Mason Dixon is so highly regarded, in fact, that his four-decade anniversary at the classic hits station was acknowledged in the market with an official proclamation by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn of Feb. 27 as “Mason Dixon Day.” “I’m a lucky man and I’m still loving every minute of it,” he says.
In all, the radio vet has worked in broadcasting for an astounding five decades. He was raised in Memphis and worked there for WHBQ, then KHJ Los Angeles and KCBQ San Diego. He came to Tampa in 1978 as afternoon drive DJ at WRBQ, when it was a market dominant CHR, and also served as operations manager. Since, he has endured a string of competitive threats, format flips and ownership changes.
Heard in mornings on WRBQ since 2000, he has used his cachet to help numerous causes. In 2002, he created his own Florida non-profit, the Mason Dixon Christmas Wish Fund, which helps families who have fallen on tough times. The organization has raised more than $2 million dollars and helped more than 5,000 local families. He has also been integrally involved with the Alzheimer's Association, the American Cancer Society and Metropolitan Ministries.
The personality speaks with Inside Radio about his legacy, his love for Tampa and its people, and how to remain ageless in an era where radio is changing as fast as the seasons.
There aren’t a lot of radio folks who can talk about 20 years in the industry, much less 50… and you’ve done it all, pretty much seen it all, with an on-air legacy, management changes, various owners, format flips and working with name brand programmers. Please share a favorite memory or anecdote about your time at Q105.
My most heartfelt memory centers around the 2005 car accident I had coming home from a Saturday remote. My classic ‘71 Challenger convertible was broken in half when I was hit by a distracted driver. I was rushed to the hospital with broken ribs and internal injuries, including a collapsed lung. I remember coming to after the surgery and there, sitting in intensive care with my wife waiting for me to wake up, was the Mayor of Tampa, Pam Iorio, along with then station manager Charlie Ochs, the Q105 staff, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s department and every TV station in Tampa Bay, all waiting to broadcast the fact that I was okay.
The outpouring of love and concern was a turning point in my life. I realized how much what I had done all those years in Tampa Bay meant to so many. After that, my wife and I dedicated ourselves to our 501 C3 all volunteer charity The Mason Dixon Christmas Wish Fund to give back to the area that cared so much about us. We are so blessed.
You’ve obviously endured a lot of change and evolution in the broadcast business. So on the other side of the above, what is an “oh, the things we did then” memory you’d like to share?
Now for the things we can never do on the air again… You could always watch the space shuttle launches from Tampa. We set up a fake launch on a cloudy Friday so no one could watch….and said there was a problem and the shuttle would have to land at Tampa International Airport the next morning around noon. The next day was… wait for it… April 1st. We even fooled one of our jocks who was out there broadcasting live back to the station.
We backed up traffic for miles getting into the airport and onto the Howard Franklin Bridge crossing the Bay. We made the TV and the papers with it—and people took it in stride that they had been fooled for the most part. We were lucky there were no accidents, but we couldn’t go near the airport for weeks. Thank God we didn’t end up in jail or fired for it. It could have backfired, but fortunately, we survived.
What makes Tampa a unique radio market?
Radio in Tampa Bay certainly has been one of the most competitive anywhere. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were only a dozen or so signals, so the winners could dominate, like Q105 did with an 18 share 12+ and No. 1 in practically every demo. After the infamous Power Pig attack and subsequent upheaval of that, plus moves in signals from everywhere, you really had to be on your game to lead the pack.
We’ve had many big names play here: Scott Shannon, Cleveland Wheeler, M.J. and B.J., Machine Gun Kelly, John Boy and Billy syndicated, Lassiter, John Lanigan… They pay you in “sunshine,” so most left for the big money elsewhere. I turned down many opportunities to go elsewhere and I have never regretted that decision, letting my family, daughters and now four grandbabies grow up with Dad and now Grandpa on the radio.
You must have a scrapbook full of stories…
Scott Shannon was doing my afternoon show while I was in the delivery room, waiting for my first child to be born – of course with the radio on in the delivery room. Scott was doing a “name Mason’s baby” contest. He told everyone it would be a boy and the winner was…Moped son of Deadhead! Minutes later, I called him live on the air, in tears of course, to announce the birth of a daughter.
You’ve met many of the biggest stars in music over the past half century. Who have been some of your favorites?
I’d say sitting down in the ‘70s with Paul McCartney for an interview, taking Rod Stewart for his first blimp ride, and playing guitar on stage with Kenny G… same with The Beach Boys, Survivor and others. I’ve met just about every major music star of the ‘70’s, ‘80s and today. I still love ‘80s music the best. I compare it to what I grew up listening to in the ‘60s, when music was really getting fired up. Today I also love Christian hit music and program several Christian stations, including Q105 HD-2 “The Faith,” and my own low power FM in north Tampa – “The Faithful Road.” I am still a busy guy and loving it!
“Mason Dixon Day”: Amazing for a radio personality to be acknowledged by the Mayor and the city, huh?
It is the most wonderful feeling. I feel blessed to have done so much and to still be successful doing it today. It’s like the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Classic hits has evolved way beyond a niche. In January/February, it remained a top 5 format with adults, while its share catapulted 3.5-4.1 year over year. What do you believe is the lasting appeal? Is this the new “oldies” for Boomers?
I see two types of “classic hits”… the boomers version that is more ‘70s based, and here at the “Q,” where we play a Gen X’ers and Millennium version that is more ‘80s and ‘90s that appeals to 40 to 50 year olds. My daughter grew up listening to the music we played the first time around on “Q”—and that we still play today—and she is 35.
Radio’s listenership remains dominant in the car while smart speakers are bringing FM back into the home… and yet the medium continues to perhaps suffer an inferiority complex within the industry. It also appears to lack a cool factor on the outside. What can broadcasters do to change this?
My age old philosophy has been “play to what you’ve got and promote to what you want.” Be hip with your raps but not too hip for the room. Make your outside promotion look like it belongs to today and not the yesterday your music may be. Talk about what’s happening today and not that this song is from 1978 or 1984. So be today with yesterday’s great music.
Be up on every new gizmo and gadget your listeners are on and in some cases tell them about it for the first time. Remember when video was going kill the radio star? Where is MTV today? We’re still here, and they don’t do music anymore. The same with satellite radio and the internet: If you chase them, they’ve won. Don’t do it. Do what you do better than they do theirs.
How has social media, streaming, mobile and such technology changed the way you interact with listeners?
It’s provided new ways to share our product. You have to be there and you have to speak their speak. This “ole” dog is up on every new trick… you have to be. These things are moving so fast they’ll leave you in the dust if you don’t keep up. The People Meter has made us change the pace of how we do things, but we can still do them… just do them the “new” way. Be your listener’s best friend and they’ll be yours—even 40 years down the road.
Mason, what keeps you amped to hit the mic day after day, year after year?
The thought of making someone’s day and radio experience special, be it playing hit music, laughs or even tears. If you love what you are doing, you’ll never work a day in your life. Amen!
When are you going to write your book?
My wife and I have been talking about this for years. Every time we pull out photos or start sharing stories with the people we have worked with, the book comes up. We might have to change some names to protect the guilty! It would be fun to let the “kids” in the biz today see just how politically incorrect we really were, but then I’m not sure if the statute of limitations has expired yet. It will happen, but I will have to be in hiding somewhere in N.C. when it does to keep those who are in the book and those I might have left out from getting to me.