FTS Q&A: Jim MacKay

Jim MacKay is a 2009 product of UMaine’s Broadcast Journalism school, and as a native New Englander, now radio reporter/anchor, he’s covered some of the biggest stories in the region over the last handful of years – Hurricane Irene, Whitey Bulger’s capture, and the 2012 Presidential Primaries in New Hampshire.  Now, Jim has taken his talents to the home of Frank Underwood, Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Mr. Smith,’ and my beloved Nationals…  Washington, D.C.!  Jim is an anchor at WNEW, 99.1FM in Washington, where he lead the station’s coverage of the 2012 Presidential Election.  Jim’s also a big sports fan, and has done broadcasting of many a team over the years, including our beloved Black Bears.  It’s a pleasure to welcome in Jim MacKay for an FTS Q&A;!

Fill The Steins: When did you graduate, if you don’t mind us asking? What was your major?
Jim MacKay:  I attended UMaine from 2005 to 2009, Broadcast Journalism major from the very get-go.

FTS: What dorm(s) did you live in?
JM: Oh boy, well I started down at Gannett, or G-Unit as we called it. Sophomore year it was Hart Hall, 3rd floor, we had a legendary year there. Then DTAV for my junior year which was also amazing.

FTS: How’d you get into broadcast/radio work?  I have to assume you did a lot of work at WMEB while at UMaine…?
JM: I was always looking into sports broadcasting ever since high school. And when visiting schools, I applied to UMaine simply sure out of the sheer fact that I liked their hockey team. I was 7 years old in 1993 and fell in love with Jim Montgomery and Paul Kariya. I was born in Boston and grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts playing hockey. I went to Beanpots almost every year with my Dad and used to go to Conte Forum to watch B.C. almost every weekend. I LOVED college hockey and for whatever reason, I just liked Maine. My friends loved Brian Gionta and Mike Grier. I was rooting for Steve Kariya and the next crop of Black Bears. I still have my kid’s-size old school Maine jersey from that era. When I visited Maine, WMEB was changing hands from graduating seniors and the broadcast airwaves were wide open. At the time, they only broadcast home football games and home hockey games. I’m proud to say that myself and a handful of my best friends in Orono, built up the WMEB sports staff and we expanded into broadcasting basketball, baseball, some softball and select away games for Football and Hockey. It’s amazing to follow the staff their now on Twitter and see what a great job they’re doing. You don’t learn how to do radio in the classroom, I tell that time and time and time again to anyone that’s younger trying to get into the business. Just get on the air and record EVERYTHING you do. A degree means nothing without a demo tape. Even if it’s from college radio. 

FTS: What was your first radio gig after UMaine?
JM: If you want to be in this business, be prepared to sacrifice and be prepared to MOVE. I worked as the Studio Host for the University of Washington Huskies Football and Basketball Broadcasts for ISP Sports, which is now IMG College. It was a part-time gig and the studio operations are centralized in a massive satellite studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. So while working in NC, I also got another part-time gig, anchoring weekend newscasts at the local news/talk station AM 600 WSJS. I eventually became the Morning Drive Producer & Sports Anchor for the morning show on a full-time basis. And I also served as the in-house fill-in Anchor for afternoon news broadcasts. And that is really what started my transition from Sports to News. 

FTS: You’ve had a really interesting career in radio so far.  You interviewed several Presidential candidates in the 2012 primary in New Hampshire; what were some of the biggest impressions from that process?
JM: It’s really amazing to be on the front lines. I worked for a local station, WNTK based out of a very small town but beautiful region near Dartmouth College. I interviewed Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, and Rand Paul (campaigning for his father) while in New Hampshire on the campaign trail. The impression I got was just how overwhelming the primary and campaign process is. It also showed me how television debates, while almost silly at times, are vitally important to what goes on. I was lucky enough to cover the October 2011 Republican Primary Debate in the press pool at Dartmouth College. Also, just how much money it takes in this country to run for something. 

FTS: You also covered the capture of Whitey Bulger, a figure that captivated my adoptive home city for more than a generation – what interested you most about that story?
JM:  We had the luxury at WNTK in New Hampshire of having access to Howie Carr, a well-known syndicated conservative political talk show host and Boston Herald columnist. Now he is definitely a right winger, if that’s not your cup of tea, to each his own. But, politics aside, Howie covered and exposed on a large scale, the mind-blowing story of Boston’s most notorious gangster and his brother William, who was once President of the Massachusetts State Senate while his own blood was on the run from the FBI. He’s been on 60 Minutes talking about Whitey Bulger and had written several flawless books [Editor’s Note: This one is FTS-approved!] on the corruption behind Whitey and his ties to the FBI. So having him on the air and picking his brain about the capture of Whitey was something truly special. Especially for someone like me from the Boston area who had been following that for years. 

FTS: Nowadays, you’re an anchor at 99.1FM WNEW in Washington, DC, and you led the station’s election coverage in 2012.  Fill The Steins has a couple of political junkies on staff here, and we’re pretty jealous.  What is the reporting scene like in Washington?
JM:  To be working with CBS Radio and their long history of operating the top All News radio stations across the country… I don’t want to sound hacky, but it’s an honor. It really is. 1010 WINS in NYC, WBZ in Boston, WBBM in Chicago, KYW in Philly, the list goes on and on. It’s all CBS Radio and it’s the best news coverage on the radio 24/7, 365. Now saying you work in DC tends to imply you’re on the Hill every day mulling around with politicians. While that does happen occasionally, we mostly cover breaking local news stories. A shooting, a fire, local events, but we do cover politics and we are a full-service news station. I mostly anchor, but I do some reporting.

FTS: What’s the most rewarding thing about what you do?  The most challenging?
JM: Most rewarding by far is being excited about what I do everyday. I don’t even like calling it work. Work to me was washing dishes when I was 14 at Victory Supermarket in Kingston, Mass. This is fun and it’s always fun. The most challenging is easily being on a deadline. Being out on a story with your backpack, having to interview people, whip out the iPad and Laptop, edit on the fly and get your stories in on time. But just as it’s challenging, it’s just as easily rewarding. 

FTS: Your bio mentions coverage of Hurricane Irene while in New England.  Did you go all Jim Cantore, and risk life and limb for the weather coverage?  ‘Cause that guy’s crazy.
JM:  There is only one Jim Cantore. He is half man, half weather monster. I dare not speak ill or try and compare myself to the man, the myth, the legend.

FTS: You’ve done some radio play-by-play and sports coverage, as well.  What’s the coolest game/event you’ve covered in that regard?
JM:  When I first got out of school, I was working in North Carolina but I still had contacts in Maine and had contacts at Learfield Sports. They handle the broadcasting operations for Maine. I offered to freelance whenever they needed it, sure enough, I got a call one day. I flew to Boston from NC, drove to Maine, took the team bus on a road trip to Upstate New York. And was able to broadcast Maine (men’s basketball) at Syracuse in front of a packed Carrier Dome. Maine of course got crushed, but just being there on the air professionally sitting next to Jim Boeheim, was pretty darn cool. I still have the sign hanging up in my apartment that says “Welcome to the Carrier Dome, Jim MacKay, Play-by-Play Broadcaster for the Black Bear Sports Network.”  A little weird for sure that I still have that, but I’m a certified radio junkie.

FTS: Are you a Nats fan, now that you’re in DC?  Because I’m actually a Nats fan, and I’m one of the only ones I know here in New England.  And I’m getting lonely.
JM: I will say YES. When you move to a city, on the radio, a part of a local community, you definitely have to start rooting for their teams. I’m always a Boston fan, but I’ve got a Strasburg jersey and our sister station 106.7 The Fan is the FM flagship. So, we’re all NATS fans at CBS Radio DC. And also a side note, Redskins fans are insane. Most underrated sports fan base I think in the country. Listening to the sports talk misery that was the Redskins flop of a season in 2013 was like listening to Post-Aaron Boone sports radio in Boston. Burgandy and Gold runs deep in DC.

FTS: Thanks.  Maybe I should just set up the DC Chapter of Fill The Steins…  Do you have a favorite UMaine memory you’d like to share?
JM: The day we found out Pizza Dome was gone I think part of me died inside. That one really sticks out. On the air, it was Brice Cowell Musket Bowl 2008. Maine vs. UNH, it was a snow storm and one of the greatest games I’ve ever been apart of. Collegiately and professionally. The snow, the rivalry, the playoffs were on the line, it was so Orono and so amazing.

FTS: What’s the one thing you’d want to do if you were back at UMaine right now?
JM: Shake Professor Michael Socolow’s hand for being the best person inside the UMaine Communications Department. 

FTS: What are you filling your stein with these days?
JM: Where do I begin….?  Flying Dog IPA’s, ANY of them. DC Brau is an EXCELLENT local beer in DC. The Citizen is a Belgian Ale, and it is fantastic. You can only get it in DC too. Which makes it awesome.

We greatly appreciate Jim taking some time off the mic to share his stories from UMaine and beyond with us.  You can tune in to WNEW at 99.1 on your FM dial in the Beltway region, as well as online, and find him on Fill The Steins’ March 2nd podcast!



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