Conversation with Doug McConnell
The Marin journalist and naturalist is approaching 50 years as a broadcaster.
AT A GATHERING of Bay Area hikers or open space advocates, you’ll notice Doug McConnell has trouble getting from point A to point B. It’s because everyone seeing the host of NBC’s OpenRoad with Doug McConnell wants to talk with him or hug and thank him for all the good he does in promoting Bay Area hiking trails and open spaces.
And McConnell enjoys it. Why not? He’s doing what he loves to do with people who, like himself, delight in spending time with Mother Nature. Blessed with a mellow voice and rugged good looks, McConnell has been broadcasting news and insights on the outdoor world for half a century. After a childhood with time spent in both Northern and Southern California, he earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Pomona College and a master’s in political science from New Jersey’s Rutgers University, then later returned to the West Coast. It took McConnell a few years before he recognized his life’s calling was writing, producing and telling stories about people, animals and the great outdoors.
After a short stint with a TV news magazine in Seattle, McConnell hosted KPIX’s and the Discovery Channel’s Mac and Mutley, a show about his adventures with his lovable scuba-diving dog, as well as Discovery’s The Adventurers, Wild Things and Petline. In 1993, McConnell became host and managing editor of KRON’S Bay Area Backroads, one of the longest-running regional television series in American broadcast history. In 2009, OpenRoad with Doug McConnell first aired on San Francisco’s public television station KQED and across the nation; in 2015, NBC Bay Area picked it up for the Sunday evening 6:30 spot during spring and summer, when outdoor activities locally are at their peak.
McConnell, his wife, Kathy Taft, and a coterie of animals have lived in Corte Madera for the past 33 years. The couple has two adult sons: Nicolas lives with his family in the Berkeley Hills, and Patrick leads biking tours in Europe. McConnell’s production company, Digital Story Company, is in Mill Valley.
How many people and what type of equipment are involved in producing a half-hour segment of OpenRoad with Doug McConnell?
We’ve got a tight team cranking out our weekly episodes. Along with myself, the field producing, writing and editing of the stories is done by two fabulous photographer/editors I’ve worked with a long time, Stefan Ruenzel and Jordan Plotsky. They deserve a good share of the credit for what we create. Our high-definition equipment is lightweight and state-of-the-art but not overly expensive. And we always get a land manager’s permission before flying our drone, which, by the way, is one of the quietest ones on the market. Then we send our product to partners I’ve collaborated with for decades, Carl Bidleman and Michael Rosenthal. They edit everything into a seamless show that’s delivered to NBC for broadcast.
As your career developed, did you have a mentor? Someone who saw your potential and helped you develop it?
You talk about lucky; I was fortunate to be mentored during my first television experience in 1969 by a highly regarded multimedia writer who somehow saw potential in me. His name was Don Bresnahan. Basically, here’s what he told me: “You’ve received your graduate and postgraduate degrees and think you know how to write — but the truth is, you don’t. If you’re willing to work your ass off, I’ll teach you how to write fast and effectively, on deadline, about any topic and in any medium. But it won’t be easy.” I was hungry, ambitious and determined, so I took Don up on his generous offer and he shaped my life in ways that I’ve benefited from ever since. And he was right — it wasn’t easy!
Will you share what he did that helped you and is still with you today?
Back in those days, Don was the head news writer at KTLA in Los Angeles and I was the rookie assistant to a new anchorman. Every night after the late news, Don would send me home with a writing assignment that I was expected to complete and turn in the next morning. And each assignment was wildly different. For example, Don knew I was profoundly opposed to the Vietnam War, so one night he directed me to write an editorial of so many words that made a strong case in support of America’s policy in Vietnam. Another night he told me to dream up a Hollywood movie and write a pitch for it. Another time I had to come up with catchy lines for Hallmark’s holiday cards. Night after night I toiled away on one assignment after another — and on deadline. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep, but I’d hand in my work and Don would rip it to shreds in the early morning light. Ouch! He was tough, but that man cared and worked hard to pull out the best in me.
Was there a soft side to Don Bresnahan?
Oh sure, he’d often treat me to dinner between evening newscasts and we’d talk about all kinds of things. But Don wanted me to become a fearless and focused writer, to be unafraid to tackle anything in any medium at the drop of a hat and on tight deadlines and to craft products that would earn me a living. I learned more and gained more confidence and discipline in those months with Don than I ever had in college.
Over your 50-year career, do you have a “most courageous” story about a group that saved open space from development?
I’ll need a book to answer this one. I’ve studied conservation and have been inspired by many, people and stories both from both before my time and during my time. For instance, here in Marin William Kent and his wife purchased Muir Woods and then gave it to their friend, President Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1908 declared it a National Monument. And as Marin’s congressman, William Kent sponsored legislation that created the National Park Service in 1916. I’ve known several of Marin’s conservation “rebels with a cause” and I’ll quickly mention three of them. The late Dr. Edgar Wayburn played a central role in the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. All told, he had a hand in protecting more than 103 million acres of land — that’s the size of California — through- out the West, including Alaska. In 2010, Ed died at the age of 103; his friends called him the Million-Acre-a-Year Man. Ed’s principal grassroots partner in the 1972 creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is Amy Meyer, who is still active and volunteering endless hours for the park she helped create. I love Amy; she’s considered the “mother” of the GGNRA, now America’s most visited national park. And I also love Marin’s forever conservation champion, Dr. Martin Griffin. Marty, who turned 99 this year, is still a rebel and we wouldn’t have a protected coastline or the Richardson Bay Audubon Sanctuary with- out him and his cohorts. I urge everybody to visit the Martin Griffin Preserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch next to Bolinas Lagoon. It’s a warm sunny fall weekend, your dogs are restless and you need exercise.
When you’re choosing an outing, what three Marin trails come to mind?
Our dogs always seem to know if it’s a weekend. That means big hikes and lots of sniffs for them, and lots of beautiful scenery for me. My top three trails with them would be Corte Madera and Blithedale ridges, with big sweeping vistas and a great diversity of vegetation, where they can be off leash on the fire roads in Marin County parks. Another favorite is Old St. Hilary’s Preserve in Tiburon, with its wide-open grasslands and incomparable views of San Francisco Bay and Angel Island. And if we have the time, I always enjoy hiking Bolinas Ridge. I usually head north, off the Fairfax-Bolinas Road, and walk through the forest for a while.
With the earth warming at an accelerated rate, environmental degradation seemingly increasing and federal policies now less than friendly to naturalist causes, how do you stay so positive?
I’ve got no choice. We’ve got no choice. Besides, if I can at all avoid it, being down and discouraged isn’t productive or any fun — life is way too short to wallow in despair. But right now, the odds against us are long and we’ve got to get smart and get mov – ing right away on a national and global scale or we’ll be ensuring a desperate future for our children and everyone who follows. And for me, after all these years in the game, that’s not the legacy I want to leave. So it’s showtime for our generation. We’ve got to do everything we can here in the Bay Area and beyond and realize we can make a difference. I wake up and devour the morning news reports and, especially the past three years, find myself sliding toward depression. My salvation is that I then head out to produce our show and spend hours in the company of profoundly inspirational people who are making the world a better place in quiet and significant ways. They get me revved up about what we can accomplish together if we put our hearts and heads to the task. I’m suited up and ready to roll in 2020. It’s the perfect year for us to demonstrate we have a clear and sustainable vision for the future.