Reading Politico last month, I came upon an item about a WVON host going to D.C. for the dedication of the Martin Luther King National Memorial. While there, he would interview the president in the Oval Office.
I called the station and discovered that the lucky radio guy was Matt McGill, the morning drive host for the city’s only black-owned and -operated radio station. [That weekend, Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc and the MLK celebration was canceled, but McGill and company rode out the weather and got their interview.]
My call to WVON led to a couple of telephone conversations with McGill, 48, a host at the 1690-AM station since 2003. Chicago born and bred—he lives in the same Bronzeville house at 48th and King Drive in which he grew up—McGill is an ally not only of the president but also, lately, of the new mayor.
You won’t find a link to McGill’s August 29th Oval Office interview on the station’s website yet—although he promises that one will appear soon. Turns out that McGill suffered a disaster that eventually befalls every reporter who records important interviews. His recorder malfunctioned. He lost the script of the opportunity of a lifetime, but because the venue was the White House, the interview was videotaped and McGill awaits the press office’s promise to provide him with a copy, which he then promises to post.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversations:
CF: What can you recall from the interview?
MM: I asked [Obama] if being president has negatively impacted his ability to be the father he wanted to be, and he said, “I’m really lucky; it takes two minutes to get from where I live to where I work. I see my children every day. I go over their homework with them.” And I think that really stood out to me more than any answer he gave about politics. [McGill, the father of three, told me earlier that he asked the president general questions about the economy, and “his answers were pretty much answers that we’ve already heard before.”]
CF: Were there other recognizable names in the Oval Office?
MM: Valerie Jarrett. We’re fortunate we have Chicago people in the White House, and WVON is recognized by everybody in the White House because it is the only black talk radio station in the city.
CF: Was this the first time you interviewed Barack Obama?
MM: No, I interviewed him when he was a state senator and running for the U.S. Senate. Also, when he was in Springfield, he used to substitute-host for Cliff Kelley [now the station’s afternoon/early evening host]. I was in the studio with him briefly. I was doing a different show. [Kelley recently told me that Obama filled in sometimes for a week at a time and regularly took calls from listeners—“very good camaraderie with listeners.”]
CF: Did you have any sense knowing him when he was in Springfield that he could end up being president?
MM: I don’t think a lot of black people in America thought about when we would have a black president or who that person could be. I think if you look at Barack Obama and analyze him back then, you’d say, “Yeah he has all the ingredients to become the first black president, but I think if you asked me that question back in 2002 or 2003, I would have felt that we lived in an America that is not ready for that yet—that we live in an America that is still mired in racial stereotypes, racial prejudices, and a black man becoming president would be a long shot.
CF: Obama is being hit with furious criticism because of the economy. Is he being held to a different standard because he’s African American?
MM: I think politically on the issues, no. I think anybody who would be president right now, with the economy the way it is, would be analyzed and criticized the way Obama has been. But I think in terms of disrespecting the office of the president, then yes, I don’t think ever in our history have we had a congressman yell out at the president, in the middle of a speech, “You lie. I think [Illinois congressman] Joe Walsh is completely out of line, completely disrespecting the President. The only reason these disrespectful things would happen would be because of the color of his skin. This country voted Obama in because people wanted bipartisan behavior, and I think Republicans right from the beginning were looking for escape clauses to not participate with this president because they knew his success was overwhelming. Republicans looked at the president’s inauguration and they saw the diversity in that crowd. They saw a movement that was going to be unbeatable if this president was successful, and I think at that moment they realized, “We cannot allow [him] to be successful.” And so the leaders in the Republican Party got going—the Karl Roves, the Rush Limbaughs, all the people that dictate everything that goes on in the Republican Party.
CF: I know you sometimes do your show with guest co-hosts and that you’ve hosted with Pat Quinn and Lisa Madigan. What about Rahm Emanuel?
MM: He has been on my show four times, which is great because Mayor Daley never came once. So to have Rahm on four times in less than a year is not only an accomplishment of the show but a testament to his desire to listen and to be heard in the African American community.
CF: When you had Rahm on, did you take questions from callers?
MM: No, because we had a short interview, but he has promised to come back on the show and take phone calls. In fact he wants to come back on and guest co-host with me.
CF: You sound like a Rahm fan. Were you in his camp from the beginning?
MM: Initially I supported a black candidate for mayor, and I wanted to see if our community could back a single candidate. I wanted to see if we could rally in 2010 like we did in ’83 for Harold Washington. I supported the candidacy of Carol Moseley Braun. It was obvious that I supported her on my show. I wanted to see if our people could not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Obviously, we couldn’t do it. Basically what you saw was people behaving in what was in the best interest of themselves, not of the African American community. Once Rahm became mayor, my attitude was, “He’s mayor now; he’s going to be mayor for four years, so we might as well embrace the fact and take him up on his offer to be mayor of all people.”
CF: How’s he doing?
MM: He’s been on the South and West Side of Chicago a lot. Some people want to criticize that and say it doesn’t have substance. I’m like how can you criticize a man who has been in the community at least listening to people and is showing his face around? Time is going to tell. In a year we’ll be able to look back and see if progress has been made. There are some measuring points we can use as a barometer: African American businesses and their contracts with the city which was embarrassing in the Daley administration. We should see those numbers go up. If they do, that alone is something that he should be commended for. But you know in the final analysis it’s more than just the mayor who’s accountable for what goes on. During the Daley years we were too fast to leapfrog over our aldermen and blame everything on the mayor. It’s the responsibility of the African American aldermen to make sure that Rahm’s connected to our community and that he hears our issues. He’s been mayor for four months. Mayor Daley left this city in a mess. It’s gonna take a year to figure out where all the leaks are in this city, let alone to start implementing your own personal policy. As long as the mayor is willing to utilize his aldermen as partners, making the city strong and vibrant again, I think we’re in good shape.
CF: Are you supporting the casino bill?
MM: As long as the beneficiaries are coming from the African American community; as long as there’s a balance of beneficiaries. I’m sure there’s going to be some shared operations revenue, and as long as that revenue is reflective of the population of this city, I don’t have a problem. But if a year or two from now we look up and we see the same people getting their pockets lined in this city then I think the mayor is going to be open to criticism.
CF: You’ve noticed the growing rift between the mayor and Governor Quinn on this issue and others. Why don’t you get them on as joint co-hosts?
MM: I will issue an invitation to the two of them now.
CF: Are you a public school graduate?
MM: I started out at Kenwood Academy and transferred to Percy Julian, played football at Julian, won city championship in my two years there.
CF: Were you disappointed that Rahm Emanuel’s children are attending private school?
MM: It’s the responsibility of parents to send their kids to the best school they possibly can. People ask, “Why doesn’t he put his kids in public school?” Why doesn’t he put his kids in whatever school he wants to put his kids in? He has made a living for himself.
CF: So how’s the president looking these days?
MM: The president looked like a movie star. I am not kidding. As a man, he looks incredible. If a woman walked into the Oval Office, he’s President Dreamy.