Dana Cardin spent his entire professional broadcast journalism career at one station: KCCI-TV in Des Moines. Cardin retired this year after four decades at KCCI, 15 years as a reporter, and 25 years as assistant news director.
Cardin is originally from Sheldon, Iowa and journalism is a family tradition. Both his grandfathers were in the newspaper business and his aunt ran a small Iowa newspaper for more than 50 years.
Here are excerpts of an interview Paul Yeager of Iowa PBS, and Cliff Brockman, a retired Wartburg journalism professor, conducted with Cardin for the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting.
Watch the full interview with Dana Cardin
After some part time work in print and radio, you enlisted and became a Navy journalist in 1974 serving for five years. Do you have any memorable stories of your time as a journalist in the Navy? I think one of the more fun things combined the journalism and the photography part. One of the ships that I was on had two helicopters. And every now and again, I’d hear over the intercom system: ‘Journalist Dana Cardin report to the flight deck.’ And so I grabbed my camera, and we would go up in the helicopter and they’d open up the floor essentially, they called the ‘hell hole,’ and they would strap me in. And we would go over Russian trawlers or sometimes a Russian frigate. And I would just hover over and take pictures of their spy work.
When you got out of the Navy, you went to Iowa State University, and you started working at KCCI-TV. How did that come about? I started part time there while I was going to school at Iowa State. And then two years later, Russ Van Dyke retired creating a position for them to hire me just as I graduated. So that’s how I went from part time to full time. And I tell people now that I replaced Russ Van Dyke. (Van Dyke was a legendary KCCI anchor.)
Watch KCCI’s tribute to Dana Cardin
You started as a general assignment reporter. That means you could be doing a farm story one day, flooding the next. You always had a change of clothes; you never knew if you’re going to be in the governor’s office or in the middle of a muddy farm field. Speaking of muddy farm fields, the Iowa Farm Progress Show was going on in Boone (one year) and we had a deluge of rain. And it was a mud bog. I mean, I remember walking out to the trailer that they had set up at the Iowa Farm Progress Show up to my knees in mud. And as I’m walking up and knocking on the door and stepping in to talk to them, the lady sitting at the desk goes ‘Oh, I know you. You’re the person they send to places where no one else wants to go.’ I said ‘Yeah, well today, you’re absolutely right.’
Other stories that you recall? Johnny Gosch (in 1982). It still makes me sad. Dave Busiek was the weekend anchor. He was leaving church and noticed a commotion going on a street corner in West Des Moines and stopped to see what was going on. They said a newspaper boy was missing. He (Busiek) called me in the newsroom. And we started doing the first story on Johnny Gosch vanishing. And an hour later, I was in the Gosch’s home getting a picture of Johnny Gosch so we would have something for our story…knowing little then that his vanishing would take so many different dramatic turns and twists up until today.
1993 in Iowa is going to be known forever as the year of the flood. Whether it was in Davenport or Des Moines there were a pretty big series of stories: no water for days, roads blocked all over the place, people flying in helicopters. What do you remember of the floods of ‘93? It was just 24/7 of going and trying to tell the stories and keep it all in perspective. One bridge on Fleur Drive, which was near where the Water Works plant became flooded, and we lost water. It was kind of Ground Zero for the national media and politicians because it was convenient to the airport. And so we had the scene where there were hundreds of people, sandbagging to help protect the Water Works plant from more damage and more flooding. It wasn’t unusual to look around and see Dan Rather reporting on it or President Bill Clinton to be down shaking hands with the sandbaggers.
For a number of years you did a feature series called “Eye on Iowa.” How did that start? Every morning when I would drive to work this one year during Christmas time, there was this little weed growing up in the median. One day, someone put a Christmas ball on it. A day or two later, there’d be some tinsel. And it just happened every day. And so at one point, I grabbed a camera and went out and shot this thing and did just a short, little 20 second anchor read on it. And it was after that News Director Paul Rhodes came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to be our next feature reporter.’ I would travel to hundreds of Iowa towns and most Iowa counties in and around the country and even overseas once in a while telling the stories of Iowans. My definition of a feature reporter and other people’s definition of a feature story are two different things. I think for a lot of people a feature story is something like big wheel races or something which really doesn’t have a lot of impact. To me, the idea of being a feature reporter is telling about how people live, why they do what they do, and who they are as a person through the activities that they do.
The pandemic has really changed the way we are able to report stories. Think of all the journalism done via Zoom recording on a computer screen. It allows you to be connected but not to travel. There are some pluses to it but to me, I think the purest form of what we do as journalists is to go out on a bar stool, on a church pew, or a park bench and talk to people and say ‘So what’s your story? What’s this all about?’ And just have a conversation with them face to face.
You compare your career to a race. Why retire now? My lap was done. Here’s the baton. It was my time to hand off the baton and let others do their race and get this team to the finish line. And so I just felt an obligation to do that. And after the last few years, the pandemic, and all that, it’s just like, all right now I truly have done it all.
What’s next for you? I’m going to get back into photography. The very first thing I wanted to do when I started this and got diverted away. So my camera’s a little bit different now than the one that my dad used. I love drone photography. I love the photography and I love the gizmos and the gadgets of being able to go out and fly.