As I listened to a thunderstorm the other morning, I thought about the best newsman I ever knew, a man who was never better than when the weather went sideways.
I first heard Dave when I was still in high school and dreaming of being on the radio. When I got my part-time job at KDTH in Dubuque, he was one of the people I was most excited to meet. I found, however, that Dave was rather difficult. Back then, I was a young idiot whose powers of observation were lacking, so I can’t tell you now, over 35 years later, precisely what made him that way. I can say only that he did not suffer fools, or young idiots, gladly. I merely annoyed him a few times; I was never responsible for one of his legendary blowups, which involved snapping at colleagues or throwing audio carts across the newsroom in frustration. Eventually, when Dave was on during one of my weekend shifts, I would give him a wide berth.
When I went full-time at KDTH in 1982, Dave and I worked together almost every day, and I discovered the charming, wryly funny man behind the frequent scowl. He had a DJ rig for weddings and parties, and he liked weird records. I would occasionally let whoever did the 6PM newscast pick the song that would follow it. One night, Dave brought in some kind of disco bagpipes thing.
He was, above all, a great newsman, able to pack a ton of information into five minutes, and he was absolutely authoritative doing it. Honesty compels me to report that he did not have a reputation in the newsroom as a great writer, but nobody in that newsroom did, at least among the others. By that, I mean that everybody disliked everybody else’s writing. I can still see Dave flicking off his microphone and making a face after reading a story written by a colleague who wrote in the same rococo way he spoke.
I would like to describe Dave’s voice, but I’m not sure I can. It was not particularly deep. It had a certain nasal quality, but it was resonant at the same time. Whatever its specifics, it was a voice that commanded attention—never more than when severe weather struck.
Our practice at KDTH, when a weather warning came in, was to simply cue the newsman and let him read it. Even after all these years, the sound of Dave’s voice comes back to me vividly: “This is Dave Eliason in the KDTH newsroom with this weather bulletin.” He would read the National Weather Service advisory first, then he would elaborate on it out of his own weather experience and his remarkable knowledge of Iowa geography. After we got the first weather radar unit I ever saw—on a 26-inch TV monitor that needed its own desk—Dave would ad lib from the radar. In those minutes when dangerous weather was bearing down on the listening area, he was nothing less than the Voice of God.
After I left KDTH in 1983, I saw Dave only a couple of times. He died in 1998, but I think of him often. Any radio person worth a damn is standing on the shoulders of those who came before, and I often stand on his. Whenever I am on the air during severe weather, I use the lessons I learned watching and listening to Dave: know what you’re talking about, be precise, don’t hype, but don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation, either.
There’s a mildly humorous addendum to this story. The Mrs. worked part-time at KDTH for a while, after we’d gotten together but before we were married. I had warned her about Dave’s temperament, but she got along with him just fine. “It’s easy,” she told me. “I just get out of his way, let him rant, and when he’s finished, we figure out what we’re going to do. Kind of like I do with you.”