QC journalist looks back on 40-year career

John David

He was “just a baby,” John David said, when he began his broadcasting career at 16 years old, working as a volunteer at an NPR radio station in his native Los Angles area.

Later, while working on his master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University, David spent time in Washington, D.C. as a stringer for a Peoria TV station.

Following graduation, he took a full-time job at KWQC-TV in the Quad Cities in 1984 doing a mix of reporting, weather, and anchoring. In 1989 David moved to WQAD-TV in the Quad Cities, retiring in 2018.

As part of the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting Oral History Project, Paul Yeager and I talked to John David about his more than 40-year career. Here are some excerpts. (You can watch the full interview here.)

What were some of the big stories you covered in the Quad Cities? I know you remember the mid ’80s. It was an interesting and difficult time around here. The farm crisis was going full bore. There were also a lot of problems with the industry associated with that. So you had plants like the Farmall plant closing down. in Rock Island, you had the Caterpillar plant in Davenport closing down. And then there were the stories on the farms themselves. It was just tragic that these farms had been in families for over 100 years. And people couldn’t make it financially and then they were having to auction everything off.

While you were at WQAD you did some traveling to cover big stories. One of those involved Galesburg, Illinois. They had a Maytag plant at the time that had been flourishing. I believe at one time they had more than 2,000 employees. They (Maytag) pulled the plug and said, ‘We’re closing the whole thing down.’ And that was a big crisis for this area, because not only did a lot of the people that worked there lose their jobs, but they had these ancillary businesses that supplied parts and provided services to Maytag that were no longer needed.

We thought this was a pretty important story. So believe it or not even a station with our resources sent photographer Doug Froelich and me down to Reynosa Mexico with a crew from Knox College, a couple of professors who had studied this. We shot what turned out to be an hour-long documentary on it. And that was a really fascinating experience. That ran in February of 2005.

I remember WQAD also sent you to Canada to cover a major issue affecting not only the Quad Cities, but the entire country. We went to Windsor, Ontario, to compare the health care systems of the universal health care in Canada with what we were grappling with in the states. That involved hospital visits and looking at businesses and companies and how they provided insurance. We compared that with the situation here. And that was also an hour-long thing. I felt really lucky to get to do these things because there aren’t a lot of local stations that will invest that kind of time and money into going out that far out to do this.

Speaking of health, in 2017 you had two heart attacks, one while you were on the plane on your way to a vacation in Los Angeles. Tell us about that. In the middle of the flight, I thought ‘I’m really not doing great.’ As soon as we landed, I said, ‘I’ve got to go get this checked out.’ So my wife drove me to the nearest hospital. I had almost a total blockage of what they call the widow making artery so I wouldn’t have lasted much longer. They took me in right away and put in a stent, which I was incredibly fortunate that we had the foresight to go to the hospital.

They let me out of the hospital, and I came back to the Quad Cities to recuperate. I went to a doctor’s appointment here and I had a heart attack in the examining room, another one. The cardiologists here put in two more stents. I’ve been fine since, I take a lot of medication, still. I’m really grateful I was able to bounce back.

There were a lot of technological changes during your career. What were a few of those? We had in 1988 (at KWQC while co-anchoring the 5 p.m. magazine show) one of the first satellite experiences where we rented a satellite truck for a couple of weeks and took the show out to various communities and did the show remotely almost every night during that whole May book.

I started in the three-quarter inch videotape era with the big decks, those TK cameras, the heavy units that you carried around. We used manual typewriters; they didn’t even have electric typewriters when I started. No cell phones, no internet. So if you were out on a story, you had to find a payphone.

What do you think is going to happen to journalism in the future? It’s frightening, isn’t it? Especially when you look at the environments we’ve experienced. Even since I retired, the last six years or so. There’s the rise of anti-media journalism. When I started, (journalism) was considered a noble profession. But there was the rise of this vitriolic talk radio that started out in the ’80s, the Rush Limbaugh stuff that was kind of the roots of this. And then it gradually led to these Fox News performers, and the negative imagery out of Washington. It makes it harder to try to seek the truth, and do a good job as a journalist, but at the same time, it makes it even more important to do that job.

One last question, what do you hope your legacy will be? I hope that I’ve in some way, been able to carry all the lessons that they (previous mentors) were so willing to give to me, and pass those on to others, the next generation. We need more people to get into journalism. There are fewer people these days that want to do this. So it’s important for those of us that have done it and are doing it to reach out and communicate that energy and enthusiasm to others. I think that’ll make this business a better place to be.