Donna Deegan is very much a Jacksonville institution, legendary for her work in a number of different forums.
Deegan, a Jacksonville native and an alumna of Bishop Kenny High School, anchored for First Coast News from 1992 to 2016, showing in that role a penchant for hard news and a willingness to dive into challenging stories.
While anchoring for First Coast News, Deegan faced challenges of her own: specifically, three bouts of breast cancer. Indomitably, she overcame all three occurrences, documenting her journey in two memoirs and, in 2008, beginning “26.2 with Donna: the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer.”
Deegan long ago transcended her former role as newscaster. Now, she’s entering a different space — the world of the podcast, which will begin on Oct. 6 at the new downtown Jacksonville hotspot: Intuition Ale Works.
The Political Happy Hour (also branded as #JaxPol: the Live Edition) will be a collaboration with Abel Harding, a veteran of the Alvin Brown administration, and the Florida Times-Union.
Harding and Deegan clearly wanted to get back in the game, and the podcast is a way to do it.
FloridaPolitics.com spoke with Deegan about her reasons for jumping in to a new show at the peak of the election season.
Deegan said Harding suggested it via email; he missed talking about politics, and so did she, noting that “the only thing [she misses] about broadcast journalism” is the ability to do deep dives into political issues.
For Deegan — a cousin of the ever-loquacious Councilman Tommy Hazouri — politics is “bloodsport” in her family.
One can expect that, for both Harding and Deegan, the ability to go in depth and no-holds-barred on political topics will be welcome; though both have copious experiences on the news end, the nature of a podcast allows — even demands — more editorial license.
As does the nature of recording a podcast during Happy Hour at a raucous brew house.
For Deegan, this comes at the right time. She’s noticed that, over the years locally, “political discourse has gotten less civil” and “more inflammatory and ridiculous” with party identification becoming “more entrenched.”
She attributes a certain amount of that to the 24/7 news cycle, and the way social media magnifies the pyrotechnics.
“I have been very critical,” Deegan said, of “how news media has responded” to that.
“There’s room for intelligent discussion,” Deegan adds, “room for a little more depth.”
Part of the problem reporters have — both on the local beat and nationally — is the assembly line nature of media production.
“Back in the day,” Deegan said, “reporters didn’t have to do five stories a day.”
And they had more help doing it, as opposed to the skeleton crews currently in operation on some stories.
Because of the nature of the rapid-fire production model, Deegan believes an unavoidable superficiality has crept into the product.
“Give this side 20 seconds, that side 20 seconds … OK, I’m covered,” is how Deegan aptly characterized that.
Deegan believes there’s room for something better, for “going in and finding truth.”
And if “that means one side ends up looking good, and the other side ends up looking bad,” if that’s the truth, so be it.
Deegan, a veteran of over three decades of broadcast journalism in total, doesn’t blame the people in the field.
“Day-to-day reporters just don’t have the bandwidth to do what needs to be done,” Deegan said, and — perhaps inexorably — they get “played by politicians.”
Ultimately, the reductive nature of the product serves the democratic process poorly.
And the Political Happy Hour should be seen as a corrective to that.
The format likely will be three segments, lasting 20 to 25 minutes each, and two are already planned: a segment on the impending re-introduction of a bill to expand Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance, and a segment on the presidential election.
Despite that national topic on Oct. 6, Deegan said this is “largely a local political show,” and Harding and she are “definitely talking HRO.”
Deegan, with a note of frustration in her voice, noted the prevailing political narrative ahead of the pension-tax referendum Aug. 30 was that “there’s absolutely no room to get anything else done” until the referendum vote passed.
The HRO, Deegan added, “needs to be kept on the front burner.”
Beyond the hot-button HRO, Deegan also expects the format to include deep dives into “district-by-district” material.
“The idea really is to get people more connected to their political environment. People will care more if they understand more,” Deegan said.
And — make no mistake — this project is about synthesizing knowledgeable presentation, via guests who can speak to issues, with audience engagement.
Deegan notes that they will be “sitting very close to the audience,” with the idea of promoting engagement among those on hand.
“Anybody can sit and talk to elected officials,” Deegan notes, but interacting with the audience is key.
Speaking of elected officials, Deegan resoundingly laughed when asked if she planned to run for office.
There is a sad irony to that.
Writing as someone who covers a city council where at least one committee chair routinely has to have bills explained to him, it would be wonderful if engaged, thoughtful, passionate community activists were jumping into the political scrum … instead of, say, people who show up a half hour late for meetings.
However, the ballot’s loss is the political podcast world’s gain. And starting Oct. 6, there will be an instant frontrunner for best podcast in this neck of the woods, when Deegan and Harding kick off the Political Happy Hour at Intuition Ale Works.