10 Questions with ... Dan Mitchinson
November 3, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
KCBQ, KSDO-FM, KSWV, KOGO/San Diego, KEYT-TV/Santa Barbara, KAYU-TV, KGA, and The Spokesman Review/Spokane, CBS News, KIRO-FM/Seattle, KXL/Portland, KFBK/Sacramento
1. How did you get your start in radio? Why radio?
I think like a lot of people in this business, I knew from the time I was a kid, maybe seven or eight, that I would work in radio or television. It’s funny, because even back then, I was often more interested in the people telling the stories, then some of the stories themselves. When I broke my ankle in sixth grade, the first thing I did was call up my favorite local TV station, KGTV, and asked if I could come down and have the anchors sign my cast. Every Labor Day I’d stop by one of the Jerry Lewis Telethon events in San Diego so I could say hi to “Shotgun” Tom Kelly (who I worked with years later at the legendary KCBQ). Of course I wanted to work in the business back then, but I was only a teen, so the best I could hope for was an autograph or tour of a station.
Then, when I was 16, I had an idea. I went to the advisor of my high school newspaper and asked if I could write a monthly feature on local radio and TV personalities. The first person I wanted to interview was a jock at KS-103, a guy by the name of “Captain” Fogel (Dave now does mornings in Chicago), who I listened to every night. A month after the interview I took him a copy of the story and asked if I could intern for him. He told me he’d check with his boss and to come back in a few weeks, which I did. Well, I showed up, but he had forgotten to get the OK. So he ran down the hall, asked his boss, and came back into the studio and told me “What the hell, you’re here now, I guess you can stay and answer phones and take requests and stuff.” So I did, and here I am 30 years later doing the only thing I could imagine myself doing, or really have done.
2. You’ve anchored on some of the preeminent heritage stations in America, including KIRO, KOGO, KXL, and now KFBK. What in your opinion keeps a heritage radio news operation at the top of its game- - what elements go into a radio news department that maintain leadership rather than “used to be better” status?
Personally, I like to be a little out of my comfort zone. And I think a good PD or ND should feel the same way. Your station might be at the top of the game now, and some PDs would say ‘We’re going to stay the course and continue doing what we’re doing, because it’s working.” But a heritage station like KFBK knows you have to give yourself permission to take risks, and get out of your comfort zone to try something you think might take the storytelling process to the next level. Remember, that #1 ranking on your desk isn’t where you are today, it’s where your station was a month ago. Too many stations (and people) make the mistake of looking back at their success instead of working forward to grow it.
3. You took a break from the U.S. radio scene with a six month project in New Zealand. What was that like, and what similarities and differences are there between U.S. and New Zealand radio.
It was amazing. I’ve made numerous trips to New Zealand and love the country, and people and the “can do” attitude. A few years ago, when I was having coffee with a General Manager of a radio group down there, he told me, “We keep a close eye on what you’re doing over in the states, because we figure we’ll be doing it here in about five years.” At that time, talk radio in New Zealand sounded more like talk radio did in the 1980s here in the US. It was mostly politics, sports and a lot of phone calls that went on way too long. Companies were afraid to take chances. As a listener, I didn’t find the stations as engaging. This most recent trip, I was very surprised, because it felt most had done a complete turnaround. There was a lot more personality, there was a freshness to the sound of news/talk, the hosts were having fun (something I felt was lacking previously), and stations were taking risks. Mediaworks recently rolled out a new national morning show that airs simultaneously on radio, TV, and digital. It got off to a bit of a bumpy start, but is now showing strong ratings growth across all platforms, and is a great way to re-purpose news content. I love that the company is taking chances, because this experiment could have been a total bomb.
It was also interesting to get a view of how programmers around the world see the U.S. radio industry -- the good and the bad. One manager I met with told me they had brought in a U.S. consultant a few years ago, and it left them with a very bad taste. He would fly in, tell them to change this and that, and point out why they needed to do it the same way we do it here in the U.S., and then he’d fly back home. Big mistake. Like the saying goes, you don’t want to be like a McDonald’s hamburger where it tastes the same everywhere but belongs to nowhere. Just because we do something that works in one market, or in this country, doesn’t mean it’s going to translate well to another. The world’s a big place, and we can learn a lot from radio in other countries about how and why what they’re doing works. Like Marlon Brando said, “You steal from the best, and make it your own.”
4. And as for your world travels, what are some of the best and worst things about travel? What makes you want to hop a flight someplace, and what parts of going away do you dread?
When you travel, you’re always learning. Nothing goes as planned, so you learn to adapt. Personally, I learn more about myself and my country when I’m overseas than I do when I’m home. And I think that’s because I’m getting to see America as other see us, so for me, it’s a different point of view, which is always good in the news biz.
I love exploring and asking questions and trying new things and getting out of my comfort zone. When I left a programming job and traveled around the world for nearly a year back in 2007, I was able to live out of my backpack, and didn’t miss my house, or car or furniture or "things." The freedom was wonderful, and the experience was invaluable. As for what parts of going away I dread the most? That’s probably the thought of having to come back home.
5. How do you use social media? Do you use it for show prep, for connecting with listeners, for personal use...what value do you see in Twitter and Facebook in your professional life?
Well, social media’s here, and it’s not going away. It’s a great source for making contacts, and connecting with listeners. I certainly use it prepping in the morning to see what stories are trending, and to keep in touch with colleagues and contacts around the world. But I also think we’re too quick to jump on the “next big thing” without first testing to see the ROI for listeners and ourselves. Time's valuable, and if we spread ourselves too thin, over too many platforms, without interesting content, then I think it will hurt our brand more than help it.
6. Who do you consider your inspirations, mentors, and influences in the business.
I give credit to my parents for the way they raised me and the support they gave knowing how much I wanted to be in this business. My mom passed away three years ago, and there’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about her, or try to make her and my dad proud. I think she still inspires me a lot. I’m also inspired by the work ethic my morning partner, Amy Lewis has. Wow, she is connected 24/7, knows this city like the back of her hand, and most importantly, I trust her. But if I had to pick one person, it would be (consultant) David G. Hall. He’s a forward thinker, has had a successful career, done every single job in this business, and is someone I can still learn something new from each time we talk. He reignites my passion for this business. And most importantly, he’s just one of the best guys you’ll meet in this business.
7. What’s a typical work day like for you? What time do you get started how do you prep and what do you do after the show’s over?
In the news business, I think we’re on the clock 24/7. I’m up at 1:45 in the morning, and then do what most people who work mornings do... check e-mails, listen to the news, check the wires, see what’s trending on social media. I have a hard time turing my brain “off” when I leave the station.
But I also think you need to bring outside experiences to the show, and that makes your program more interesting. News people sometimes forget this.
I remember a station where the talk show host and news person would eat and breathe their jobs. That’s all they did. Work, home, sleep and repeat. And the PD took them into his office and told them “Look, it’s great that you’re passionate about your job, and that you prep so well for your show, but you have to be a well rounded person to relate to listeners. Bring more of yourself to your show and to the newscasts, so listeners can better relate to you.” That’s so true.
8. Of what are you most proud?
I’ve stayed true to the ethics my parents instilled in me.
9. Fill in the blank: I can’t make it through the day without_________.
...my tea. PG tips, milk, sweetener and a little sugar.
10. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Try not to worry about what others think of you too much. And that I’ve probably done a better job than I give myself credit for. I look at what went wrong with a show, not what went right, and I’m trying to get better about that. But I’m still a work in progress.