One is from the southern U.S. border.
The other from the northern border.
One trained to become a manager at a 7-Eleven and even contemplated following his father into the military.
The other wanted to be a talk radio personality so he could tell students when school was canceled because of bad weather, but when his initial foray into the business didn’t pay enough, he became a machinist at a steel mill.
Both would eventually wind up in talk radio full time, despite one’s name being at the bottom of the list of potential candidates for his first radio job. The other was chosen because the owner at the station he joined as a disc jockey (after leaving the steel mill) couldn’t find anyone she wanted to hire for a talk show and finally looked his way despite the fact that he much preferred music to talk.
Meet Gary McNamara and Eric Harley, whose paths eventually crossed at WBAP radio in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex in the early 2000s and who today are co-hosts of Red Eye Radio (RER), the five-hour overnight talk show that, after humble beginnings in 1969, is now heard on more than 240 radio stations nationwide, including radio giants such as WABC in New York City, WLS in Chicago, WBAP in Dallas-Fort Worth, and KABC in Los Angeles. The show and its podcasts can also be downloaded and streamed online.
How it all started
McNamara grew up in Buffalo, New York, and recently recalled his exact introduction to talk radio.
In addition to his music program, McNamara was manager of the station he’d joined after leaving the steel mill.
“The owner came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to do the talk show,’” shared McNamara. “And I said, ‘No, I won’t and I can’t.’ She said, ‘Well then, you have no choice.’ And so here I am 31 years later. I’m probably one of the few people forced into doing talk radio, having no idea that it was exactly what I would absolutely have the most passion for. In talk radio, you get to do everything. You get to be producer, director; you get to have a great editorial control and creativity that does not exist anywhere else.”
McNamara, who is single and 65 years old, held jobs in Buffalo, Portland, Chicago, and Rockford, Illinois, before winding up at WBAP in 2000.
Harley, who is married with four adult children and eight grandchildren, grew up in Texas, graduating from high school at Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1984, after spending his formative years in Del Rio, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexican border.
He had not necessarily considered a career in radio but did apply at a local radio station just “because they were hiring.” Because he had no car, a friend, David Anderson, took him there and both men interviewed for a job.
As the interview began, Harley was told the station wouldn’t hire anyone who did not have radio experience.
He was set to go to work for 7-Eleven at a store within walking distance from his home. On his first day at work he was told to report to a different location that would require a commute, so he had to decline the job because he had no transportation.
That same day, Harley was at home, fully dressed, when the phone rang. It was the manager of the station where he’d interviewed. The manager asked if Harley could come to the station, so his mother gave him a ride.
“I went inside the studio and the manager asked, ‘Are you Eric?’ And I said yes,” Harley recalled. “He said, ‘OK, great. I have a 40-hour-a-week job for you.’”
The manager had a yellow legal pad he showed to Harley, whose name was at the very bottom of the list of candidates. All the other names, including Harley’s friend, Anderson, were crossed out. The manager had tried to contact the other candidates, but Harley was the only one he was able to reach.
“David told me later he’d heard the phone ring when the manager tried to call him, but he ignored the call,” said Harley.
Harley eventually moved to Dallas, and in 1996 joined the late Bill Mack who had started the show as “The Midnight Cowboy” in 1969.
Mack’s show centered around music, but by the early 2000s, the show started trending toward more talk than music.
After Mack’s departure in 2001, the name of the show was changed to Midnight Trucking Radio Network (MTRN) and Harley and Joe Kelley were tapped as hosts.
In 2005, Kelley left for a radio job in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Midnight Trucking Radio Network became Red Eye Radio Network in November 2011 when Citadel Media was purchased by Cumulus Media. MTRN was placed inside Westwood One Radio Networks as a syndicated program. The show is on the air from midnight to 5 a.m. central time.
While “trucking” was removed from the title, it remained a trucking show, targeting over-the-road drivers.
One of the first conversations Harley recalled having with his new on-air partner came when he received a call while waiting to board a plane to the Walcott Truckers Jamboree.
“He said, ‘Look, we’re going to make the best of this and have fun,” recalled Harley. “He was so enthusiastic and had a positive tone.”
It didn’t take long for Harley and McNamara to figure out that the two had real on-air chemistry.
“I’ve had off-air chemistry with radio friends,” Harley said. “It seemed as though we were going to have the greatest morning show ever, but it just didn’t work.”
It was different with Harley and McNamara.
“On-air chemistry is extremely rare when it is put together by outside forces,” said Harley. “I can’t speak for other shows. But like Gary said, we may have different approaches, but we do have the same ideology. Gary may be from the northern border and I from the southern border, but we’ve built this chemistry that I’ve never experienced in a professional setting.”
As much as they like and respect one another, McNamara and Harley do not socialize outside of work.
“It’s not because we don’t like each other,” quipped Harley. “We’d probably sit around and commandeer a whole room. But we’ve never done that. If you don’t socialize and discuss issues, you’re able to bring your initial authentic thought to the show. Sometimes you sacrifice everything for the show, including sleep. Sometimes you sacrifice family time — everything for the show. And sometimes you sacrifice friendships or conversations so that you can save it to bring it to the audience, to serve the show your audience completely. That’s been our theory and motto from the beginning.”
There is no ego on the show, either, McNamara said.
“You have to be unselfish,” he added. “I don’t care [which of us] gets the punch line. I don’t care who makes the better point, because Eric may make the better point. The whole idea is to build the continuity of two people becoming one, a kind of entertainment vehicle. When I started with Eric, the one thing I was thinking is I’d always be solo on talk radio. I’d never worked with anybody else. And the fear is that you will lose part of yourself if you don’t dominate, because it’s not your personality. It’s just the opposite with Eric. He brings out so much of me. And I know I bring a lot out of Eric.”
“You sacrifice ego in order to build a better program for the listener,” added Harley. “Gary’s dad was an engineer and had a very thoughtful mind. My father was in military and law enforcement and served in two wars. But we, like them, are both critical thinkers.”
McNamara’s father John had a mantra of DTJ, short for “do the job.” For Harley’s dad, the mantra was “show up.”
“You show up to do the work and you show up every day,” said Harley, “and you do the job. The idea is you are serving a greater purpose.”
When McNamara gets on a roll, Harley says he just sits back and listens.
“I feel like I’m at school, because there are things I don’t know. It’s important to let that happen for the show,” he said.
He also stresses he’s not a microphone hog — someone who dominates the conversation.
“If you set your ego aside and realize that you’re serving that greater purpose, your moment will happen,” he said. “If you’re showing up every day, if you’re doing what John McNamara (Gary’s dad) says, and what Jimmy Harley (my dad) said, your moment will happen. You have to begin and end with that purpose. If I have a driver coming up to me and he calls me, Dave Harley (instead of Eric), I’m OK with that.”
Also okay with Harley and McNamara are the appreciative comments they hear from drivers.
“We received one recently that said, ‘You guys keep me awake all night because you guys talk about this and talk about this and, you know, and I’m just, it just keeps me awake,’” shared Harley. “If at the end of the show we get an email or call from a driver saying, ‘You keep me awake all night and educate and involve me,’ it’s mission accomplished.”
Serving the greater purpose of being an entertainment vehicle for an audience that is primarily in the trucking industry is the most important thing for the duo, said McNamara.
The duo has more fun on the air that anyone would believe.
“We walk out of there at five in the morning and we are just thrilled. It’s like the audience says, we are really serious guys,” he said. “We may be serious and have a discipline and an intensity of focus, but it’s all because we get to play the Super Bowl of radio every single night, because that’s what the show really is.”
Listening to listeners
Today, the show is designed around what hosts and producers started to hear from drivers in the early 2000s when the midnight to 6 a.m. portion of the show was primarily music with some conversations about trucking issues.
For the 32 years Bill Mack was with the show, he played country music, and that continued when he left in 2001.
“When I came on in 1996, we were already getting a lot of feedback from drivers at truck shows and phone calls that things were changing,” said Harley. “There were the President Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings and the 2000 election with the disputed count in Florida. Drivers would approach us and say they felt nobody was talking to them at night. Drivers more and more were demanding that we have some conversations about the issues outside of trucking, which there were many. It was about things they were hearing about during the day.”
The show’s popularity and format serve as a good public relations tool for trucking, Harley added.
“We are educating the non-trucking public as to how important trucking is,” said Harley. “We can preach to the choir all day, and we can all stand around at the Mid-America Trucking Show and appreciate what the industry does, but it is a much bigger job to go out and educate the American public as to the role of those trucks. The public doesn’t understand the role of trucking and what would happen in the event of a catastrophic trucking shutdown.”
The show’s content is now focused on world, national, and trucking-specific issues.
While the staying power of the show revolves around the chemistry between Harley and McNamara, there is also personal discipline, especially when it comes to rest.
After all, working five nights a week between midnight and 5 a.m. is outside the routine of most Americans.
McNamara said he’s home by 5:30 a.m. (central time) and in bed by 6 a.m. He sleeps until 10 a.m. gets up, takes care of personal business and sleeps again from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., when he gets up to prepare for the show.
“I’ve been very blessed. If I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t do the show. You have to be disciplined; you have to eat right. You’ve got to exercise. You have to be in really good shape,” he said.
Harley gets about half the sleep that McNamara gets, only sleeping from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
“You know, I’m married with grandchildren,” he chuckled.