When Don Elkins was the Voice of Northwest Arkansas | Street Jazz

When Don Elkins was the Voice of Northwest Arkansas

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A few times over the years it has been my good fortune to interview media figures, whether they be CNN’s Bob Losure, KNWA’s Don Elkins and even Mike Masterson, when we took a camera and interviewed him in his office at the Northwest Arkansas Times back in the 1990s. I wonder if he even remembers that?

They all have interesting things to say, not only about their own personal backgrounds, but their views on journalism. Don Elkins, whom many fondly remember from his period in Norwest Arkansas, was a particularly fascinating person to interview. Elkins also wrote occasionally for the Ozark Gazette, where his writing was very popular.

Don Elkins: The Voice of Northwest Arkansas
KNWA Anchor has finger in several pots


News anchor, newspaper columnist, radio talk show host. There can be little doubt that Don Elkins has made his presence known in Northwest Arkansas. So much so, in fact, that his name is one of those being suggested who might have a chance of unseating Republican congressman John Boozman in 2006.

The past 20 years has proven to be a long and interesting journey that has led Elkins to his current spot of being one of the most respected news anchors (anchor/managing editor of KNWA) and political commentators in the region. Elkins began his career in journalism while in the United States Navy, where he began working for the Armed Forces radio and Television service, when he anchored the nightly news on the U.S.S. Forrestal, an aircraft carrier.

Once his hitch in the Navy was over, Elkins found himself in Salt Lake City. Once in Utah, he managed to find work in both radio and television news.

As anchor of KNWA news, Elkins works three newscasts each week night. In addition, he writes columns for the Northwest Arkansas Times, and Citiscapes magazine, and hosts a weekly radio talk show. The radio show runs live on Saturday nights, and is replayed on Monday nights in Little Rock. Unlike many of the talking heads which a viewer is exposed to, Elkins brings a great deal of knowledge and experience to his job.

Besides his experience in the Navy and journalism, he also studied political science while at the University of Utah. He has also taught college level Russian.

Elkins immerses himself in national media for several hours a day, whether it be newspapers, magazines, radio/TV or Internet, even when he doesn't care for the person he may be listening to or reading. "I do listen to Limbaugh, not as much as I listen to the other ones, but I listen to him. I can't deal with Tony Snow, and I've never liked Glenn Beck."

One person he has a great deal of trouble with is Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. "I tried to listen to him for a while to see where he was coming from, and I'd hear him one day go off in one direction, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe you do make sense. I can't believe you are saying that.'

"The next day, he'd say something that totally makes no sense. I'd be like, ‘Wow, how could you say something one day, and turn around and just wipe out . . .' It's not a matter of opinion, it's a matter of fact. He contradicts himself one day to the next."

It isn't only Bill O'Reilly which bothers Don Elkins. "One of the things that really turned me off about Fox was their coverage of the war in Iraq. After looking at Al Jazeera and BBC, and seeing them all combined, I saw Fox and it was like, wow, this is like the movie Starship Troopers, where they are making fun of fascist propaganda. I thought, that's exactly what that is."

He continues with, "It was remarkably cold, inhuman, and spooky stuff."

In the early 1990s, Don Elkins moved to Chicago, where he worked for the Chicago Tribune. He would work at WGN radio in the mornings, then go across town to anchor and report for a 24 hour cable station. Once done with that, he would join several talk radio hosts on WGN in the afternoons and talk about news stories. His coverage often went to WGN television, and also on the Tribune Internet department.

Occasionally he would write for local newspapers. While “synergy" hasn't exactly worked out for businesses, it was excellent training for Elkins.

Talking about his days working in Chicago television news, he is well aware of the fact that television news reporters are not always held in especially high esteem by others in journalism. "I took umbrage at the fact that there were people who knew that much more. " He set about to learn as much Chicago history and talk to as many elected officials as he could.

"People ask me, ‘What is your greatest moment on TV?' I tell them that it was one time in Chicago, before I left and came here, covering a story. A simple story, after the beatings, and half of Death Row being let off, when Governor Ryan canceled the death penalty in Illinois for the first time since the Supreme Court passed it. The Democratic persecutor of Cook County told everyone, ‘I'm going to form a blue ribbon commission to look into the fact of whether or not we need video cameras during interrogations.'

"Everybody else was going, blue ribbon, bullshit."

Warming to his story, he says, "So I dogged him. I dogged him every two days, I knew he was getting pissed at me. I knew I was probably going too far, but I kept dogging him." Suspecting that the blue ribbon commission was just a way to blow off those concerned about police misconduct, Elkins spent months trying to research the commission, doing a great deal of reading on the subject, and interviewing many people.

Finally there was a press conference at which the commission's results would be revealed. "One side of me was Dick Kay from the NBC station, and a bunch of older reporters. I ran the news conference. It was outstanding. An old man patted me on the back and said, ‘You did your homework this time.'

"I considered that the highest compliment, that I could actually hold my own, finally, with these old dogs. I knew there was no way I could do it with every topic, but at least I could on some of the city government and police issues. "

At the time, Elkins and wife Maci and their child were living in Hyde Park. But they were soon destined to move from Chicago to the wilds of Northwest Arkansas.

At the time he was hosting a business program in the afternoons, when word came down that WMAQ was going to change its format, and move to an all-sports channel. The change would have meant that around 50 people would no longer be employed. Though some of the higher-paid hosts would probably make the move to other stations, most would be out of luck.

At that point fate, in the form of Elkins's attorney, intervened. KNWA was described as a "start-up." When he was asked if he wanted to come down and talk to the folks running the station, Elkins was doubtful.

"I'm like, Arkansas? I hadn't even been in Arkansas, or even driven through it. What's down there?" His attorney urged him, "Just fly down there."

Still, Elkins almost didn't make the trip. "I went to the airport to come down here, and there was a tornado or something. I thought, this is ridiculous. I don't want to go to Arkansas. I tried to do an Internet search of this place, and found a couple of live-cams that looked like it was the middle of Nevada."

Flying down in the middle of the night, he went to the end of the curb to hail a taxi, and no luck. "No cabs, no buses, no nothing." Quite a contrast, coming from a city which never sleeps. "I sat out at the curb for 45 minutes while I waited for the guy with the van to drive me into town."

The next day, Elkins got a better look at both KNWA and Fayetteville. "I was impressed. It looked like a really nice place."

Going back to Chicago, he told his bosses that he had a better offer. Because they couldn't offer him a contract, he made the move to Northwest Arkansas. Of the original crew in 2000, Elkins is one of the few remaining members of the original KNWA news team.

Most people might assume that a news anchor just "reads the news." But there is a lot more to the job than simply the reporting aspect of it. "There is a lot of copy editing that goes on during the day, just like for any reporter," Elkins says. "I think the job can be different based on the company and station you work for, obviously. Here there is an awful lot of production which can be mind-numbing.

"You give the copy as much attention as you can give it. Is it grammatically correct, is it factually accurate. Is it short, sharp, can I get in and out of it in 20, 25 seconds. How does it flow with everything else?"

Elkins says that what he does is take the experience he has gained from being a reporter and anchor at other stations, and as much as he can, advocate for his particular editorial viewpoint. "If I see something and think it is an absolute waste of time for viewers, I try to be as strenuous as I can in my arguing for and against. What do we do with it?"

Part of Elkins job is "Managing Editor," which once upon a time used to mean a lot more than it does in 2005. To a large degree, it is almost a ceremonial position. "It used to be that one had a lot more control over how we cover things." Elkins compares is job to that of a newspaper editor.

KNWA has a smaller staff than some of the stations that Elkins has worked at. "We've basically got anchors, three producers, a news director and people that run cameras, photojournalists."

Expanding on the subject, he says, "Cranking out four shows a day, that's a lot of flying by the seat of the pants. Sometimes it is just enough to get there."

But with so many stories competing for attention, how is the decision made which stories will be covered?

"With television obviously the considerations are primarily timeliness, and secondly, visual appeal. So that explains why sometimes you will have that live shot of a house burning to the ground, even though nobody lives there." He agrees with the idea that such visual shots are important to remind viewers that it isn't radio.

"We get our news stories from the same places everybody else does. We look at the competition, we look at the newspapers. We have some, very limited, news wire service. We get faxes and news releases. Our staff is pretty good about keeping their ear to the ground."

To that end, Elkins and other KNWA reporters try to maintain close contact with the Northwest Arkansas community. "I do as much as I can during the day just by talking with people on the phone or whatever. And we throw it all in the hopper and see what will appeal to our demographic.

This is where experience comes into play. "It's pretty complicated. For me, what I bring to it is a combination of what I know, what I expect will happen based on what I read." he says that he spends a great deal of his day reading. He cites the Arkansas Times and its blog, which he enjoys. He also reads as many of the Arkansas-based blogs and news sources that he can.

"We grab the news from where it comes in. We get Emails from people sometimes that is interesting." The end result makes for one of the most-respected newscasts in Northwest Arkansas.

In addition to his anchor duties, radio talk show, and newspaper columns, Elkins has also found time to moderate regional political debates. He also has a website - www.arkansastonight.com - which features his blog, and news articles he finds interesting. As is obvious from some of the comments left on his site, some of the region's heaviest hitters visit the site on a regular basis.

The Don Elkins viewers are used to on televison is nowhere to be found on his radio program. One night during a recent show, Elkins (wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt) played clips from various national news programs, and expounded on such topics as Tom DeLay and Hurricane Katrina.

It is quite a contrast to the image he projects on KNWA, but on the radio, as with all of his media appearances, Elkins comes across as someone who knows what he is speaking or writing about.

Given what passes for knowledge on the part of some in the Arkansas congressional delegation, little wonder that some would some wish to refer to him as Congressman Elkins.

Little Rock Free Press - 2005

rsdrake@cox.net

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