10 Questions with ... Rich Johnson
January 19, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I spent most of the 70s playing the top 40 hits at small market stations in Oregon, making it all the way to weekender in Seattle. It’s there I discovered the immediacy (at the time) of radio news. In 1984, I headed east to Atlanta (where I was quickly told "you’re not in the east, you’re in the SOUTH"). From there it was off to DC and AP Radio, Unistar, and a host of network gigs – including ABC, CNN and eventually Fox. I plugged in some local gigs along the way, including WMAQ in Chicago, KEX back home in Portland and KIRO in Seattle. But 20 of the past 30 years have been spent in DC, now freelancing at WTOP – and loving every minute of it.
1. How and why did you get into radio news? What drew you to doing news on the radio?
Long before the Internet, a mentor told me: "you’ll get the details tomorrow morning in the paper. You’ll feel the impact tonight on TV. But you’ll hear about it FIRST on the radio." I like being first – having an immediate effect on the listener. That was most clear in my first big-market news gig: traffic reporter at KING in Seattle. I was telling the listener something that affected his or her life right now. I still love being "right now."
2. Over the years you've been doing radio news, what have been the biggest changes you've seen? And what's remained the same?
The biggest changes for the positive are definitely the technical improvements. I can record, edit, write and send a wrap on my IPhone, and do very complicated mixes on my laptop. On the other hand, all the toys in the universe won’t help you unless you get the story, check it, and report it correctly. I hope that my standards haven’t changed.
3. You've anchored, reported, and served as a White House correspondent... what would you pick as the highlight, the most memorable moment of all the stories you've covered and things you've done on the air?
Two things from my Fox days – one planned, one sudden.
In the final two weeks of the 2008 Presidential campaign, I was on the John McCain plane: four stops a day, criss-crossing the country, hearing the same speech and the same version of "Life is a Highway" to end the event. And hearing some, but not all, of the rumblings about Sarah Palin. I loved doing that marathon, and I never want to do it again. Except maybe for the Hilton points.
On January 8th, 2011, I’d just landed in Phoenix and made my way to the media hotel for the National Championship game between my Oregon Ducks and Auburn. I’d just been handed my credentials when my phone rang. It was the desk in New York pleading with me to get to Tucson RIGHT NOW. The next three days were a blur as I covered the shootings there and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ fight to stay alive. I was doing two-ways with stations as I hit 90 MPH down I-10. I drove back to Phoenix in time for the game on the 10th, then back to Tucson for more grim work.
4. If you hadn't gone into radio, what do you think you'd have ended up doing, and where?
Newspapers or TV. I was hooked on TV ever since my Cub Scout Pack appeared on a couple of Portland shows during the Golden Age of local kids’ shows. I was more interested in the cameras, control room and crew than the host or the cartoons. And I’d probably be in the Pacific Northwest. Home is home is home.
5. Of what are you most proud?
One of the last things I did at Fox News Radio in November of 2013 was a one-hour special on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. I went to Dallas and interview three reporters who were there, as well as a Parkland Hospital nurse. In all modesty, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done – with a lot of help from my FNR boss, Hank Weinbloom.
6. Having worked in the online/Internet realm as well as broadcast and satellite, what's your prognostication for the future of audio news -- do you think that, eventually, the on-demand/streaming model will become viable, will broadcast radio prevail, or will there be a combination thereof? How does social media play into that, and live tweeting? What will radio news look like 10 years from now?
The spoken word is enjoying a nice comeback these days, thanks to podcasting. But a podcast won’t help you get through DC traffic right now. When I drove across the country, I listened to a lot of podcasts, edited radio, audio books and music. But when I approached a major city, I went hunting for the news/talk station to get the latest traffic – as well as a sense of that place from a 2-3 minute local newscast. Radio news will still be around, despite continuing attempts by most radio station owners to kill it.
7. Who have been your mentors, influences, and inspirations in the business?
Two from Seattle, John Erickson and Bill Rice, passed on wisdom about story structure and writing around audio that I use every day.
In DC, Ed Tobias, Oscar Wells Gabriel and Brad Kalbfeld rode my ass every day at AP Radio about spelling, grammar, context and accuracy. Again, those are timeless lessons that are worth learning. Yes, spelling counts in radio – especially if the age of instant search capabilities.
My best friend on the planet, Bruce Murdock (K103 in Portland), demonstrates every day that personality radio isn’t dead, and doesn’t need to continually ‘go to the edge’ to work.
Chris Berry never had a gig for me at WBBM in Chicago, but he always took my calls. And when he moved to ABC in New York, he did have a gig for me.
And Mitch Davis gave me the greatest job of my life at Fox News Radio. I got to see the world traveling with Presidents Bush and Obama. I got to see America covering breaking news and three election cycles.
8. What do you do for fun?
TV binging, watching my wife garden. And, while I don’t live there any more, Las Vegas often beckons. For that, I blame Ed Henry of Fox News!
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without ________.
...at least two phone calls to my wife, Asia.
10. What's the best advice you've ever gotten? The worst?
The best from the legendary UPI Capitol Hill Correspondent Pye Chamberlin: keep a bottle of hot sauce in your booth. The food here is tasteless.
The worst was from a PD in Eugene, Oregon who would always punctuate his promises with "you can take that to the bank." Usually, when we did, the check bounced – both metaphorically and literally.