The King of the Waves

“I’ve done this once before on a river up in New England,” my new friend says as we carry oversized paddleboards to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. He’s just moved to Jacksonville from London and this is the first time he’s put his toes in the waters of Northeast Florida. I’m supposed to be teaching him how to surf, but the ocean is flat.

“The wind is coming out of the west at a good clip, so we will want to be sure to stay close to shore or we’ll get blown to Morocco,” I warn half-jokingly, just to see his reaction. The guy doesn’t even break stride, so I mention sharks, stingrays and whales. Still zero hesitation. My new friend is a cool character. Actually, he’s a really cool guy, the kind of person to get to know early on, before he finds cooler and more important people to hang out with, which will most likely happen considering that my most recent acquaintance, David McGowan, has just been named president and CEO of WJCT, the local National Public Radio affiliate.

McGowan almost surprised me with his immediate response to my interview request weeks earlier-without hesitation, he agreed and suggested a date and time. I’m less surprised now, watching him stride confidently into the water, sharks, currents and stingrays notwithstanding. This is not a man who dithers.

We met on a Friday in late February, unseasonably warm, but not swampy humid, which may be a rude awakening come August for a man who has spent the last 20 years living and working in Europe. I wanted to get him out of the office, as interviews conducted behind desks usually become more like an interrogation than a conversation. Fishing for ideas, I asked what he’s into, hoping for something like kayaking or hiking, though not snow—skiing, one of McGowan’s favorite activities. He suggested a walk around the city followed by lunch; we could work up an appetite strolling Downtown Jacksonville, as we got to know each other. My curiosity piqued, not only about the latest keystone member of our community’s cultural and news circles, but also about this guy who likes walking around cities.

David McGowan was born in New York City, where he spent his elementary years. “My father, a science teacher who later became involved in the environmental movement of the 1970s, took a job at Washington University in St. Louis, which is where I spent what I call my ‘wonder years’ before returning to New York,” McGowan says, as we wander through the streets. Back in NYC, he attended the private, all-boys Collegiate School in Manhattan.

“My mom was a social worker in the New York City school system. My father comes from an Irish Catholic/old American Protestant family and my mother was of Eastern European Jewish descent,” McGowan says. The family did not lean overtly in either religious direction; McGowan notes that he did not have a bar mitzvah.

“David’s parents were pretty much in the middle between strict and lenient,” says longtime friend Dan Singer. Singer, who met McGowan when they were both 13, remembers the McGowan family with fond reverence. “They [McGowan’s parents] were the parents you respected a whole lot.” The passing years have not lessened their bond; Singer still refers to McGowan as one of his oldest and best friends and the two often take skiing trips together.

“David is self-driven. He can be as competitive as the next guy when it comes to winning, but the competition isn’t what drives him,” Singer says. “It’s like when we go skiing and David would much rather find a new trail or terrain to ski, as opposed to just simply going down the hill faster than the next guy.”

McGowan, who attended Yale University, describes himself as “a pretty good student.” While at Yale, he became a member of the Whiffenpoofs, a well-known a capella singing group founded in 1909, composed of Yale students, though not directly associated with the university. Over the years, the Whiffenpoofs have featured the talents of notables such as Cole Porter and Prescott Bush. McGowan recalls his time with the group as “one of the most important experiences I had in college.”

“I was musical but not a great singer, but I was a true bass and those are a bit rare,” he says. “And the musical part of the experience was great, but I think the biggest influence it had on me was making me understand what a group of people who are very determined to do something can do.”

We interrupt our sojourn, stopping at Wolf & Cub, a chic boutique on Laura Street. McGowan had ordered a gift for his wife’s birthday and he was going to deliver it to her the following day … in London. The McGowans have three children; the oldest, Jonah, recently graduated from college and works for a major record label in NYC; the middle child, Sophia, attends M.I.T.; his wife, Nina, and youngest son, Ben, are still living in London, so he was flying out on the red-eye to visit. The young man has just a year-and-a-half of upper school to go, and David and Nina decided it was better to let him finish the semester without any major disruption.

“We live in Southwest London in a neighborhood called Fulham, right down the street from Shad Khan’s other team,” McGowan quips, referring to the Fulham Football Club. He describes himself as a rabid football (aka soccer) fan and has been a Fulham season ticketholder for more than 15 years. “My son and I are headed to the stadium tomorrow,” he says.

As we continue through the city here, McGowan shares his professional history. After Yale, he, with Singer and another friend, Dave Laufer, launched Prism Magazine, a small, nonprofit news periodical. “We started it straight out of college,” Singer says, “and we banged away at it until we reached a fork in the road and realized that it couldn’t continue. One of the hardest things for David to do is to throw in the towel, but it worked out for the best in the end.”

McGowan went on to work at Time Magazine as the head of media development, which in the late ’80s was still a developing field. While at Time, he met Nina, in 1989. Shortly after they married in 1993, McGowan was offered a programing position at WETA, a respected noncommercial PBS member station serving the Capitol area, so the couple moved to Washington, D.C. The move was not planned, per se. “I never thought I’d leave New York, at 31 years old and newly married. I did just that. I remember the conversation with Nina on the drive back up from D.C. was not the easiest conversation, but we took the leap together.”

Though he’s moved several times in his career, McGowan does not see himself as compelled by wanderlust to jump from city to city; he simply takes an opportunity when it comes. As his time at WETA came to its natural conclusion, an opportunity in London arose and the McGowans, by this time parents of a son and a daughter, decided to take the leap across the Atlantic.

Just as we’re getting peckish, we happen upon the food trucks on South Hogan Street. McGowan has never had Filipino food, so we line up at a truck serving that cuisine, chatting idly about food as we wait. He confesses that his wife is more the foodie than he, and says that he benefits greatly from her culinary adventurousness. Over pancit and lumpia, we talk about what makes a city great.

“For me, the No. 1 test for a city is ‘does it reward exploration?’ and in the few outings I’ve had in Jacksonville, it has come through so far,” McGowan says.

McGowan is good, really good, at steering conversation where he wants it to go, which he does with seamless, warm joviality. It’s apparent, however, that not for one second has he forgotten that our walk and conversation is intended to introduce him to a new community. “David has a real talent for taking things very seriously, while at the same time enjoying the people around him and making them feel comfortable,” Singer says.

McGowan says that his second test for a city is whether it has a quality jazz club, a comment that led to a good conversation about music and the Jacksonville scene. We chat about the Avant Radio Hour, an eclectic music program on WJCT, which then leads to a full-blown conversation about WJCT—right where he wanted to land all along.

“There is great work being done out there in nonprofit, public-interest journalism. It is a really interesting time,” McGowan says. “We [WJCT] have the great advantage of these legacy platforms, these radio stations and TV stations, that provide us not only stability, but the power to promote and bring people into this world with us.”

“I care deeply about public-interest journalism; that’s part of why I came back into this type of work, but I also spent 20 years on the sharp end of the business world working with hard-nosed private investors who know how to measure return on investment.”

For several of the 20 years McGowan was in London, where the couple had their third child and raised the family, he worked on the European mainland turning around broadcast companies. His fix-it role took him to Germany and Italy for a few stints, and ultimately to his first CEO position as the head of a telecommunications company in Budapest. He’d spend the week in the city for work and head home to London for weekends with the family.

“No one in my family, including me, was happy about it, but it was what I had to do. I won’t lie. It was terrible,” McGowan admits.

The harbinger of change came when the McGowans’ older children decided to attend college in the States. Looking to reenter the public media landscape, McGowan put out feelers and learned from an old friend from WETA that former WJCT president and CEO Michael Boylan was planning to retire. McGowan tossed his hat into the ring without ever setting foot in this city.

“He applied and his résumé just stood out,” says Daniel Bean, chair of the WJCT board of trustees, who led the search committee to replace Boylan. “He attracted us with what he’s done in the public broadcasting sector and what he’s accomplished in the private sector.”

Already convinced that he had his man, Bean spoke to McGowan via Skype during the first selection round. “We still went through all of the right procedures with every candidate and we had some great candidates, but it kind of felt like we had a bunch of talented people trying out for shortstop and then all of a sudden Derek Jeter showed up,” Bean says.

The transition from London and Budapest to Jacksonville was a concern, Bean admits. “Those of us who live here know what we have here in Jacksonville, but we still wanted to be sure that the position and the city were a right fit for him. We knew that someone with David’s talents would be fielding a number of other opportunities, and I felt a sense of responsibility in getting this right and making sure that we got the best person for the position.”

McGowan saw Jacksonville for the first time when he came to interview last August. After a long day of interviews, meals and conversations, McGowan opened the curtains of his room in the Hyatt Regency, gazed out over the St. Johns River, nodded his head in acceptance and whispered a somewhat surprised, “Jacksonville.”

David McGowan is a fairly fit guy. A few weeks after our Downtown jaunt, we meet in Atlantic Beach for a surfing lesson. We cruise against a cumbersome west wind, talking, as I (secretly) wait for him to fall into the water. OK, a small piece of me might be hoping, not so much out of malice as a this-guy-can’t-be-this-good jealousy. In the end, he goes in the drink for a quick second when I’m not watching, so technically it didn’t happen. (But we both know it did.)

Two things come clear out there. First, the wind is not going to lie down as I’d hoped. Second, this guy isn’t going to quit until I do. It’s not so much that he’s competing with me, but that he wants to accomplish the task; swelling from somewhere inside of him is the determination to conquer any challenge presented. Thwarted by the wind, back onshore, we chat about skiing. I mention that we can walk the boards back to the car, leave them there and come back for them, or paddle back against the wind to where we’d initially set off. Without hesitation, McGowan chooses to paddle.

After the paddle, we grab a cup of coffee and talk more about the vision and mission of WJCT, and McGowan’s recent experience leaving a country divided by Brexit and reentering a country simply divided. I ask if he had any reluctance to accept the position, considering the current temperature of the country, media and discourse.

“I think the work we do now is more important than at any other time in my adulthood. I feel highly motivated by our [WJCT’s] core values of fairness, the pursuit of truth and the diversity of opinion, experience and culture,” McGowan says.

He repeatedly mentions the need to increase WJCT’s metabolism, especially in the digital landscape. “We must work to apply the resources that will allow us to continue to do more of the work and make us more valuable to all of the different communities in our footprint.”

Passion for digital media permeates his person; his speech speeds up just enough that it’s noticeable when the subject is broached. McGowan says that he has always had a keen interest in the sphere where technology meets media. In 2011, he spearheaded the launch of the Woodstock Digital Media Festival in Vermont. The driving ideology was that digital media can be a powerful force for positive change around the world. McGowan, who by this time had launched digital platforms in Cologne and Zurich, poured himself into the festival and its success.

Due to its proximity to several Ivy League colleges and big cities, McGowan, who owns a home near Woodstock, Vermont, saw the area’s potential as a new digital hub. He planned to run the first leg and pass the baton, but when no one surfaced to take it over, was still running it when they held the fifth and final festival in 2015.

“It was absolutely his baby, and through sheer will, he kept it going as long as he could,” Singer says.

The passion that inspired him to launch the festival has not abated in the intervening years.

“Whether we want it or not, we have a greater control today over how we consume media,” McGowan says. “One of my biggest jobs [at WJCT] is to make sure that we are as available, relevant and innovative today and tomorrow as we were yesterday.”

Melissa Ross, host and producer of First Coast Connect, says, “David is well-positioned to grow the emerging platforms for us at WJCT. He really champions news and content and, over the next several months, we’re going to see a plan emerge.”

“The advantage of being the new guy is that you can see what’s good and where you need to get to at the same time,” McGowan says. “WJCT is a great convener—that’s part of my predecessor’s legacy—here many different communities can talk to each other and it’s pretty exciting to execute a vision that will always help us punch above our weight as a leader.”

The boards are strapped back onto the roof of my car as we sit in the courtyard of a Neptune Beach coffee shop, finishing up our coffees. I, the Floridian, am constantly inching my chair to follow the shade. McGowan welcomes the sunlight. Our conversations over the last few weeks Downtown, on the water and via email have all felt comfortable and natural. The air around WJCT’s new leader is consistently light and approachable, which is a surprise considering his storied career and station.

I ask him if he’s interested in getting another surf lesson in the future. Unsurprisingly, he accepts without second thought-though something tells me I’ll have to work to hold him to it sooner rather than later. McGowan’s plate is filling up fast as WJCT implements new plans to launch under his leadership.

“I really believe that David will enjoy the opportunity to shape the future of this organization and, alongside that, the future of this city,” Daniel Bean says.