the cutting edge of news and information. I don't "tweet" all that much, but follow a lot of people in the know. Back in my reporting days I learned that I could scoop my competition just by following the right people and sources on Twitter. Mary Katharine Ham is the real expert on social media in our little group. I think I'm going to turn to her for some advanced training. We do, however, have a Twitter and Facebook account for the show.
6. What is the greatest misconception the American public has about the way that things work in Washington?
I think right now the public often looks at public officials who hold different opinions than their own as being evil in some way. I believe you can occasionally learn things from people with whom you disagree. I may think they hold bad opinions, but most of the time they are not really bad people. I try to disagree with people without being disagreeable. Do I succeed? Not always (Hey, this is talk radio after all). But I try not to impugn the motives of people, even if they hold boneheaded opinions. The other thing: A lot of government bureaucrats are really decent folks. I think there should be far fewer of them, but many are truly dedicated servants of the people.
7. What would you say is the most memorable moment of your career so far?
I reported from Capitol Hill on 9/11. I'll never forget being told by a police officer friend that I needed to evacuate the Capitol grounds because "there is another plane headed toward the Capitol ... and it's 20 minutes out." Moments later, I saw a military fighter jet blow past Capitol Hill moving very fast. It vectored north and west. At this point, the Pentagon had already been struck, and the Twin Towers in New York were collapsing. Cell phone systems were overloaded, and I was being ordered by police to abandon my hard line phone at our camera position on the Capitol grounds. I desperately wanted to get that information on the air, but it took several tries to get through to the very busy control room at the Fox mothership in New York. Here is how the conversation went:
Me: This is Brian Wilson on the Hill -- please do not hang up. I need to get on the air right away.
Producer: Brian, the towers are collapsing and you were just on a few minutes ago, I'm not sure I can work you in.
Me: Listen! Cops here tell me there is another plane out there... and they believe it is headed toward the US Capitol.
Producer: Good sell! Hang on, I'll put you on.
We now know that was the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Later that day I was sent to the Pentagon to pick up reporting duties there. I remember watching as fire and rescue personnel lowered the giant American flag across the scarred wing of the building where 184 souls perished only hours before.
8. Of what are you most proud?
The person of whom I am most proud is my daughter, Jessica.
The story of which I am most proud is the daily reporting I did in 2002 on the DC Sniper case.
The "thing" of which I am most proud is my custom built PRS Tonare Grand acoustic guitar. It is special to me because my friend, Paul Reed Smith, hand-picked the wood and oversaw its construction. If you are a guitar geek, you'll understand how totally cool that is.
9. After the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, there were many calls for "more civility" and less "heated rhetoric" in talk radio and political discourse. Since then, things have pretty much reverted to the way they were before then. Do you think those calls were fair or misguided -- is American political discourse too polarized, not hot enough or just right?"
Great question! There was a rush to judgment in the main stream media. Many reporters (and more than a few public officials opined that Jared Loughner had been driven to commit heinous acts of violence by the rhetoric on "right wing radio." Nothing we have seen or read since then seems to bear that out. Cheap shot!
As for the current state of political discourse; I like it when elected officials mix it up. That's what they are supposed to do ... that's the reason they were sent to Washington. Does it need to be a less personal? Probably wouldn't hurt to tone down the personal attacks a bit. Attacking someone's position is fair game. I believe attacking or impugning a person's motives is often out of bounds. That is, unless that person is Senator Dick Durbin.
10. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in life and in radio thus far in your life?
In life: I've only recently come to understand that I am a total control freak. It has served me well in many ways over the years, but really so much of what happens in our lives is totally beyond our control. What is ... is. To quote that great sage, Jimmy Buffett, "Breathe in ... breathe out ... move on."
In Radio: In the very early days of my career, a grizzled radio veteran told me that the secret to being on the air was to "always be sincere." Then he added, "Once you learn to fake that ... the rest is all downhill." Kidding aside, the most important thing I've learned about being on the radio is to always know when the mic is on -- and when it's off.