The CCN Interview: Dave Congalton

January 3, 2010

Dave Congalton with producer Mardi Hall


This week, Dave Congalton marks his 18th anniversary on KVEC 920 AM radio, as the host of “Hometown Radio.” Since moving to the Central Coast in 1987, Congalton has worn a number of hats in the community: features reporter and newspaper columnist for the Telegram-Tribune, author of two books, writers’ conference director, animal welfare advocate, and, briefly, standup comic. We sat down with Congalton, who recently came on board CalCoast News as a Contributing Editor, to discuss his years on radio, and whatever the future might bring.

CCN: 18 years? Congratulations. How do you feel?

DC: Thanks. I feel pretty good, actually. The first week in January is always special to me. Each year brings another sense of personal accomplishment.

CCN: Did you think, way back when in 1992, that you would be on the radio this long?

DC: Hell, no. I thought I’d be lucky to last a year. I never thought I’d have this long of a run.

CCN: So how do you explain it? How did you take one year and turn it into 18?

DC: That’s a good question. In the beginning, I think, it was just that I was the only one willing to work for such low pay, about $12,000 a year. I just managed to hang on somehow. I made additional money through writing. My wife Charlotte was more than supportive. Then Clear Channel Radio came along in 2000 and turned it into a real job, with real pay. I’ve never looked back.

CCN: Wasn’t Clear Channel supposed to be the evil giant radio conglomerate?

DC: They were the best thing that ever happened to me professionally. They paid me a decent wage. Gave me health benefits. State-of-the-art equipment. A producer. They worked with me on style. Best of all, they kept their hands off my show. Clear Channel made it possible for me to stay in radio. I will always be grateful.

CCN: Talk about the show. How has it evolved?

DC: Well, we’re twice as long now – four hours a day, instead of the two hours we had in the beginning. My confidence has increased dramatically and I think I’m better on-air. We’ve added traffic updates. We tackle more controversial issues. We podcast and I maintain a blog. The mission remains to be “Hometown Radio” – the focus is mainly on the people and issues of the community. I think listeners enjoy the local segments the most. And you’ve got to mix up the topics a bit. No one wants to listen to four hours of political discussion.

CCN: I don’t know how you pull off four hours day, day after day.

DC: That’s the number one comment I hear from people. Truthfully, I don’t know either. You just get in this mindset and you do it. Most days, it all falls into place nicely. Some days, you fall flat on your face, but the good thing is that you get to come back the next day and try it again.

CCN: Was 2009 a good year for “Hometown Radio?”

DC: Yes and No. I think Mardi Hall continues to grow as my on-air sidekick and producer. I think we had a lot of good segments on the economy last spring, thanks to guests like Jeff Eckles and John Buerger. But radio is taking a hit and some of our colleagues lost their jobs. That’s tough. And I think talk radio is undergoing some kind of sea change. I said on the radio last week that the golden age of talk radio was probably from 1988, the year Rush Limbaugh went national, to 2008, when people got tired of the polarization. We’ll be making some changes to our show in 2009 to reflect that. The highlight of the year for me was the “Radiothon” we did for the county women’s shelter. We had this impossible donation goal to reach. But we did. It blew my mind to hear how generous the listeners were being.

CCN: But come back to Rush Limbaugh. You’re not saying he’s finished, are you?

DC: Oh, no. But I do think the best days of talk radio are behind us. Remember, the average age of a Rush Limbaugh listener is 65. The young people are not listening to radio like we did when we were young. The challenge for talk radio, both national and local, is to adapt and remain relevant.

CCN: How do you do that?

DC: Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? All of us in radio, whether AM or FM, talk or music, have to figure out how to remain relevant with this explosion in new media. I don’t have the answer.

CCN: Any regrets about not working in a larger radio market?

DC: None at all. The goal has always been to figure out how to afford to stay here. Radio is what I do to live on the Central Coast. I did that moving around stuff when I was a college professor. I’m perfectly content to stay here. I love California.

CCN: Who has been your favorite guest over the last 18 years?

DC: I hate that question. I absolutely hate that question.

CCN: Oh, c’mon. Tell us. There must be one.

DC: No, there isn’t. There can’t be. Look, we’re talking thousands of shows. How can one possibly stand out? I love it when my Mom comes on. Larry Martinez and Jeff Bliss are always money in the bank. I loved having the Languagemeisters come on my show and talk about proper language use. I created Miss Etiquette. It’s fun to talk about favorite restaurants. I created Conservative Bob.

CCN: But what happened to Santa Maria Bill? He’s gone.

DC: Yes, Bill is gone.

CCN: What happened?

DC: Oh, he got a little too angry one afternoon and I hung up on him. That was in August and I haven’t heard from him since. I couldn’t deal with the anger.

CCN: Is he banned from the show?

DC: That’s up to him. No one could generate calls like Santa Maria Bill, but it came at a price. I’ve tried to tone down the show a bit by not using some of the more extreme guests. If Bill were to call in, sure, I’d take his call. But if he doesn’t, we move on. The show is always larger than the host, or the guests.

CCN: Do you listen to other talk shows?

DC: A little. Not much. I catch part of Clark Howard on the way in. I love his advice to people—I think it’s content-oriented radio. Gene Burns is amazing on KGO out of San Francisco. His morning colleague Ronn Owens also is great. But I tend to tune out the political stuff. I get enough of that in my headphones from 3 to 7. I miss having Phil Hendrie on KVEC at night.

CCN: What skills do you need to do your job?

DC: Wow. You need to be able to be flexible and to improvise. I mean, you have a guest who doesn’t show up on time, or a major story that breaks at 1:30, you’ve got to be able to juggle. If a guest is bad and you let him or her go early, you’ve got to be able to fill time to cover. You’ve got to know a little about everything and to be able to fake interest in a subject that’s completely boring. And you’ve got to know a lot of people whom you can call on to come in as guests. Oh, and to listen well. You’ve got to understand what your guests are saying.

CCN: Who will be your guests on the 18th anniversary broadcast?

DC: Well, it worked out that Lois Capps is in town, so we’ll start with her. It’s perfect. Then I’ve got restaurant critic Kathy Marcks Hardesty coming over to discuss restaurants. And then we’ve got a first time guest, North County Jim, for the last part.

CCN: North County Jim?

DC: He’s become a regular caller and sounds like a fascinating guy. We’ve done this little dance for the last few weeks, and we finally got him to come into the studio. He’ll do great.

CCN: Well, we’ll be listening. Final thoughts?

DC: Cute. Just that I think I have the job that I was destined to have with KVEC. It took me awhile to get to San Luis Obispo, and to find that job, but I have it. I love it. I want it to last forever. And I hope people keep listening.

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Outside of the grouch, I think we could say that he represents ‘fair and balanced’ in the best sense of the word… it has been the key to his broad audience.

Thank you and I wish you many more years of talk radio.

Roger Freberg

I love it when “news” outlets interview their own staff. It’d be more justifiable for a 20th anniversary — excess celebration of odd-year anniversaries feels forced.

“The challenge for talk radio, both national and local, is to adapt and remain relevant.”

The answer is clearly more of that delicious AM radio advertising, especially live reads for shysters, auto body shops, etc. A campaign to educate under-30s about the very existence of the AM band might also help, as would an AM tuner that plugs into an iPod.

Let’s face it: there’s a reason AM talk skews toward elderly illiterate shut-ins.

“[Clear Channel] worked with me on style.”

I’ll let others make their own jokes here. Congalton is better than a lot of talk radio folks, but that’s not saying much.

Congrats Dave! I always try to listen in when traveling through SLO.

I wonder if a comedy hour would fly.

Congalton is on the other side of the political spectrum from me (aka the Wrong side), but he does a very nice job of giving people of my political persuasion a “fair shake.” He does a good job, and we are all lucky to have him.

Congratulations to Dave! He’s lasted so long because he’s done such a good job. Working on-the-air is a tough job, and Dave has handled it very well.

Dave has done a great job in presenting all sides of the question… whether or not he has sympathy with the person or the issue. It is for this reason — I believe — that he has found a broader following than say ‘Air America.’

Good luck, Dave and congratulations for your contributions.

Roger Freberg

How about having Karen fill in for Dave sometime?