The John McCaa you don’t know is a self-described “art freak” and onetime R-rated standup comic who was raised in Spain, vacations annually in Italy, and likes nothing more than losing himself in the beat of his in-home drum set.
What’s more, he’s a man who “can listen to an opera and break out in tears.” But seriously, folks, he’s also a playful mimic known to imitate his bosses at work.
“I like to have a lot more fun than people think,” McCaa insists. “And maybe that’ll come out someday on the air. Maybe.”
Don’t bet on it.
For the most part, McCaa holds hard and fast to his public image as the rock-steady straight man of WFAA-TV’s (Channel 8) No. 1-rated 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts. It’s been a long, steady and largely unheralded climb for McCaa, who joined the station in 1984 and spent his first three years as a reporter in the Fort Worth bureau.
“John McCaa is a straight-to-the-point newsman,” says Lucy Scott, former CBS News producer of 13 years standing who now teaches broadcast journalism at Southern Methodist University. “Fairness counts, and when he tells you a story, you believe him. He’s real.”
“He’s a complex, smart and talented man in ways that people would never ever realize,” adds 6 and 10 p.m. co-anchor Gloria Campos, who arrived at Channel 8 in the same year as McCaa. “I just wish he would show a little bit more of that. It’s not that he’s shy. It’s just that he’s private. I guess maybe he’s kind of the conscience of our broadcast. The guys may go a little too far sometimes. And John won’t go there.”
The guys she refers to are sports anchor Dale Hansen and weathercaster Pete Delkus, whose spiked punches at one another have become part of the nightly routine. Campos doesn’t mind throwing a few darts herself. That leaves McCaa as the headmaster in residence, the guy who takes it upon himself to restore order en route to the next commercial break. He says it’s by choice.
“Is there something constraining about the role I play? Yeah, there’s no question, and I’ve thought for a while about trying to join in that mix,” McCaa says. “But imagine an ensemble performance, and four people trying to play the same role. I mean, that’s not gonna work well.
“But to be honest, the world is such a nuthouse that you need some joking. I’ve made it my mission to make sure that people don’t forget why we’re here in the first place.”
Hansen readily agrees. “Being dead-serious all 30 minutes every day wouldn’t work, and we’ve seen that,” he says. “But if we didn’t have John to pull Delkus and me back in line sometimes, well, that wouldn’t work either.”
“If John were another Dale, it’d be a four-ring circus every night,” Delkus adds. “I don’t know if you’d get any news, but we’d certainly have a good time.”
It’s ironic, though. Because McCaa’s the one who used to be the funny guy in Omaha, Neb., nightclubs while otherwise reporting and later anchoring for the city’s WOWT-TV.
“I’ve spent more time in front of audiences doing comedy than any of them,” he says of his WFAA colleagues. “But that was a long, long time ago.”
A Well-Traveled Background
McCaa, who turned 55 in February, is the well-traveled son of Air Force lifer Johnnie McCaa and his late wife, Margaret. They birthed their only boy in Champaign County, Ill., home of the Chanute Air Force Base until it was closed in 1993.
McCaa’s father, now 78 and living in Colorado Springs, Colo., came from a family of Alabama sharecroppers. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities for blacks in those days,” McCaa says. So his father joined the service in 1950, rising to senior airmen advisor for the 16th Air Force during his 28 years in uniform before retiring and becoming personnel director for the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs.
The McCaas—John also has a sister, Debra—relocated wherever and whenever the Air Force demanded. It took them on a path from Champaign to Mountain Home, Idaho; to Omaha, Neb.; and to Torrejon, Spain, before return trips to Omaha and Spain.
“And then I went to college” for a Jesuit education, McCaa says, at Omaha’s Creighton University, where he graduated with a degree in journalism and mass communication.
His years in Spain were formative. McCaa went through fourth, fifth, and half of sixth grade at the Torrejon Air Force Base school near Madrid. He then completed his sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school after Johnnie McCaa was reassigned to Spain.
Margaret McCaa regularly took her son and daughter to The Prado, where John developed his life-long appreciation of art. The McCaas also were in Spain when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
“My sister was taking a bath” when neighbors came calling with the news, McCaa remembers vividly. “It was night in Spain, and at the end of every street they had these little poles where these red lights would flash whenever there was an alert. So it was a real experience, a very different feeling there as opposed to here.”
He rarely looked at television, though. The airwaves were controlled then by “Franco TV,” says McCaa, referring to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
“None of us watched that,” McCaa says. “What you did was listen to the radio. And I became fascinated with radio news.”
He interned at a radio station in Spain during his high school years, and had a half-hour show “called ‘Teen Time’ or something,” McCaa says. “Somewhere there’s probably still a tape of that program.”
He first grasped the possibilities of TV’s pictures during his freshman year at Creighton. It dawned on him that images could be wedded to narration in ways that radio could never match. Charles Kuralt’s On the Road pieces for CBS News became his models. He also profited from mandatory philosophy and theology courses.
“I probably learned as much from them as I did from my journalism classes,” he says.
McCaa interned at Omaha’s WOWT-TV in the summer between his junior and senior years at Creighton before landing a full-time job after graduation. He spent seven-and-a-half years at the then-CBS station, first as a reporter/photographer, then as a weekend anchor/reporter. He moved up to the 6 p.m. weekday anchor slot six months before heading to North Texas.
Those also were the days when McCaa and several other apprentice comics took their acts to various Omaha nightclubs. The no-nonsense guy who now solidifies WFAA’s most-watched newscasts used to be an avid participant in both group sketches and stand-alone comedy.
“It was like Richard Pryor humor, cursing and everything else,” he recalls. “I had this one routine called ‘Dr. Gyno.’ It was a silent bit about what goes on in a doctor’s office when a woman comes in for an exam. It worked well, got standing ovations, was hilarious.”
McCaa also remembers a group effort “on how men and women would react if you were in a car and someone broke wind. That would just have people crying-laughing. It was kind of wild.”
He moonlighted without anyone publicly outing him as the same guy who delivered news for WOWT. After a while, though, it just seemed too risky.
“Sooner or later people would have made the connection,” he says. “There’s no way that those two careers could have survived together. I became serious about issues and things, and so the comedy act just kind of went by the wayside.”
Joining ‘The Yankees’
McCaa began in WFAA’s Fort Worth bureau. One of his reporter colleagues, Mike Devlin, is now WFAA’s president and general manager.
“We were away from ‘the suits’ and we just had a lot of fun over there,” Devlin says. “And John was right in the middle of it.”
After four years in Fort Worth, McCaa moved to WFAA’s Dallas newsroom in 1988 as a reporter and then weekend anchor and news manager. In December 1991, he replaced Lisa McRee as co-anchor of the station’s weekday 5 p.m. newscasts, teaming with Chip Moody.
McCaa’s steady move upward continued in October 1993. He was in Houston teaching a class for the National Association of Black Journalists when management called with momentous news for him. They wanted McCaa to become part of a 10 p.m. tri-anchor system, rotating with incumbents Moody and Tracy Rowlett. An anchor of color hadn’t been part of the late-night mix since trailblazing Iola Johnson left WFAA in 1985 over a contract dispute after a decade-long partnership with Rowlett.
“I suspect they had a lot of pressure to change that lineup,” McCaa says of a 10 p.m. roster that also included sports anchor Hansen and weathercaster Troy Dungan. “It’s a little like being a rookie put into the Yankees lineup. The first couple of years you kind of walk on eggshells. Because everybody’s a legend there but me.”
McCaa’s voice breaks and his eyes well up as he recounts his concern at being perceived as a black man being promoted for reasons of political correctness rather than merit.
“I get kind of emotional when I think about that,” he says. “I’ve always believed that if you want to have your own personal integrity, you have to do it the old-fashioned way. I don’t ever want it said that I pushed someone out of a job to advance someone else’s agenda. I want to earn it just like everybody else. And if I had thought it was the station’s intent to push one of them out to put me forward, there’s no way I’d have been a part of that. No way.”
Fast forward to spring 1999, when the earth shook at WFAA while McCaa was honeymooning with his wife, Nora. Rowlett had just signed a deal that would make him the primary news anchor at rival KTVT-TV (Channel 11). And Moody, who died in December of 2001, was battling debilitating health problems that had all but ended his hopes of returning to full-time prominence at WFAA.
A new 10 p.m. tri-anchor system quickly kicked in, with McCaa, Campos, and Scott Sams rotating as news anchors. That arrangement lasted until August 2002, when McCaa and Campos officially took the 10 p.m. reins as a twosome while Sams was sent to WFAA’s early morning “Daybreak” program. He’s now working the same shift at KTVT.
McCaa is too diplomatic to say that previous WFAA management initially might have feared putting two anchors of color in charge of the station’s showcase newscast. But Campos bluntly broaches the subject without any prompting.
“We were saddled with Scott Sams for a while, and to be brutally honest with you, I really kind of resented that,” she says. “I felt like they didn’t have confidence in John and me to navigate this boat. But the trifecta didn’t work, and then we finally got that opportunity.”
It was rough sailing at first. KXAS-TV (Channel 5), with an assist from ratings-rich NBC prime-time programming, had the most-watched 10 p.m. newscasts from February 2002 until that same ratings “sweeps” month in 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research. The team of McCaa, Campos, Hansen, and relative newcomer Delkus has been No. 1 ever since, a reign that coincides with WFAA’s first-in-the-market shift to high-definition newscasts and the unveiling of its new Victory Park studios at the start of 2007.
“You just have to do your job every day,” McCaa says of his nearly 15-and-a-half years in the 10 p.m. newscast spotlight. “A lot of young people, they think that an audience being comfortable with you comes instantly. But if you really want to establish some integrity, you’ve just got to do it over and over and over.”
===“We were saddled with Scott Sams for a while, and to be brutally honest with you, I really kind of resented that. I felt like they didn’t haveconfidence in John and me to navigate this boat.” Gloria Campos, WFAA-TV!==
“I don’t think we were really looking for love in our lives. It just sort of happened,” says Nora McCaa.
It happened fast. She had been working at WFAA for a year and a half, but was planning a move to Miami for another job when she and John went on their first date.
“It was on Jan. 2, 1999,” she remembers without hesitation. “And three months later we were married.”
It’s the second marriage for both. Nora is the youngest of eight children and John has a 23-year-old son, Collin, who lives in Houston, from his first marriage. The McCaas have lived in a gated Las Colinas community since October 2005. For the past seven years, they have vacationed annually in Bellagio, Italy, always renting a small apartment rather than staying in a hotel.
“We’ve been there so many times that we spend half our days going to the homes of our friends,” John McCaa says.
Their North Texas home is replete with artwork, most of it purchased abroad. It’s not for nothing that his vanity license plate reads “I 4 ART.”
McCaa is especially fond of Spanish painters, but a small black-and-white etching with a “nasty image,” as he puts it, is also part of the décor. For that reason the sexually graphic rendering is somewhat hidden in a downstairs corner, where it still draws attention.
“People ask me, ‘Well, is that the image you like?’ McCaa says. “I say, ‘Well, no, but I can’t afford the images I like.’ ”
An intrinsically more valuable possession keeps him grounded. It’s a drum set that shares second-floor space with a small gym’s worth of exercise equipment. He’s had drums since the seventh grade, when his parents bought him a $119.95 set from Sears, Roebuck for Christmas.
“I got up at 6 a.m. and started playing the drums before we went to church that day,” McCaa recalls. “And I’ve loved it ever since. You go to ‘anchor school’ to learn to read a TelePrompTer. But when you play music, everything’s based on the feel. And when you’re with a band and playing just right, there’s nothing better than that.”
“Hi, Rachel, my name is John McCaa. I work at WFAA in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”
It’s an early December in the WFAA newsroom, and McCaa is on the phone seeking more information about a Keller, Texas, family being featured on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
He regularly contributes a story to the weekday 5 p.m. newscast before moving behind a desk for the 6 and 10 p.m. editions. The video’s already in the can for this one, with McCaa assigned to write and then read his copy during a live shot from a makeshift post in the middle of the newsroom.
A story like this seems pretty trivial for a big-time anchor in the country’s fifth-largest television market. But downsized budgets and newsroom staffs mean that “everybody’s job has become more demanding, the anchors included,” says news director Michael Valentine.
McCaa sprays on a little HD-ready makeup—“I’m always getting my eyes messed up”—shortly before doing the Extreme Makeover piece midway through the 5 p.m. news. He’s soon seated next to Campos for the 6 p.m. edition. She calls him “The Professor” off-camera, a reference to McCaa’s latter-day pursuit of a Ph.D from the University of Texas at Dallas after earlier earning a masters in politics from the University of Dallas.
These days it pays to be prepared for life beyond TV news.
“I’ve given up trying to predict exactly how this business will change,” McCaa says. “The good news is it’s so much easier to get video in front of people. The bad news is you can’t trust most of the sources. I’m sure there’ll be way more use of this ‘citizen journalist’ stuff in the future. But it’s a little like a lawsuit. Judges always want to know where the evidence came from. And that should be the same standard in news.”
Nearing the 25-year mark at WFAA, McCaa has longevity licked. In his view that also adds up to trust, which “never develops” if an anchor can’t settle in and become part of a station’s DNA.
But by choice or otherwise, “I don’t see people staying in markets for long periods of time anymore,” McCaa says. “And I don’t think local TV stations have any idea if they’ll even be doing the news 10 years from now. Am I frightened about that? Yeah. But it’s such a different world now. It’s just changing so much.”
Whatever happens, McCaa has made his mark. And it will stand through the ages.
“If you had told people 30 years ago that No. 1-rated newscasts in Dallas someday would have Hispanic and African-American anchors, well, they wouldn’t have believed it,” he says. “It says something about how Dallas has changed. And how society has changed, too.”