By Kevin Wing, Editor, Off Camera
Ross McGowan – in his more than three decades on Bay Area television, he has done it all. There aren’t a lot of people who can’t say that. And McGowan, being as modest and humble as he is, won’t likely say that, either. But, we will, for he has had one remarkable television career and everything he has done throughout the years is worthy of
McGowan, who was inducted into the Silver Circle of the San Francisco/Northern California Chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2006 in recognition of his more than 25 years in contributions to the Bay Area and northern California television industry, has had a colorful, illustrious career in Bay Area television. He has interviewed everyone, from U.S. presidents to a homeless man carrying all of his worldly possessions in trash bags on the streets of San Francisco; he’s been a favorite with local dignitaries like mayors and civic leaders to those in statewide and national office serving as senators and governors. He has stood next to well-known celebrities from stage and screen, just as he has stood in front of a bare-naked audience at a nudist colony.
Bay Area television ceased to ever be the same when McGowan decided it was time to call it a career. Retiring in 2009, he was on Bay Area television every day, and consistently, for the better part of 31 years. As a host, as an interviewer, as an anchor. And, McGowan is best-known for his long tenures at two stations: his 14 years at San Francisco’s KPIX, where he co-hosted, with Ann Fraser, the station’s very popular morning talk show, People Are Talking (so popular that the station spun off an afternoon companion in the form of The Afternoon Show and People Are Talking in the Afternoon) and his 16 years as host of Mornings On 2 at Oakland’s KTVU.
McGowan was born in Los Angeles, but to his viewers and those who have followed his career through the decades, he is all Bay Area. As a boy, he grew up in Cupertino, going to Cupertino High School and San Jose State University. He’s also lived in Mill Valley and San Francisco. He began his broadcasting career while still working to get his degree at San Jose State University. Before television, McGowan got into radio. His first job was at KBMX in Coalinga, where he worked during the summer months. That was followed by a stint at KYOS in Merced. Later, he returned to the Bay Area to work as a radio announcer at KSJO, and then KLIV, both in San Jose.
“Radio is what I thought I would do,” McGowan said. “And then I found out I wasn’t cut out for radio. I look back and I think, for my humor, a lot of it is just facial. I don’t know. I never tried to disect it, because you get in trouble that way.”
“KLIV was a Top 40 station back then,” he said. “It was the South Bay’s answer to KYA in San Francisco.”
From Bay Area radio, McGowan went to Seattle, where he was hired by KIRO Radio. And then, one day, they asked him to fill in on KIRO-TV, the CBS station for Seattle.
It was around this time, in 1976, that Sandy Hill worked in the news department there, and she also worked on a show in the afternoon when the station played movies. Hill was about to move to New York to be David Hartman’s co-host on the then-new Good Morning America on ABC when her boss called McGowan’s boss to ask if he would be interested in filling in for Hill on the 3:30 p.m. movie program.
“I jumped at the chance,” McGowan said. He began hosting that afternoon movie show on KIRO-TV, in which he would call viewers during the commercial breaks for their chance to win money and prizes.
But then, he started having doubts about broadcasting because he wasn’t making enough money. He decided to go into business for himself to sell overhead ceiling fans. Then, one day, someone invited him to attend the Pacific National Exhibition in Canada for a broadcast.
Talk about fate.
On the plane to Canada, McGowan is sitting next to the assistant program director of Seattle’s KING-TV. The man’s name was Bob George.
“I didn’t know him at all,” he said. But, little would McGowan come to someday realize how much of an impact George would make on his life.
George didn’t think McGowan was working.
“I am working. I’m selling overhead ceiling fans,” McGowan said.
“You’re not working,” George told him.
He offered McGowan an opportunity to fill in on the station’s morning show during the Christmas holiday. He accepted, and filled in on the show for two weeks. George was out of town all but one day during those two weeks. And, when he came back to work, he watched McGowan at work on that final day of filling in. George was so impressed, he offered McGowan a shot at hosting Seattle Tonight, a new evening talk show about to launch at the station.
George would soon leave the station for a job in Boston and never see the new evening show, but he told McGowan that he hoped one day he would hire him again somewhere else. Seattle Tonight took to the air, and McGowan stayed on as host of the show for two years until he was fired. Eventually, he would leave TV and go to work for Peterbilt Trucks.
Enter fate once again.
A Peterbilt business trip took McGowan to San Francisco for a trade show. His friend, George, the one who left for a job in Boston, would wind up, by then, at KPIX in San Francisco.
The two met for lunch in San Francisco during McGowan’s business trip, and George brings up KPIX’s The Morning Show, which debuted in 1977 as a replacement for The Kathryn Crosby Show. Crosby – Bing’s wife – left her show of two years at KPIX to travel more with her husband. KPIX ended up hiring Ann Fraser to host the new Morning Show, but eventually, the station realized Fraser should have a male co-host.
George decided to hire him, in 1978, to be the new co-host, and McGowan returned to the Bay Area for a new chapter in his television career.
By 1980, the show was taking off and gaining an audience. And when the station moved from its Van Ness Avenue location to new quarters on Battery Street near Broadway, audience participation for the show really took off. By then, the station had changed the show’s name to People Are Talking. And, the chemistry between McGowan and Fraser was unmistakable. They were a hit with viewers. Everyone loved them. Their show had the flexibility to have on any type of guest. Celebrities, politicians, authors, newsmakers, you name it. The show had thousands of guests on the program, from Walter Cronkite to Shirley Temple and everyone in between. And yes, there is that infamous show when they took the program on location to a nudist colony in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And another memorable show when they went on location to shoot their show at Napa State Hospital.
They also took the show to San Quentin Prison.
And, Hawaii, too, for a week of shows there.
But, People Are Talking, McGowan said, was mostly a studio show.
“What made our show work was that I was so laid back, and Ann was just off the wall,” McGowan said. “We played off each other.”
The show’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 1980s, and a companion show was added to KPIX’s afternoon schedule, aptly named The Afternoon Show. It was also around this time, in the 1980s, that Phil Donahue was doing well with his syndicated show, as was the new syndicated talk-show kid on the block at the time, Oprah Winfrey, whose popularity would quickly surpass Donahue’s. KPIX’s afternoon offering went up against Donahue, and then Winfrey. KPIX was beating Donahue nicely, but it wasn’t as easy going up against Winfrey.
Eventually, times would change at KPIX and the station cancelled People Are Talking in 1992 after a 14-year run. Fraser left the station, but McGowan would keep him at the station for one more year, until the end of 1992. After People Are Talking was cancelled, the station “didn’t know what to do with me,” he said. They decided he would anchor the 6 a.m. and noon newscasts.
“I didn’t do well,” McGowan said. “Doing the news wasn’t my thing.”
Enter Oakland’s KTVU, and its new morning newscast, Mornings On 2.
In early 1991, KTVU launched a new morning newscast to go up against the network morning shows on ABC, CBS and NBC. Scrapping children’s offerings like Romper Room and continual reruns of Tom and Jerry cartoons, KTVU premiered Mornings On 2 in January of that year, the first show of its kind west of the Mississippi. For the next two years, as the program worked hard to find its niche and its audience, things finally started taking off by early 1993. The ratings were much better. And, knowing that McGowan’s contract was up at KPIX, KTVU general manager Kevin O‘Brien contacted McGowan to be the new studio host of Mornings On 2 as part of an on-air ensemble with news anchors Frank Somerville and Laura Zimmerman, on-location host Steve McPartlin, field anchor Gary Kauf and comedian Brian Copeland, who was hired to deliver the weather forecast.
By the end of May 1993, the station celebrated the program’s ascent to being No. 1 in its time period for the first time after a little more than two years on the air.
During the next 16 years, McGowan did what he always thought he did best – talking with people and interviewing them. He interviewed newsmakers, politicians, celebrities, you name it, giving Mornings On 2 the tougher edge on the news of the day.
During the criminal and civil trials for O.J. Simpson following the killings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, in 1994, McGowan and countless legal analysts would discuss the day’s court activities on the program.
Speaking of Mornings On 2, McGowan has so many fond memories.
“We were a really good team,” he said.
Rosemarie Thomas Schwarz, who was executive producer of Mornings On 2 for much of its first 15 years on the air, added, “We were a moment in time.”
After more than 30 years on Bay Area television, McGowan decided the time was right to slow down. He decided to retire from KTVU, and television, in 2009. He moved from his longtime Mill Valley home to Healdsburg, where he is enjoying life as a retiree, relaxing and sleeping in.
No more alarm clock going off at 3 a.m., and no more early morning wake-ups for the man who was a one-time overhead ceiling fan salesman. Instead, he became a legend on Bay Area morning television. No doubt about that.
There’s only one Ross McGowan.
Kevin Wing has been chronicling inductees of the Gold & Silver Circle of the San Francisco/Northern California Chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences since 2007. A two-time Emmy Award-honored Bay Area television journalist now with KNTV NBC Bay Area, he was inducted into the Silver Circle in 2013.