Road leads back to public TV


John Hood Columnist


I could always hear John McLaughlin long before I could see him.

The larger-than-life former Jesuit priest, Nixon speechwriter, and host of the “McLaughlin Group” public-television show from 1982 to 2016 was just as loud and bumptious in person as he was on TV. I never worked for him, but I did spend a year working for weekly “McLaughlin Group” panelists Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke when they were both editors at The New Republic, the magazine where I served as a reporter-researcher.

This was during the tail end of the Reagan administration and the first months of the George H.W. Bush administration. It was a fascinating time to be in Washington, D.C. I spent lots of time on Capitol Hill, at trade association and think tank events, and poking around government offices looking for story ideas.

Still, every Friday I accompanied Fred and Mort to WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate where their show was taped. I’d research each topic to be discussed, provide the panelists with talking points, and often spar with them a bit as show prep (and because I am a natural contrarian who has a hard time keeping my opinions to myself).

Fred and Mort were tolerant and gracious instructors in the art of political commentary. And for John McLaughlin — whose entrance into the studio was invariably preceded by a brash comment or noisy argument from far down the hallway — I learned how to construct a panel discussion that would both hold an audience’s attention and deliver substantive content.

Shortly after returning to North Carolina in 1989, I put Fred and Mort’s tips to good use as a regular panelist on the UNC-TV program “North Carolina This Week,” which featured a panel of journalists discussing state government and political news. Some years later, I offered McLaughlin’s lessons to my friend Tom Campbell — a broadcast veteran who’d previously worked at UNC-TV — as he put together a new program, “NC SPIN,” which debuted on commercial stations across the state in 1998.

I’ve been a weekly SPIN panelist ever since. It’s been an honor to spend the last 19 years alongside Campbell and some of North Carolina’s most respected and insightful political journalists, politicians, and commentators. The show is currently broadcast on 26 TV and radio stations, from Asheville to Wilmington and just about everywhere in-between.

We’ve built quite an audience over those years. According to a recent independent survey of North Carolinians interested in politics and public policy, “NC SPIN” is the most-watched program of its kind in the state.

Beginning in early January, “NC SPIN” will have a new home. For me and several other panelists, it will be a homecoming. The show will now be recorded at and broadcast statewide by UNC-TV. It will air each Friday evening at 7:30p and each Sunday afternoon at 12:30p, with additional air times on UNC’s North Carolina Channel, which already broadcasts a number of excellent programs focused on our state.

I’ll continue to serve up my conservative views. Other panelists will disagree. We won’t call each other names, except in jest, but we will present the audience with clear distinctions and spirited discussions.

If you like that kind of thing and you don’t already watch or listen to “NC SPIN,” here’s your chance to join our not-so-exclusive club. And if you are already a SPIN fan, rest assured that the change in venue will only enhance the program’s statewide reach by offering more showings at great air times.

John McLaughlin passed away last year, as did his eponymous talk show (although there is talk of reviving it). Our host, Tom Campbell, is a very different — and much quieter — person. But our team does owe a nod in the direction of McLaughlin, who sought to bring a diverse set of views and interpretations to public TV audiences for decades. As “NC SPIN” moves to UNC-TV in January, we’ll continue to do something similar for our North Carolina viewers.

Until then, folks, I’ll just say, “Bye, bye!”

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.

John Hood Columnist
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