Tack Nail: Reporter, Character, One Of A Kind

Dawson "Tack" Nail, long-time executive editor of Warren Communications News and Communications Daily, died March 25. Here, William O’Shaughnessy, president-CEO of Whitney Radio, parent company of WVOX-AM and WRTN-FM Westchester, N.Y., offers some personal reflections on the man who was one of the most prominent reporters covering broadcasting and telecommunications in Washington for the past 50 years.

“Tack” Nail was a journalist and reporter the way the men of our fathers’ time imagined them to be.

His beat was communications and television, the business thereof, its doings and deliberations. And his turf was the capital city of our nation where he covered congress, the regulatory authorities and commissions like the FCC and also those who resided in the White House itself for the last 50 years.

Tack Nail was sui generis: altogether unique and able to be defined only in his own terms. He looked like nothin’ you ever saw: craggy, rumpled, disheveled and his jowls were always in need of a shave. And, on information and belief, he enjoyed a cocktail of an evening. Or two. I was crazy about the man.

And as John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable observed: “He looked like a cross between Gabby Hayes and Abraham Lincoln.” He had it exactly right. Just perfect. 

How appropriate, too, that a B&C scribe had the best line as we mourn his passing … because for all those decades when Dawson B. Nail covered Washington, his only real competition came from the formidable Taishoff stable at Broadcasting & Cable over on DeSales Street. 

That essential journal, long our sentinel on the Potomac, had the legendary Sol Taishoff himself; his son Larry of sainted memory; the estimable Don West, now president of the Library of American Broadcasting, who was with Tack last week when he wrote 30 to his colorful life; and graceful, cerebral editors like Harry Jessell, Ed James and Mark Miller. It has only Eggerton now to keep us honest.


Writing for B&C’s rival, Warren Communications’ TV Digest and later Communications Daily, Tack covered the business side of this pervasive and powerful industry from its infancy all the way up to the reality of reality shows.

As the scribe and chronicler of this great communications force, he would often rage against the evils of consolidation. And like his competitors and colleagues at B&C, he held broadcasters’ feet to the fire on First Amendment and free speech matters. But there was no meanness or venom in the man. And his writings and reporting held no animosity toward even the conglomerateurs, absentee owners and speculators who view a television station only as an instrument, a vehicle and a conduit for importunings about products and goods and services few of us need and most can ill afford.

For all his off-handed, gnarly, un-PC, rough-edged demeanor and the southern twang, Tack could get through to any D.C. bureaucrat or solon of the Congress and always to any media mogul in whose care and keeping the powerful instruments of communications reside.

I want to end by telling you also that my own kids always loved Tack Nail ever since they encountered him many years ago at one of Joe Reilly’s high councils in upstate New York. Or it may have been at NAB. My daughter Kate always lit up when she saw Mr. Nail, the kindly looking man with the funny name. When I suggested to Kate that he was a very humorous fellow with a marvelous wit and widely known as a great character, she said:  “Daddy, there’s more there … I like him. He’s a really good man.”

And now as soon as I finish this piece I have to go into the office of Kate’s brother David Tucker O’Shaughnessy to tell him Tack Nail died over the weekend. For the last 30-some years, you see, David has carried around every day in his wallet a $2 bill given to him by Mr. Nail at one of those conventions.

David, who is now president of our two radio stations, will reach in his pocket, I expect, and produce that wallet from which he’ll gently remove the folded $2 bill. And if I know my son and heir, he’ll wipe away a tear and tuck it safely back in his wallet.

Forgive the personal story about this marvelous character. But our profession — I know I’m supposed to call it an industry — can’t lose too many more Ward Quaals, Marty Becks or Steve Labunskis only to be replaced by those “Make it happen” … “Doin’ what it takes” … “Getting’ it done” … “Sounds like a plan” … empty suits who sit in airport lounges tapping away at their BlackBerrys and iPads communicating their ratings and financial results to corporate masters a whole continent away. They call themselves, these new mandarins of the trade, “market managers” and “chief revenue officers.”

Tack Nail knew all of his. He wrote of it. And he did what he could to remind us that a television — or radio — station could elevate and energize a community and make it better and stronger and its people sweeter and kinder.

It must also be remembered that when he had filed his last stories, Tack would somehow drag himself up to New York for board meetings of the old Broadcast Pioneers, which became the modern day national charity known as the Broadcasters Foundation of America.

It meant a lot to Tack because it assists broadcasters and their families when the roof falls in and life turns sad and difficult. 

Dawson B. “Tack” Nail heard that music, too.

A memorial service for Dawson “Tack” Nail will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31, at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to: the Dawson “Tack” Nail Memorial Fund at the Library of American Broadcasting, Box 2749, Alexandria, Va., 22301.; the Broadcasters Foundation of America, 125 W. 55th St., 21st Floor, New York, NY 10019; or in his name to the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Foundation, 100 Campus Drive, Weatherford, Okla. 73096.

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