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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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Missouri native Craig McKee is back in the Midwest; he's the new 10 p.m. weeknight anchor at WISN-TV.

Milwaukee Talks: Channel 12 anchor Craig McKee


There's a new face at 10 o'clock on Channel 12 news. Kathy Mykleby's new partner Craig McKee arrives from San Diego, but he's quite literally been around the world and back.

Born and raised in Joplin, Mo., McKee spent nearly a decade in the Air Force, stationed in Europe. After earning a degree in criminal justice back home, it was in Europe – while stationed in Germany – that he learned the ropes in journalism and broadcasting, covering the Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo and Operation Task Force Hawk in Albania, among other things.

Later, he worked as a reporter, editor and photojournalist at KPNX-TV in Phoenix. While anchoring weekday mornings at WOWK-TV in West Virginia, he also contributed live weather updates for the national Weather Channel.

Losing his job at the height of the recession, McKee landed a gig at KFMB-TV in San Diego, where he anchored the weekend news.

Now, living in Pewaukee with his wife and their children, McKee has landed the high-profile 10 p.m. co-anchor slot on WISN. We caught up with him to ask about his experience in journalism and his early experiences here in Milwaukee.

OnMilwaukee.com: You've been here just under a month. How are things going?

Craig McKee: This job so far has been like starting a new school two days before the final exam. We jumped right in with politics right off the top, and now of course we have the recall election. I literally had to to just sit there and scour the internet and everything I could to get as much information on who the players are, who does it effect, and what are the policies and why is it happening this way. I had to figure it out in a very short time. I still don't have it all down.

But every day I'm reading, and doing the homework, and doing everything I can. Fortunately, again, we have such a great staff that I can ask Mike Gousha and Kent Wainscott and say, "explain this a little bit more to me, why is this so important." Because I can compare this to California, and the policy makers in California or the policy makers in Ohio, in other states that I've lived or worked in. But Wisconsin is its own beast.

OMC: It must be very helpful to have the veterans (like Gousha and Wainscott) around to help.

CM: The people at WISN, I found people that have been there 20-plus years, nearly 30 years. You have photographers that have been on the ground, so they understand the pulse of the city. There are so many markets where you have such a high turnover. In this business there can be a lot of turnover because there are young up-and-comers who are looking for that next jump, they are looking for the number one market.

Market size is something I try to express to these young people; in this business market size doesn't matter, and if you're single, you look at your career path a lot differently obviously than if you're married with children. So market size doesn't play as big as a role. It's the operation itself. When you have people that know the politics in such a political environment here, you know we have people on our staff that when some little thing flickers over here somebody maybe in another market or younger might go, "oh that's just nothing," but we have people here who will say no, that's huge, something big is about to happen and they have the knowledge to tackle it.

OMC: Do you do any reporting as well? Do they have you specialized in anything?

CM: As of right now no. I mean we're not focusing in one on franchise so to speak. But one thing that I really liked about this position as well in Milwaukee, I wasn't just coming in to read glass, as we like to say, reading the teleprompter. This position is about getting out, and coming Downtown, and going to the State Capitol or going up and covering the Packers. I mean where ever the news is happening, I get to be a part of that. Which is also important because I get to get out and learn the community, talk face-to-face with people, and really see their concerns are. You know it's one thing to sit there, and your intro story and your outro story, and you have 15-20 seconds. Well, 15-20 seconds doesn't really sum up sometimes the true impact.

So being able to be out on the ground, and boots on the ground so to speak, to use military term, when we have those stories that are little blurbs that come across when I am anchoring, I can say, "shouldn't can't we expand on this because I heard this, this, this, and this." I think it really helps across the board with our operation because you have Terry Sader and Jason Newton who anchor their shows, which means they, in turn, can help. It's woven together uniquely here.

OMC: As a viewer I always thought that being an anchor was sort of a goal. I was surprised to hear Jason Newton say basically the same thing, that he loved the fact that he came in, you guys had your meeting and then he would go out and cover something. He wants to be out there; that's where the excitement is. People aren't always aiming to get into the anchor chair.

CM: It makes you a better journalist. I guess to that, for me, it makes me a more rounded journalist, because I understand the issues and that plays out with knowledge whenever I'm talking about issues or when we have breaking news on a particular instance when a political candidate initiates something, we can immediately start talking about the background on it.

The other side of that, this business has changed dramatically since the recession. Stations are having to have to do more with less. People who used to just come in and they turn one package and then they would go home, now they are turning in two or three, or they are doing a few extra pieces here and there. And that's just what's happened. Newspapers have seen that same effect.

OMC: Has the anchor role changed in that sense? Was it more like you said in the past where they would come in and just read the glass?

CM: Within certain markets, absolutely. And not to say that they're aren't still some anchors that are like that. There are still some main anchors where they come in and they read a half-hour and they read a half-hour and then they read a half-hour and they go home. And that is this business in some areas, but a lot of that has gone away because they realize we need to have more content. This is a content driven business and with the internet, social media, there's so much material out there, you have to be able to create enough content to satisfy the new viewer. Because the new viewer isn't your old viewer where they come home, they sit down, they watch that 5 o'clock cast. By the time 5 o'clock comes around, they've already had all the headlines on their Twitter apps and on their social media apps. So you really have to make sure you're diving deeper and say, "well, here is a little bit more than 140 characters."

OMC: Does it make the anchor more apart of the news team as well because you're not just sitting there waiting for the news to come to you?

CM: I think so. You're more interactive in the sense that you're not just reading the 10 or 15 seconds that you have to read on air. You are talking with the producers. And again bringing any knowledge you have from the streets and working on a daily basis anyways. Bringing that in to make sure that the show is as well-rounded as possible, as in-depth as we can get and making sure that the viewer leaves satisfied and not with more questions.

OMC: I would think it would be key for somebody like you, for anyone who's coming to town too, to go out and do that stuff because if you're just sitting in the news room you aren't going to figure out the lay of the land. You're not going to meet people.

CM: Even coming down here to sit down with you, I mean I'm traveling through a section of town that my photographers have driven through with me in the passenger seat. But actually driving around in town you get more of the lay of the land, like you said. But it is absolutely critical because to look at somebody's in their eyes when they are telling you about their hardships, losing their house or they can't find work, or whatever the case may be, or they are really just passionate about something it is a lot different than getting it through an email for phone call.

OMC: So now that you've been here almost a month, do you have places you like to go?

CM: I wish I could say I have a favorite restaurant. I know I plan to go to many. I am a foodie, my wife is a foodie, once we get a babysitter and that taken care of. We haven't really had a lot of time because of the transitional stuff we've been doing though. We did find a nice Mexican restaurant near where we are staying in Brookfield. And that was kind of nice you know, coming from the southwest, I can't find a taco stand of course on the sidewalk. No fish tacos (available on the street).

OMC: I went to San Diego to do a story and my cousins took me to a Padres game and said you have to try the fish tacos. They are so good.

CM: Every part of of our country has that sub-culture and that is one thing that makes our country so great. And I've had an opportunity to work in a bunch of different environments and of course around the world when I was in the military. Our country and our world is such a dynamic place.

OMC: Before you got here, how did you make the important decisions? How did you pick a school, find a place to live? That has got to be a difficult thing to work out.

CM: I talked to a number of people while I was here during the interview process. "What are the better areas to live, schools, what do you recommend?" Explaining that we are an outdoors family. We like to go outdoors. We like to fish. We like to do all that. And, of course, as soon as you mention fishing and outdoors everyone says, "you probably want to go to lake country; Oconomowoc area or Pewaukee, Waukesha or something near that area."

My wife started doing Google Earth drives on the roads, in different areas and looking at neighborhoods. We have some friends that live in Waukesha, and we questioned them. We said, "What do you think of the Waukesha area?" Of course, they had a lot to say, and ultimately it came down to us.

The day after we pulled into town, got settled, the next morning we woke up and we drove out to Pewaukee, we drove through Brookfield, and we looked at places literally all over. When we got out to Pewaukee, though, we drove around, and we were like, "wow this is nice, this is nice." We had lunch there and talked to some of the locals. It just really struck us as, "alright, we could fit in here. This is something that if my son and I or my daughter and I want to go fishing, we can do that. If my wife wants to go out and kayak in the morning for exercise, she can do that." That is really important to us.

OMC: So you guys did some research, but really what happened was you saw the place and immediately thought it was the right place. Had you looked at all in the city? Were you guys considering that at all?

CM: The outdoor stuff really played a role, and you know, we want green space. We want a yard. We wanted to be able to let our dog run around. There is something to be said about having to have a little bit of elbow room with neighbors. Everything just kind of fell into place.

OMC: So what are you looking forward to most – professionally or personally.

CM: I'm looking forward to Summerfest. I really like music and my wife does, as well, so we are really looking to Summerfest. People have told me non-stop things about how great it is. Even people who don't live here who were actually at my last stations, originally from here, said, "oh my god you're going to love Summerfest." My former news director, from San Diego, is from here.

You know we are looking forward to going out. We haven't been to the zoo yet, we haven't been to The Domes. We haven't been to so many places. I've got a laundry list of places that viewers have sent me and said: "You need to go here. You need to go here. Wisconsin Dells. You need to go there. You need to go there. Holy Hill. Historic Cedarburg is another." You know, in time those things will happen.

Professionally, we are looking forward to continuing the great coverage that WISN has had. They are the No. 1 station for a reason. And that's because they're not wasting peoples time, and we're giving them the stories and the contents that they want to see. I want to be a part of that.

OMC: Come October when the Brewers and the Cardinals are facing each other again, which hat are you wearing?

CM: The Brewers. When growing up I was a Cardinals fan, and then I fell away from baseball. I kind of sort of got disinterested, for many years. Then, I was working in Phoenix, at KPNX when the Diamondbacks franchise was created. Of course we had the World Series so we were covering that, so I was a Diamondbacks fan. You kind of support your home teams wherever you go. I supported the Padres, as well, and I'll support the Brewers here.

OMC: Your job kind of makes you automatically flexible.

CM: Kind of, but maybe not in all areas (like) when it comes to football... My wife has said, "yeah you may not want to say anything." I grew up as Kansas City Chiefs fan. I am a Chiefs fan. When the Chiefs came out to San Diego, I was all about the Chiefs and then the Chiefs would leave and go play somebody else, and I would support the Chargers. I think the same thing will go here. I'll support the Packers absolutely. (Every game) except the Chiefs.

OMC: Tell me a little bit about being an air force journalist.

CM: Nine years in, the first half of my career was in law enforcement. And then my cross training was in journalism. Stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, and had a blast. Did a rock radio show in the morning and then would grab my gear and we would deploy down range to Kosovo or up to maybe the Netherlands (and to Belgium) to cover the annual march for a Battle of (the Bulge at) Bastogne remembrance.

OMC: Was it the Armed Forces radio?

CM: American Forces Network, and the I worked for Air Force News. It's radio and TV. I would go and one man band and shoot stories – 10, 12 stories wherever in Kosovo or Macedonia or wherever, the Republic of Georgia and then we would either fly back with the tape, with everything, to spend the next week or so doing stories. Or we would actually voice everything in the field, rubber band everything together, give it to the pilot on the C-130 or C-5 and then they'd drop it off back in Germany.

OMC: Is that how you got into journalism?

CM: Basically, I grew up kind of around an influence of radio and TV. My grandfather had a show many, many years ago in Joplin, Mo. I had some other family relatives that were in radio. And then in high school, we had a TV station at the high school that we did morning and afternoon announcements. We went out and shot football game highlights. So I always had an interest.

OMC: That must have given you a real sort of guerrilla approach to do it yourself kind of getting out there and doing all the parts by yourself. That must give you some valuable skills that you can bring into the kind of environment that you are in now.

CM: I think so. The level of responsibility that was given to me at a very young age in the military, really affords me now the dedication and ability to concentrate, and say, "alright, I can look at it more like mission wise, like military wise. Our mission is to have this story on air by 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 10 o'clock," whatever it is, and you really can lay things out military style. We have to get this first and this first. Here are our tasks, this is what we have to accomplish, and you have a final a goal. Dedication and responsibility go hand-in-hand.

I think also I bring not only an interesting perspective from my military background. But when I left WOWK (Huntington-Charleston, West Virginia), which was the station I was at before San Diego, my position came up right as the recession hit. I was left unemployed.

I experienced things that a lot of our viewers have. I lost all my savings. I had to cash in my 401K to make sure my mortgage was okay. I wasn't going to foreclose on my house; I was going to do everything possible. I've experienced so much of what our viewers have gone through or are going through.

OMC: That's got to be very difficult and scary, especially with having kids, too.

CM: Absolutely. But fortunately for me, it was two and a half months and then the San Diego job came along, and I was very fortunate. That was a rough two and a half months. You have children. You have a wife. You have a mortgage. You have everything there and you have no money coming in.

I think that's not to say you can't still tell a good story if you haven't lived the experience, but I've lived quite a bit in my years. I just think it helps lend itself too, when I'm talking to people I can truly say, "I understand, I know where you've been."

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