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Mike Dodson, Veteran newsman, recounts history

TULSA, Okla. - Mike Dodson always knew he wanted to be a newsman, but 25 years ago, it wasn't easy for the Oklahoman to find a school that could teach him what he needed to know to succeed in his chosen field.

Dodson did the only thing he could do, he taught himself. The result was a career that spanned nearly three decades and took him from interviewing presidents to covering the Oklahoma City bombing.

It was a love affair of sorts for Dodson, one he looks back on with pride.

Although Dodson, Muscogee, says he has some college time on his "sheet," his real learning took place on the job. He has the distinction of having interviewed all of President Jimmy Carter's family, President Reagan, countless tribal leaders and many celebrities over the years, along with everyday people.

"I taught myself how to do news because I had to," Dodson said, "because I wanted to be in radio, I figured out another way to stay in radio for over 20 years. I have had a lot of interesting experiences, met a lot of interesting people ... ."

"Interesting" doesn't do justice to the self-taught newsman whose voice has been a companion to radio listeners throughout Oklahoma, through good times and bad.

Dodson had resigned as a newsman and was in the process of moving when the first reports from the federal building in Oklahoma City came over the radio. It was a last day he'll never forget. "The last day I spent in radio news was April 19, 1995, covering a rather infamous event." It was the day of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"I was moving to Shawnee that day ... had my car nearly full when at 9:02, on the television, I saw that a familiar building in downtown Oklahoma City had blown up or something," Dodson recalled.

"I had a cell phone with me, got in my car and headed east on I-40."

Dodson had a friend he had worked with who was with The Associated Press in Texas and he told them about the explosion. Dodson was directed to call the AP in Washington, D.C., and arranged to spend the day covering the story for the AP radio.

Although members of the press are supposed to cover stories and leave their emotions at home, Dodson remembers he ran the full gamut that day. "I remembered the day I had covered the dedication of a really neat moving art exhibit there. I thought about that. I ran into lots of people I knew who were there either in a victim role or a helper role."

Dodson had spent four years in Weatherford and recalled the pride he felt as he interviewed people from the Weatherford Fire Department who were on the scene.

A man who loves old architecture, he remembered the renewal of Oklahoma City's downtown area and cringed as he saw the destruction. "To see this further man-made destruction was saddening."

By some quirk of fate Dodson managed to interview three women who had been in the Murrah building at the time of the explosion. He had parked several blocks from the bomb site, believing security would be pretty heavy. As he walked toward the Murrah building, talking on his cell phone, three women approached him. They were desperate to contact their families and let them know that they were safe. Dodson loaned the women his cell phone and took turns interviewing the trio as they shared the cell phone.

It was then that Dodson got his first real glimpse of the personal side of the Oklahoma bombing.

As he began to see victims of the explosion, Dodson remembered, "I saw people two, two-and-a-half hours later who were just beginning to receive medical attention ... bloodied heads and bloodied bandages, that tears at your heart."

After years in the area, Dodson had friends in the Murrah federal building. One friend worked there and had two sons who were at the daycare center in the building. They were among survivors.

Another friend, who worked in a nearby building had gone out of her office to get a soda. "If she had been in her office ... she said she never, ever got up at that time in the morning to get a soda, 9:02, but she did. Probably within 10 or 15 seconds of the blast, she left her office and went down the hall to get a soda. Her area was filled with flying glass. If she had been in her office, she would have been severely injured. As it was, she was bounced around and tossed off the walls.

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"It was just one of those things that you never forget," Dodson said. "There were a lot of memories of that day that are still very fresh."

He recalled looking at the Murrah building from the north side where a gaping hole showed just a glimpse of the devastation and death within.

"I still remember everybody running up the street," Dodson said about the two false bomb reports that followed the initial blast.

"I remember walking around all the devastation and not being able to believe that one bomb had caused the destruction, three and four and five blocks away. It was very, very sad."

The thought that a home-grown terrorist was responsible for the devastation was something Dodson said he and others in the media hadn't even thought of. It was unthinkable, even for hardened newsmen to imagine that an American had been responsible for all of the death and terror but, within hours, Dodson began hearing a new theory on the bombing.

He ended his career as a radio newsman that day, but he has remained close to his first love, the media. Working for the Sac & Fox and the Citizen Potawatomi as a public information officer has kept Dodson close to the cutting edge of what is happening in Indian country.

As Dodson worked with tribal newspapers, he has found that the Oklahoma bombing changed him. "I think maybe it made me wiser. It showed me what people are capable of doing. It's a lot worse than I thought. Maybe we're not quite as safe in Oklahoma as we thought."

Today Mike Dodson works as a business development specialist for the Oklahoma Native American Business Development Center in Tulsa. He still has a radio show, Native America Speaks on KOMA AM in Oklahoma City and KWEY AM-FM, a radio station out of Weatherford.

Although he spends time with the media, Dodson has gone from reporting news to making it. He is on the other end of the microphone.

However, he isn't sure he likes what he sees coming out of journalism classes these days. "I see kids that don't know how to use the pronoun 'him,'" Dodson said, then laughed. "Words have been and still are my tools and I like to see them used correctly."

New punctuation bothers him a lot. "Punctuation is the reader's road map," Dodson said, "and it is tougher to read when you leave out commas."

He also sees journalists stepping over the line when it comes to how and what they write and report. "I may have been able to last for the past 15 years or so when we were supposed to get the facts and report them, but because of the prevalence of TV, I just don't like it that reporters don't stick to the facts. I shudder when I hear a reporter giving opinion."

Although Dodson said sometimes it can't be helped, he doesn't believe they belong in a news story. Commentary, Dodson said should be left to columnists and left out of news stories.

"When I started in news radio in the 1970s, 25 to 35 seconds was the typical length of a sound bite, now you rarely hear one over nine seconds. You can't convey a story in that amount of time."

His advice to young people who would like to follow in his footsteps? "You're going to cover everything. Nobody covers just Native American news except Native American news.

"Get a degree, learn how to use a computer, become fluent in computer use. Make a computer your best friend. That's your future. I'm one of a dying breed. Get a minor in journalism, find something that interests you and get your major there."

Dodson went on to say to say that he would like to see more individually owned Native American newspapers and radio shows. With new technology becoming available, he believes the opportunity is out there for Native American journalists and entrepreneurs to distribute news and information and it just has to be used, something he is toying with himself.

Does that mean Mike Dodson might wear the hat of a newsman again?

He smiles and says, "Well, it has been a memorable 27 years."