The Power of CONNECTION

Around 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, just before departing for the day, local radio personality Melissa Ross put the finishing touches on what she thought was just another thorough and thought-provoking script for following day’s “First Coast Connect,” WJCT’s daily local radio call-in show. Later in the evening, however, news broke that several police officers had been shot in Dallas during a march protesting police brutality.

It was a shocking development. The reports that evening were rife with oblique details and conflicting information. Shortly after 9 p.m., as pundits on multiple 24-hour news stations speculated on the motives behind the shooting, Ross sent a text message to her longtime co-producer Sean Birch.

“Scrap it,” the message read.

Less than two miles from Jacksonville’s languid Urban Core, sandwiched between the moldering Metropolitan Park and the trumpeted EverBank Field, the WJCT studios are not really part of any neighborhood. With all the politics surrounding changes in other parts of the city, WJCT’s position is neutral, metaphorically speaking.

Around 7:30 a.m. on Friday, a mere 12 hours after she had finished the now-useless script, Ross arrived at the studios, ready to start afresh. It’ll be a morning of flexibility and ad-libbing. Ross knows she’ll have to steer her guests with what little information is available, contextualizing and making the topic relevant to her loyal listeners, often on the fly.

“On days like that, you basically scrap whatever you had planned and you shift gears,” Ross told me weeks later, from her office inside WJCT. “That happens a lot now. It’s the nature of the news cycle. You have to be prepared to be really nimble.”

Aside from a collection of Betty Boop tchotchkes, Ross’ office is decorated with numerous awards. While the Betty Boops come courtesy of Ross’ mother-in-law — a nod to Ross’ tattoo of the iconic cartoon flapper — the accolades cover a broad range: a “Women of Influence” award from Jacksonville Business Journal, a variety of trophies from Public Radio News Directors Association, a string of “Best Local Radio Personality” awards from readers of this esteemed magazine.

In addition to hosting First Coast Connect (FCC), Ross serves as the show’s producer. She books most of the guests herself.

“WJCT has given me the kind of autonomy here that is really rare in this line of work,” she says. “I have to give them credit for trusting me with that.”

Though she’s far more often the interviewer, Ross is an attentive interviewee. She has a keen sense of when she might be veering toward the tangential, and is quick to adjust her answers. Even as a smile crosses her face while explaining the Betty Boop tattoo, something about Ross’ nature seems antithetic to the leveling of judgment, even if it’s upon herself.

This is no small part of what has made Ross such a popular local figure. She’s held in high esteem within the arts community, but the respect for Ross transcends political lines.

At the end of April, when Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry needed a platform from which to kick off his campaign to convince the city’s residents of the cogency of his pension tax proposal, First Coast Connect — a public radio program — was his first stop. It says a lot about the kind of audience the show has nurtured: informed, diverse, and politically engaged.

“The most important thing I try to do is to foster dialogue and grant access so that people can connect with policymakers or interesting figures from around Jacksonville,” Ross says. “It’s a gift to be given that opportunity. It’s really gratifying.”

photo by Dennis Ho

 

First Coast Connect airs from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., Monday through Friday on 89.9FM. Listeners are invited to telephone the station and ask questions of guests, who tend to inhabit spheres of influence in politics, art, or have some form of cultural currency.

September will mark seven years for the show. Over that time period, the show has earned a vast and loyal audience.

“First Coast Connect is an important resource for the community,” says University of North Florida political science professor Matt Corrigan. Corrigan is a fairly frequent guest on FCC, offering an academic point of view on political topics. “[Melissa] gives people an opportunity to have a conversation longer than just a sound bite,” he says. “Melissa’s show provides a forum for a much broader discussion. People want to talk to her.”

Tony Allegretti, executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (also Folio Weekly Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2015) makes sporadic appearances on FCC, as well.

“The balance of content with cultural events and efforts make First Coast Connect as accessible as any [show] I’ve seen in Jacksonville since I arrived 20 years or so ago,” says Allegretti.

“The show provides access to stakeholders, events and ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed,” he says. “Melissa has such a great reputation because she is fair to her guests and callers.”

“Melissa’s strong point as a host is her ability to take complex issues and make them engaging to people who aren’t engaged on a granular level,” says FWM columnist A.G. Gancarski, who has been a regular guest on the show for the last six years.

With approximately 90,000 listeners tuning in weekly, the show has certainly widened the political discourse. A new partnership with TV Jax, which films local segments and offers them on-demand through its website, will bring FCC to an even wider, digital audience. Meanwhile, Ross’ voice has become the voice of public radio in Northeast Florida, making her a local celebrity in her own right.

“There is something about this medium that is just so intimate,” Ross says about the show’s popularity. “It’s not just about this show. People love WJCT. Public radio means a lot to them.”

“People will come up to me in public and just throw their arms around me,” Ross continues. “In my 20 years of working in television, that never happened.”

 

 

Ross came to Jacksonville in 2003. By that time, the graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois had worked as a television news reporter and anchor in several different cities, including Cincinnati, Orlando and one in Kentucky.

“The discipline involved in that kind of work helped me in my current role,” Ross says. “[In television], you’ll be asked to do a couple of live shots, a couple of news packages, and copy for the web, every day. And you have to hit your mark, every day.”

Though she says she was already beginning to feel burned out on television reporting, Ross agreed to a three-year contract with First Coast News in 2003.

“It’s a really difficult business and I felt like it wasn’t what it was when I started all those years ago,” Ross says about leaving the field, which she did after her contract was up in 2006. “I felt like, for the the most part, the length of the stories [on television] don’t really give you the latitude and the format to do real journalism.”

When the opportunity came to take a more long-form approach to storytelling, Ross jumped at it. The documentary 904, for which Ross served as executive producer, took an in-depth look at the epidemic of violent crime in Jacksonville — which at that time was being derided as one of the murder capitals of the United States. The film was well-received locally and eventually shown on WJCT’s television station. The documentary also got the attention of WJCT producer and musical director, David Luckin.

“I’d seen Melissa on TV and knew she wasn’t doing that anymore,” Luckin says. “But when the idea came up to do [First Coast Connect], I just knew she was right for it. I just knew it,” he says.

“I remember hearing Diane Rehm interview Henry Kissinger in the first half-hour of her show. Then Smokey Robinson in the last half-hour,” Luckin continues. “Melissa could do that. She has really good 360 degree view of the world.”

In December 2015, Ross filled in as host for Diane Rehm’s nationally syndicated radio program, substantiating Luckin’s instincts about her potential as a radio personality.

“If she knew only politics, or knew only pop-culture, she’d be lacking,” he says. “Intellectual curiosity is the trick to the whole thing.”

Ross was hired and FCC began in earnest at the end of the summer in 2009. In Ross describes Luckin as being instrumental to the show’s early success.

“It was Melissa doing the show, we had an intern helping, and then me running the board,” Luckin says of FCC’s humble origins. “We took off pretty bare bones. That’s safe to say.”

photo by Dennis Ho

After scrapping the script for Friday’s show, Ross worked feverishly to prepare a new one, now a mere hour from airtime. She combed the websites of various news sources to get the latest from Dallas and was still updating her script as The Florida Times-Union’s David Bauerlein took his seat in the studio. Shortly thereafter, Birch brought in warm scripts, hot off the press, placing one in front of Bauerlein and another underneath each neon-green microphone soon to be used by former Examiner blogger Fred Matthews, Mark Judson of the University of North Florida’s newspaper The Spinnaker and A.G. Gancarski, respectively.

As she does nearly every Friday, Ross had invited media pundits from several prominent Northeast Florida publications for the Friday Media Roundtable, an on-air discussion of the news of moment.

The Media Roundtable has become one of FCC’s most popular and liveliest segments.

With less than a minute remaining before the program is scheduled to go live, Ross finally enters the studio. Dressed in a dark pantsuit, a bright red blouse and high heels, she greets the panel with an obligatory, yet gracious “Hello, everybody. Thanks for being here,” before setting down her “I Love WJCT” coffee mug, taking a seat at the head of the table and carefully placing a pair of studio-quality headphones over her blonde, feathered curls.

The cacophony of digital drum sounds that serve as the introduction to the show’s theme song set Ross in motion, figuratively, as she begins reading from her freshly prepared script, welcoming listeners to the program in her calm, maternal voice. There’s little tonal alteration as Ross delivers the horrific news from the night before, calling it “shocking and tragic” before asking Matthews for his take.

Matthews more or less summarizes the newest information regarding the incident in Dallas, saying that the shooter was motivated by a growing resentment toward police officers and sympathy for the Black Lives Matters Movement.

It’s clear from the first moments of the discussion that the event brings to light a whole host of issues regarding race and racism, authority, economic inequality, justice, and much more.

The other panelists volley around some of these topics a bit, while Ross keeps the conversation moving, fielding calls from “Larry who is Downtown,” “CJ on the Southside,” and “Christian in Jacksonville.”

The switchboard is lighting up.

Later I asked Gancarski, who aside from writing a column for FWM, writes for the digital-only publication Florida Politics, why, with so many platforms from which to pontificate, do people still call in to a radio program like FCC?

“People are inherently narcissistic,” Gancarski says. “They want to be heard. They want their name out there. To call in and talk with a reporter or a public figure someone might disagree with can be a real thrill for many in the listening audience.”

Ross thinks listeners’ motivations are more virtuous. “This show is meant to be a platform to be heard,” she says. “I think a lot of the anger this year politically has to do with people feeling like they haven’t been heard. I think [calling in] is just really cathartic for people.”

Back on the Roundtable, the panelists are engaging in a rather meta-discussion about the media’s role in sensationalizing these kinds of events and Ross, likely empathizing with her listeners, keenly maneuvers the conversation over to Gancarski, prompting him with a question about JSO’s struggle to gain the trust of the city’s African-American community in the wake of the shooting of Vernell Bing Jr. by local police. Gancarski, who Ross describes as a “political junkie with a strong point of view,” catches the lob and slams it home, launching into a two-minute narrative that includes statements from the mayor’s office and JSO overtime statistics. It’s lively, informative, and fast-paced radio.

Then Ross fields a call from “Kelly in Jacksonville,” sparking the most powerful 30 seconds of the show.

Like many callers, “Kelly in Jacksonville” begins by listing some of her bona fides: African-American, woman, mother to four sons. Anyone who has listened to a radio call-in program will recognize the offering of this unrequested background information as a formality, though an astute listener might recognize it as the foreshadowing of controversial point-of-view.

“I’ve raised my children to respect themselves and respect other people,” she says, her voice quavering.

“Kelly in Jacksonville” then drops some statistics about the volume of murders in Chicago over the recent Fourth of July holiday weekend. Forty people were killed, reportedly.

“The majority of those people were African-American men,” she says. “My question is: Why is no one speaking about this black-on-black crime? Where is Al Sharpton? Where is the leadership in the African-American community?” she asks, before acknowledging how emotional she is.

“I understand Black Lives Matter,” she says, sounding on the brink of tears. “But I want to know, if black lives matter so much, why are we not discussing in our community the black men — African-American men — murdering one another?”

And herein lies the magic of First Coast Connect.

In the face of the confusion that is inherent in a tragic event like the shooting in Dallas, it is natural to engage in some form of soul-searching. To question why things are unfolding in such chaotic ways. It’s what it is to be human.

“Kelly in Jacksonville’s” oration — meandering, heartfelt, emotionally charged — contained very little that has not been said before. Some may have thought it sounded like a lecture. Others may have identified with the pain in her voice. In that voice, however, one could not deny the abreaction unfolding as she spoke.

On July 8, 2016, laid low by the news from Dallas, with the futures of her four male children playing out in her mind, “Kelly in Jacksonville” needed to be heard. She called First Coast Connect.

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