Melissa Ross is the host and producer of First Coast Connect, a local NPR radio show that broadcasts daily from the studios of WJCT, right across the street from EverBank Field. As a matter of fact, her first guest in 2009 was Wayne Weaver, former owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Since that time, various guests have included mayors, law enforcement officials, athletes, doctors, attorneys, authors, and celebrities. She regularly discusses major issues such as racism, sexual harassment, and poverty. Listeners are invited to call in and offer opinions.
“By calling into the show or interacting with the show digitally, people get the chance to be part of the community discussion on issues that are important both locally and nationally,” Ross said. “That’s why I do what I do because I think that’s an important mission.”
In addition to tackling the bigger issues, she also shares information about local events, monthly book reviews, and even recently, Native Sun’s holiday turkey recipe.
“I just have a love of news and information,” Ross said. “One thing I’ve discovered, in doing this job, is that I really do enjoy connecting with people.”
Ross grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where she worked on the school newspaper and co-anchored the high school daily news show. She knew she wanted to go into broadcasting from an early age.
“At that time in the early ‘80s, the only women I saw in the popular culture that really seemed to have anything going for them were newswomen. I didn’t have a lot of role models of successful women in my town. The only women that seemed to really have any sort of agency were Hollywood actresses and news anchors,” she said. “I think subconsciously I was drawn to that field in part because I wanted to do something professional, and I wanted to use my writing and speaking skills. That seemed like a logical fit at the time. Now young girls growing up see women in all kinds of professions, at a high level.”
Melissa studied journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. After graduation, she returned to her hometown of Dayton and worked at the CBS affiliate there.
As her career progressed, she worked in Lexington, Cincinnati, and Chicago before accepting a job in Orlando in the summer of 2000. She thought Orlando would be a quick stop in her plan to eventually return to the north. Instead, she met her husband and decided to start a family.
The unpredictability associated with a career in television journalism quickly began to lose its appeal. Her husband, Drew Dixon, accepted a position with The Florida Times-Union, and the family moved to Jacksonville.
Ross began working for First Coast News, but the year 2004, when four hurricanes blew through Jacksonville, helped her make the decision to leave broadcasting.
She made a transition into public relations, working at the Dalton Agency. However, three years later, she was persuaded to return to broadcasting as the host of First Coast Connect.
“I never intended to go back into any kind of broadcasting, but the thing about public media is, yes, we’re broadcasters, but really, it’s a different culture than commercial media. We’re a nonprofit organization, and so even though we try to cover the community at a very high level, we are also a mission-driven organization. It’s just a different mindset, a different culture altogether, which I really appreciate.”
In a world where political discourse is often contentious, Ross is a model of civility. “You can ask difficult questions in a civil way, but you can still follow up and force officials to answer questions without haranguing them, and I think our listeners appreciate that approach.”
She tries to present a balanced view, offering both sides of the issue an opportunity to share their opinions.
“We strive to make sure that all segments of the community are heard from and to provide a fair, respectful platform for a wide variety of points of view. I think most of the time we do that. We certainly give it our best effort every single day.”
In an effort to help others, Melissa makes it a priority to spotlight the nonprofit community on the show as much as possible.
“I think that there are small ways that all of us can make a contribution where we are.” She has served on a number of nonprofit boards as another way of giving back.
Jacksonville has embraced First Coast Connect and Melissa Ross. The show has grown in popularity and public regard at a level that exceeded initial expectations.
“I’m so grateful for that,” Ross said. “This talk show has just grown and developed into something much more than we envisioned when we launched it. It’s taught me that Jacksonville is just full of heart. There are so many wonderful people here who are working every day to improve this community.”