Arts & Music
Good 'Ol Times: Mason Dixon Marks 30 Years On The Air
ST. PETERSBURG - The week always begins with "Blue Monday" and ends with "Friday on My Mind." In between are jokes, parody songs, rock 'n' roll standards, patriotic salutes to the troops, prize giveaways, the occasional "Polka Challenge" and large doses of self-deprecating observational humor from Mason Lee Roy Pee Wee Bodine Moon-Pie (and any other Southern name you like) Dixon. Every weekday morning, Dixon gives his take on the news: "You can tell its spring. Robins are building nests in Donald Trump's hair.""Poor old Sarah Jessica Parker. Maxim magazine voted her the unsexiest woman in the world. You think she is upset - I had $50 riding on Rosie O'Donnell." "The producers of 'Desperate Housewives' have ordered Eva Longoria to cover up the tattoo on her finger so viewers won't see it. The big news here is that the producers think viewers are looking at her fingers." Nearly 40 years ago, Jimmie Crawford, a good ol' boy from Memphis with musical savvy, started calling himself Mason Dixon (as a symbolic reference to the cultural differences between the northern and southern states). It has become one of the most recognizable monikers in the Tampa Bay area because Dixon has been entertaining radio audiences here for three decades. He also is known throughout the broadcast industry and has rubbed elbows with just about every veteran pop and rock performer in the country, from Olivia Newton-John and Paul McCartney to Cher and Rod Stewart. Dixon celebrated 30 years on the air earlier this month with his pals on the "Mason & Bill in the Morning" show on St. Petersburg radio station Q105 (WRBQ, 104.7 FM). "After nearly 40 years in radio and 30 of them in the Tampa area, it is still fun to come in and do this everyday," says Dixon, 58. "You can't talk about the history of Tampa Bay radio without including Mason Dixon; he's earned a place along with other legends like Jack Harris, Tedd Webb or the late Scott Robins," says Clearwater-based author and media expert Bob Andelman. Andelman, who runs the Mr. Media website, is a former newspaper and magazine columnist who covered Tampa radio in the 1980s and '90s. "I clearly remember the first day I came to Clearwater in 1982 and was stuck in traffic for an hour and a half," Andelman recalls, "I stumbled on Mason's afternoon drive show, and I had never heard anything like it. It was fast; it was fun. He was doing his 'Friday Festivities,' and it was great." The festivities are still going strong. Every weekday from 6 to 10 a.m., Mason and his longtime comic sidekick Bill Connolly preside over a radio party along with funnyman JoJo Walker, Marc Haze (on sports), Bobby Rich (on traffic) and Nikki Cruz (on news). Dixon, who also is the station's program director, enjoys playing the role of a good ol' boy from Memphis with an ear for a good song. Dixon recalls "playing disc jockey" as a kid with a Silvertone Sears tape recorder and two little turntables plugged into a "big old cabinet model" of a Silvertone radio (which he still has). He grew up listening to Dewey "Daddy-O" Phillips, a legendary Memphis radio personality and rock 'n' roll pioneer who was the first disc jockey to play Elvis Presley's debut record. "He was the guru of crazy, wacky radio," Dixon says. "I idolized him because he made people laugh and listen and he broke in artists, and those are things that I have been able to do myself." And after a career that has taken him from Memphis to San Diego to Tampa, Dixon says he loves where he is right now. "I am surrounded by people I love," he says. In addition to his hand-picked crew, his family is involved in his career. Pat Dixon, his wife of 32 years, volunteers with Dixon's annual Christmas Wish fund drive and helps promote and organize his personal appearances. His daughter Alisha, who works for concert promoter Live Nation, is a musician who performs at some of his live events. Dixon is also close to another grown daughter, Brandi, who works for Tampa-based cigar distributor Thompson Cigars. Dixon came to Tampa in February 1978 and went on the air at WRBQ in early March as an afternoon disc jockey. He also was the station's operations manager. "I did it pretty straight back then, just playing music and talking about the artist," he says. "There was comedy, but not as much comedy as we have now." Q105 dominated the ratings throughout the 1980s, and for more than 10 years Dixon's show was on top. During that time he developed segments that are still part of his show, such as the "Friday Festivities," which include a "Thank God It's Friday" cheer and party songs such as "Working for the Weekend" and "Shout." "Mason is the consummate professional," says WFLA radio personality Webb, who has worked in Tampa radio since 1963. "He built a very loyal staff, and he knows just about everybody in the business." Hiring The Crew Dixon began assembling his close-knit team in the 1980s. He hired Walker, a fellow Memphis native who had worked for Dixon nearly 40 years ago as a high school correspondent. "I've known him too long," Walker jokes. Dixon also hired Connolly, a former caricature artist at Walt Disney World who was working in graphic design and calling in comedy bits for free. "I thought this guy was amazing and we had to get him in here," Dixon says. "It was the best thing that ever happened to my career," says Connolly. "I was bored at my work, and I would run to a phone booth and phone in character voices." "Mason hired him to get him off the phone," jokes Haze, another longtime staffer. Connolly has produced hundreds of musical parodies and comedy skits. Some of them are more than 20 years old and are still being used. "I have a studio at home where I can throw these things together," he says. Just about every evening, he cranks out an audio skit or song based on current events. Connolly's parodies, including "The Polka Challenge" contest, have become so popular that many are syndicated to other radio stations. Dixon left WRBQ in 1989 in a dispute with station management. He had a year left on a contract, and a non-compete clause prohibited him from working in the Tampa area. He kept his home here and spent about six months running an FM station in Birmingham, Ala. He returned to Tampa airwaves in 1990 on WMTX (then known as Mix 96) with a morning show that was very much like what he has today. During a six-year run there, he started his annual Christmas Wish charity, which will hit the $1 million mark this year. "We've raised thousands of dollars over the years to help hundreds of people who need a little help at Christmas," he says. "People can hear the requests and hear us grant the wish. This is something I'm proud of because it makes a difference in the community." In 1996, Dixon left WMTX in another contract dispute. He took his whole morning crew over to launch KISS FM (100.7 FM). The run there lasted until August 1999, when KISS became MIX 100.7 and Dixon's show was cut. Beating The Bushes This may have been the lowest point in his career, he says. Over the years, he had survived numerous management and ownership changes, changes in formats and changes in musical tastes. "We were beating the bushes for another shot, and we had beaten them about as much as you could," he says. "I was beginning to wonder if it was over, but we landed at Oldies U92." CBS-owned U92 (WYUU) was playing the music of the '60s and '70s. As program director, Dixon changed the format to the "Greatest Hits of the '60s and '70s." CBS had acquired WRBQ, which had been a country station since the early 1990s. Dixon persuaded the company to switch the WRBQ and WYUU formats. He had come full circle, back to the station where his Tampa career had started. And since his return, WRBQ has consistently ranked among the top 10 Bay area stations in the Arbitron ratings. "I'm still playing the same music, only now it's classic," he says. "And I think our listeners have followed us all the years through all the changes. When I make personal appearances, I get three generations of families who want autographs and pictures." In 2005, Dixon survived a serious automobile accident when his restored 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible was hit by a sport utility vehicle that went out of control. He suffered a collapsed lung and broken ribs and had his spleen removed. He has since replaced the Challenger with a 1970 Challenger, a replica of the car from the 1971 film "Vanishing Point." "I think the angels were watching out for me," he says. "I came close to dying, but I guess a higher power felt I wasn't done here yet."
Reporter Walt Belcher can be reached at (813) 259-7654 or [email protected]