Keepers of the town square 

click to enlarge From left, Connections producer Megan Mack and host Evan Dawson.


From left, Connections producer Megan Mack and host Evan Dawson.

“I tried to warn you.”

That’s how Megan Mack, producer of WXXI’s daytime radio show, “Connections with Evan Dawson,” gently admonished host Dawson when he disregarded her advice not to take a call from someone she felt might be too belligerent.

“I have thick skin,” said Dawson, who just reached his tenth year as host. “I don’t mind callers being belligerent.”

Mack smiled. “He enjoys it.”

Mack and Dawson, like any professional duo working closely together, have learned how to figure out each other’s ways. Dawson now regularly follows her advice, though he does want to know why someone on the line might be angry, and relishes taking on the challenge of finding common ground with just about anybody.

click to enlarge JACOB WALSH.

“Connections with Evan Dawson” airs from noon to 2 p.m. each day on WXXI-AM 1370 and serves as a kind of town square for “what matters to you,” as its tagline states. Dawson began in January 2014 after the previous host, Bob Smith, retired after 25 years (Smith died in March 2017). Though he is the more well-known of the two, Mack, who joined in 2016, has been called the “glue” of the show. And, of course, many others — engineers, volunteers, and other WXXI staffers — are also vital to the success of the program.

But it’s the finely tuned collaboration between Mack and Dawson that is the heart of “Connections with Evan Dawson.” To prepare, Dawson wakes up extra early and reads as much as possible about that day’s guests. He emails Mack and they split up the two hours of the show to write a script for the first minute of each hour (the rest is unscripted), identify angles to explore, and review any audience questions submitted ahead of time.

click to enlarge 2024 marks a decade of hosting "Connections" for Evan Dawson. - JACOB WALSH.
  • 2024 marks a decade of hosting "Connections" for Evan Dawson.
Mack conducts similar background research on the guests, but she’s a night owl. She may send Dawson emails in the wee hours that he won’t see until the next day, replying, “How late were you up last night?” Her response? “How early were you up, Evan?”

Mack is the one who often discovers hidden nuggets about the guests.

“She is so good at this,” Dawson said. “I can’t count the times someone on the show says, ‘I’m surprised you knew that!”

He adds that Megan is also adept at spotting potential pitfalls.

“She makes sure we talk through everything ahead of time,” said Dawson, “She has the best news judgment of anyone I’ve ever met. She has high standards and will challenge me when she thinks a show is not going down a good road.”

As for the show’s mission, Dawson’s openness in engaging with all types of callers is much more than a kind personal trait — it’s part of his larger calling.

click to enlarge JACOB WALSH.

“Today’s media is pushing us to see each other as less than human,” he said. “I try to be a bulwark against that vitriolic landscape and bring the heat down so we can hear each other, even when we do not agree. Our show interrogates ideas.”

Both Dawson and Mack hope “Connections” may help someone understand the world a little better or see an ideological opponent worthy of respect, rather than denigration.

“Evan creates a safe space so people know they are valued and respected,” Mack said. “I respect and admire how open-minded he is and how he sees the good in everyone.”

For Dawson, a great show is one that’s compelling enough to make someone pause and listen; choosing “Connections” from the countless ways they could spend their time. It’s also gratifying when a show makes a positive impact on the community.

“We once dug through data for a show on the lack of teachers of color in the county, and that really rippled,” said Dawson. “We ended up doing a live show at the Little Theatre, which led the superintendent to tell us there was going to be real change. We also broke the story when URMC was giving preferential care to donors for COVID vaccinations; that program led to the phasing out of that concierge operation.”

Dawson, an Ohio native, has learned a lot about Rochester in his 10 years as host.
“(Rochester is) underrated,” he said. “It’s easy to fixate on what you don’t like, but the benefits here so outweigh the negatives.”

Robert Berkman is a freelance contributor at CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].


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