Episode Preview with Sirius XM's Mark Willis (audio, 36s):
Full Episode (audio):
September 26, 2023Episode 67. Alone in the Crowd: Long-haul truckers fight isolation through satellite connections.
FEATURING: SiriusXM's Mark Willis
Thousands of long-haul truck drivers in America share a common and constant challenge of remoteness. They find insight and community through the vast reach of satellite radio.
About Our Guest
SiriusXM's Mark Willis
Mark Willis serves as a journalist with SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Willis, who has more than 30 years of experience in the news media, has interviewed presidents, sports celebrities, and maybe even your neighbor. He has worked as an anchor at KRLD in Dallas and the Texas State Network. He was also news director for the ABC Radio Networks in Dallas. Willis currently serves as the Region 6 Coordinator for the Radio and Television Digital News Association.
Bernie Fette (00:16):
Hello and welcome to Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. As they work to meet the demands of rigid schedules and long hours, thousands of long-haul truck drivers turn to their radios for music and commentary to ease the fatigue that they face every day. And if they’re listening, there’s a good chance they’re listening to Mark Willis. Every weekday, Mark tackles tough issues facing truck drivers today, helping them stay on top of the news that affects them and giving them a voice in important conversations. You’ll find Mark on SiriusXM Satellite Radio on channel 146 every weekday. But for now, you’ll find him here with us on Thinking Transportation. Mark, thanks so much for sharing your time with us.
Mark Willis (01:17):
Hey, it’s nice to talk with you. How are you today?
Bernie Fette (01:20):
Wonderful. I was thinking maybe we could start with you sharing some of your impressions about your audience. And I’m guessing it’s a pretty loyal following of listeners. They do share some things in common, like long hours on the road, long stretches of time away from family, dedication to a job that’s far more important than they might often get credit for. I’m wondering how your years in this job have shaped your thoughts and your attitudes about your audience and the industry that they represent.
Mark Willis (01:57):
You know, that’s a really great question. I’ll just give you a kind of a historical timeline that back in 2004 I was news director for ABC radio in Dallas and we were approached by a company called Sirius Radio. They came to us and said, we would like you to produce a trucker show. And just having very limited knowledge about the trucking industry, and I only thought about that, was okay, trucks are big, they go by me really quick, and they cut a lot of people off. So that quickly changed when I got into the subject matter because it required me to do a lot of intense research into the trucking industry and understanding what makes the men and women that are part of the trucking industry go forward. This is an incredible group of individuals that are some of the hardest working souls in America. From 2004 to 2010, I hosted the morning show on what was then Sirius Radio. And this went out to thousands of truckers all across the United States and to Canada as well. And when I left the uh, program in 2010, it had built to a foundation that was really establishing it as a very trusted news source. My philosophy was to build it on a brand and that was news and information, and then provide the content that the drivers and those listening out there really come to depend on. I came back in 2012 and was called by Sirius XM after the merger and they wanted me to come back and do the mid-day show where I currently reside from 1:00 to 4:00 central. When I came back, I just jumped right back into the news and again, started to provide the information that drivers needed from traffic, weather, health and wellness, uh, regulations, lifestyle, things like that to help them get through their day.
Mark Willis (03:53):
And it’s been very successful and the way it’s changed my philosophy about this when I started back in 2004, that I really had no idea the extent of the importance of the trucking industry. Many people take it for granted that the things, the items that we buy every day we come to depend on simply just appear on a shelf. And they don’t.
Bernie Fette (04:15):
Mark Willis (04:16):
They really have gotta have, uh, a lot of intense work to get them to where those items need to go. So a greater appreciation for the men and women that are driving the trucks out there today and understanding the importance to the economy. They are the heart and soul of America and the backbone of this country. A lot of respect for them.
Bernie Fette (04:34):
Certainly a group that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves. And I suppose the pandemic really threw a spotlight on that.
Mark Willis (04:43):
It did indeed. And that’s a great point because when the pandemic hit, the country basically locked down, folks are not able to get out of their house. And then it was a situation where, okay, folks need goods, they need material, they need food, they need medicine, they need shoes to put on their children’s feet. And the truck drivers would literally go into harm’s way. They would go into the hotspot where the Covid zones were. They would drop the goods off and keep America rolling. And the number of the drivers that I’ve talked to over the years really found a lot of focus on the fact that they were so dedicated to the mission of getting those goods to where they needed to go. So again, it was the determination to keep the country moving, to make sure that people stayed healthy, make sure that people stayed fed and they wanted to do their part to keep this country moving forward.
Bernie Fette (05:39):
What you gave us was a really helpful chronology of the last, uh, 18 or 20 years, it sounds like, Mark. Let’s look back even a bit further if we could. As I understand it, the idea of a radio home for truckers goes back at least a half a century to the time of Bill Mack, a broadcaster whose name I’m sure you’re familiar with, known as the Midnight Cowboy on WBAP-AM in Fort Worth. And I remember this because I grew up in North Texas.
Mark Willis (06:11):
Bernie Fette (06:12):
I’m wondering what stands out to you in terms of what’s changed the most since then in the world of radio broadcasting? And conversely, what is it in your mind that hasn’t changed at all?
Mark Willis (06:23):
You know, that’s another great question. Going back, looking at the timeline with Bill Mack, he was certainly the legendary leader because he, he formulated the strategy of reaching out to an audience of truckers that a lot of them ran overnight from like midnight to 5:00, midnight to 6:00. And uh, he was their leader, if you will. People tuned in and came to listen for his remarks about life in general. He also played a lot of the country songs. He was friends with a lot of the country stars back then and is very famous for writing a number of country songs that a lot of folks hear, but they may not know that Bill Mack was the author of that. He was the one that wrote it. But Bill provided a sense of comfort to those that were out there on the road back then. He was the one that really was keeping people company as they traveled overnight. Trucking as you know, is a very lonely job that people are out there for hours and hours and days on end. So he provided that path, if you will, for the current foundation of what we’ve got now with the trucking industry with news, information, traffic, and weather. And when you look at shows outside of what I do, there’s folks like the legendary Dave Nemo who is a synonymous with trucking radio. And uh, he is the host of our morning show on Sirius XM. And he’s been doing this for years. Incredibly loved individual, very much respected. So he provides information, news, he provides that companionship for the drivers that are out there as well. And then K.C. Phillips then is the next show, and K.C. is a young man, probably in his oh, mid-forties, and he’s taken the tradition on to the next level, providing a sense of humor, sense of comfort to those that are out there. And then I take over with news and then there’s person by the name of Grace Sharkey who follows me with Freightways Radio. So it’s all about providing the driver with that information, that sense of comfort, camaraderie as uh, they’re traveling about. So the foundations have changed over the years, but Bill Mack certainly did set the bar very high, and we are hoping that we are exceeding those expectations.
Bernie Fette (08:41):
So it sounds like the purpose and the intent of what you and your colleagues have worked toward hasn’t changed at all over those years. Name something for us that really has changed a lot.
Mark Willis (08:53):
Well, the regulations for the trucking industry are really first and foremost on the minds of so many drivers that are out there today. We’re talking about rules under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. That is the governing body in Washington that regulates the trucking industry from the hours of service, which is a 14-hour duty day, 11-hour driving cycle that the drivers must follow the electronic logging devices. There’s technology on board the trucks that I think a lot of people on Main Street USA would be really amazed at. Things such as collision mitigation, lane departure warning systems, anti rollover technology, satellite tracking technology. It’s really come a long way from the CB radio days back in the seventies when the movies like Smokey And The Bandit were out there. So it’s really come a long way. Over the course of those years, more and more technology is being introduced into the cab.
Bernie Fette (09:55):
And the regulation that that you mentioned, that’s clearly one of the things that’s very important to your audience. And you have such a great connection with your listeners, it seems, largely because you drive conversations about things that are important to them, like the regulatory environment that you mentioned. I’m wondering for those out there who may have never heard your show, what are the kinds of things that you address with your listeners that are clearly important to them?
Mark Willis (10:23):
Well, one of the big things, uh, in addition to the regulation and safety, uh, there’s a lot of emphasis on health and wellness. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Drivers on the road are very isolated and they’re in seated positions for extended periods of time, sitting for like 11 hours during the day. They don’t get much exercise. They’re not eating healthy, not eating well at all. A lot of the food that they run across is in truck stops, but it’s usually fast food outlets, maybe a grab-and-go kind of area.
Bernie Fette (10:56):
Mark Willis (10:57):
Exactly. And calories. And it’s really not the best food for them. So I decided to put a medical spin on it as well. I’ve got doctors in from UT Southwestern Medical Center that join us, uh, Parkland Health and Wellness, also a department of, uh, there’s a physician in Florida that provides driver health and wellness tips as well. Eating healthy, getting a lot of sleep, addressing things that are medically related. And it’s really been a big benefit because we’ve heard a lot of good stories from the drivers that have subscribed to the idea of losing weight, stopping smoking, and it’s all designed to help improve their lifestyle. I don’t know if you do this, but the average trucker age is gonna be about 54 years old, thereabouts in that general ballpark. And truckers will live on average about 10 years less than the general population.
Bernie Fette (11:50):
Mark Willis (11:50):
Due to the fact that that there’s so many sedentary things going on. So that’s one thing we’re gonna continue to strive for, is to give them that medical information they need, not to diagnose them over the phone, but to give them that little extra push to take themselves into the doctor and say, Hey, help me with this.
Bernie Fette (12:09):
And we also know that there is a shortage of those truckers out there. The ones who have the jobs now are leaving the industry and the media reports tell us that there’s a pretty substantial shortage of people to fill those jobs. Why is that in your view? And, and can you talk a little about what you know about the working conditions, the pay, et cetera, in addition to what you’ve already told us about the long days? The long periods where they’re just seated and facing health problems that the rest of us may not have to face.
Mark Willis (12:43):
The industry is undergoing a tremendous metamorphosis, if you will. A big change. Okay. And many in the industry that are in that general population of say 55 or so, that they’re deciding to go ahead and retire. They wanna go ahead and go fishing, in other words. So we’re seeing a lot of people exiting the industry in that age bracket. But the other side of that is that we’re also seeing new people coming into the industry. There’s a lot of truck driver training schools that are reporting record enrollments from young people that want to get into the industry. The sense of adventure on the open road, being your own boss, if they’re an owner operator. The pay conditions are amazing. When you look at where this has been from years gone by, some companies are paying in the neighborhood of $110,000 per year to drive trucks for them. And we’re talking about the largest retailer in North America that is paying those kind of dollars to bring people in. And it’s been very successful. There’s gonna be a continued growth in the amount of pay that people are gonna be receiving because the industry’s gotta be able to compete with outside business. People can make a lot of money maybe if they go manage a restaurant or if they work in a, in a warehouse or some managerial capacity. But the trucking industry’s really kind of changed and ran quite a bit. Now they’re paying competitive wages, better benefits, sign on bonuses. That may not be the whole story though, simply throwing money at a problem. Many are saying it’s a retention problem, not a driver shortage, that the industry needs to focus more on retaining the drivers they have. Better working conditions, have better pay for existing drivers and things like that. So it’s almost like the chicken and egg approach, which comes first in another way.
Bernie Fette (14:35):
So do I understand correctly that the trucker shortage that I just asked you about, is that trend turning at least a little so that the number of those vacant spots, those vacant seats in the trucks is reducing?
Mark Willis (14:50):
If you, you ask folks from OOYDA, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, uhhuh, <affirmative>, uh, they would say that the conditions need to get better. Higher pay, having access to restrooms for the drivers is another major issue. And that’s why some people are leaving. Others like the American Trucking Association would say that the numbers are really looking good, that things are starting to turn around. We’ve got a shortage, yes. But more people are looking at entering into the industry. It’s kind of like what press site do you wanna read, in other words?
Bernie Fette (15:25):
Right. So we’ve clearly got some disconnect in that story depending on who you talk to?
Mark Willis (15:30):
Bernie Fette (15:32):
Okay. Here’s one issue or problem facing truckers that I hadn’t even heard about before talking to one of our researchers not long ago: not having enough parking spaces for trucks.
Mark Willis (15:45):
That’s absolutely correct. The numbers are one space for every 11 trucks.
Bernie Fette (15:51):
One for 11. Wow.
Mark Willis (15:51):
And it’s, it’s an amazing story because of the fact that this continues to be a problem that has been around for generations. When you look at the trucking parking shortage, it is a safety issue. It’s not the fact that drivers can maybe find a space or they can’t find a space, but it contributes to fatigue. On the bottom line, drivers are pushing against their clock. The 11 hour driving day trying to find a parking space creates fatigue. Safety becomes a concern. And you have to also look at it from a financial standpoint as well, that many of the drivers will stop their duty day 4, 5, 6 hours early because of concerns that they’re not able to find a parking space. So it’s taking money outta their pockets and many drivers are losing thousands of dollars each year to try to remedy this. Some of them said the government needs to step up more, there needs to be more government intervention to provide dollars for parking. And indeed, we are seeing that to some extent. Tennessee and Florida just recently got some millions of dollars in federal grant money to open up more access to truck parking. And they talked with the Department of Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg just recently, and he was at an event in South Dakota and he was talking about the fact that, uh, federal money is being poured into South Dakota to open up more trucking space there on some of the major interstates, uh, that cross through that great state. So clearly there’s efforts being made to try to fix it, but certainly the truck parking shortage is very, very much a concern.
Bernie Fette (17:34):
Yeah. You mentioned safety as one of the consequences of that shortage of, of parking spaces. I wanted to ask you also about the lowering of the legal driving age for interstate truck drivers. Can you touch just very briefly on that, what change we have seen there and whether or not that is an issue of concern to anyone? Or is it another one of those cases where it’s a concern depending on who you talk to?
Mark Willis (18:06):
That’s a great way to describe it. And I’ll go back to OOYDA — Owner Operator Independent Driver Association. And they have mentioned many times before that lowering the age to 18 to drive a big rig is simply unsafe. That there needs to be maybe a threshold where somebody’s able to get in, say at 21 or 25 because the skills are not developed yet. I’m paraphrasing that. American Trucking Association has said that with a carefully monitored program that will bring drivers in at the age of 18, that they can indeed successfully be trained to operate a big truck. One of the interesting notes about that is the fact that you can drive intrastate between state lines. Say in Texas for example, you can drive from say, Laredo to Amarillo and you could be 18 to drive a big truck. But if you’re in Dallas-Fort Worth, and if you try to go north, say, of the Red River into Durant in a big truck at the age of 18, you can’t do that. So there’s a lot of debate in the industry about, you know, who’s on the right path? Do we lower the age to 18 or do we increase the age to 25 and go from there? So a lot of debate on that subject as well.
Bernie Fette (19:25):
What we’ve been talking about, Mark would be easy for us to refer to as trucker issues, but the implications reach well beyond that particular audience, right?
Mark Willis (19:37):
That’s very true. You can define it as trucker issues, but you are spot on from the standpoint that these are America’s issues. These are issues that affect Main Street, USA. Uhhuh, <affirmative> right down to the city hall, county governments, to the regional transportation authorities, to state governments, and then on to the federal level. Truckers’ issues affect everyone. Parking adds to fatigue, shortages on the store shelves because of delays with construction or not able to find drivers. That’s America’s issue. That’s not a trucker issue.
Bernie Fette (20:12):
A lot of people learn about these issues in the trucking industry by reading industry websites or following the news in other ways, but you go straight to the source, your listeners, you find storytellers who are doing the long haul runs and feeling those changes or issues up close. Why is that important?
Mark Willis (20:32):
It’s important to me as a journalist, to get both sides of the story. There’s gonna be all sorts of information that’s out there that is written by media sites or stories that are put on the air that are gonna have a definitive spin. It’s gonna be a narrative that would be maybe directed by the organization, whoever that organization may be. And it’s going to really affect the way that the reporting is, is shown to the general population. So it’s important for me to be able to dig into the source and find out who and what is driving the narrative, not relying on other sources of information that could be speculating on a particular story or subject matter or trend. It’s important to do the research and then find out what matters. Then presenting both sides of the story and then letting the public, the audience decide how they feel about these things. Critical to do that, because that really creates a foundation of trust in the reporting, confidence in reporting, knowing that both sides are presented and people can make their minds up on how they feel. We would fail in our mission if we didn’t do that, if we did not do that research, if we did not do that extra step to bring that story to the listener out there, then it’s really doing them a disservice. And that’s why our foundation is to bring all of the news, all of it as humanly possible we can find and then let the public decide how they feel.
Bernie Fette (22:03):
Important things for us to remember the next time we’re out there sharing roadway space with your listeners. Right?
Mark Willis (22:10):
Absolutely. Like I mentioned, they are the hardest working men and women in America. I’ve said this on the show, that they’re the heart and soul of America. They keep us fed, they keep clothing on our back, and they do such a wonderful job trying to make things go for us that we need to show them more appreciation for what they do.
Bernie Fette (22:32):
Last question. What is it that motivates you to show up to work every day?
Mark Willis (22:38):
You know, that’s a really, really good question. I was in mainstream media for 45 years. News director. I’ve done television work. So many different stories you can imagine from plane crashes to shootings to fires, and it would usually revolve around human misery. And that is really problematic. Because there’s more to a story than reporting the human misery side. And when I started doing the trucking industry reporting, I came to find out that these are great men and women that are out there doing, um, they’re doing great work, and it’s really interesting to me and fun to hear their story and to hear what makes them tick. If I can provide a solution to them, then my job has been successful for the day. If I can leave them with a nugget of information that they can make their day a little bit better, then I know that I’ve done my work.
Bernie Fette (23:34):
We’ve been visiting with Mark Willis, veteran broadcaster and host of Road Dog Trucking News on SiriusXM Channel 146. Thank you for joining us, Mark. I really enjoyed our visit and also thank you for hosting so many of our researchers from TTI on your show. We really appreciate that, and we appreciate you spending time with us today. Thank you.
Mark Willis (24:00):
My pleasure. Let’s do it again.
Bernie Fette (24:04):
Long-haul trucking can be a lonely profession, but those who are part of it always have a virtual place to go, to be in the company of other big rig drivers — on SiriusXM 146. It’s a gathering place for some of the hardest working men and women in America, keeping them informed on what’s important to them, whether it’s diesel prices, healthcare concerns, trucking regulation, or even transportation research. Thanks for listening. Please just take a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode. And please join us again next time for another conversation about getting ourselves and the things we need from point A to point B. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for joining us. We’ll see you next time.