“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.