Tucson broadcast legend John C. Scott dead at 80

Scott was a newscaster, state lawmaker & talk-radio host for more than three decades

By: - September 25, 2023 1:06 pm

John C. Scott at work. Photo courtesy John C. Scott via TucsonSentinel.com

TUCSON — Local radio legend John C. Scott died on Friday, Sept. 22. He was 80.

Scott, whose real name was John Scott Ulm, spent more than three decades as the host of the John C. Scott Show, which bounced from AM station to AM station and sometimes stretched as long as four hours a day, five days a week. The program brought listeners into a mid-day political conversation, featuring in-depth interviews with politicians, journalists and community leaders. Over the years, guests ranged from U.S. senators to candidates for school board.

Scott’s most recent gig was an hour-long show on Saturday afternoons on KVOI 1030 AM. He broadcast his last show on July 15 and his final guest was Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

“John has served as a source of information in this community for decades,” Kozachik said. “He’s an icon and in the truest sense of the words, ‘He will be missed.’ This past year has been agonizing for John. First losing his wife, then his daughter. He has finally found some peace and if there’s more for us beyond this existence then John is reunited with those he lost, and in a warm embrace that will last into eternity.”

“For decades, his marvelous radio voice broadcast interviewed so many people in our community,” said former U.S. Rep. Ron Barber. “I had the good fortune to be interviewed by John and it always was a highlight of my day. John was never afraid to go after elected officials who he felt were not properly serving the people. He had strong opinions on many topics and you couldn’t listen to his shows without being challenged by the positions he took.”

“He was a personal friend, a very serious talk show host and he represented a candid voice on all things political,” said the ex-congressman. “You never had to guess where John stood on the issues. He will be sorely missed in Tucson.”

Scott got his start in radio when he was still a teenager in Kansas, after doing a stint in a juvenile reformatory for passing a bad check.

After arriving in Tucson in the late 1960s, Scott worked as a TV newscaster before leaving that job in 1972 to serve one term as a Democrat in the Arizona Legislature.

He returned to TV and radio broadcasting and in 1989, he launched the John C. Scott Show.

Scott’s son, Mark Ulm, worked with his father as the show’s producer for more than 25 years.

“He just lived his life the way he wanted,” Ulm said. “He was the Ron Burgundy of Tucson. Him and (former news anchor) George Borozan and some of those guys. Those guys ruled the roost back in the ’70s, being on television.”

He said Scott died at home and while he didn’t have a confirmed cause of death, his father had struggled with COPD.

“He smoked for 100 years,” Ulm said. “It caught up with him.”

Appearing on the show was a rite of passage for rookie politicians. Jonathan Paton, who represented Tucson in the Arizona Legislature from 2005 to 2010, called Scott the “first threshold guardian.”

“It was your first shot at being broadcast across town,” Paton said. “Before social media, before blogs, before any of that, he was the link you had to the much wider world.”

Scott would broadcast a live show from midtown’s Austin’s Ice Cream on election nights. Paton remembered stopping by in 2004 after, on his third try, he won a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives.

“It was really cool,” Paton said. “You sort of felt like you’d arrived, going on the show after an election that you’d won.”

Scott’s show steadily moved around the dial.

“We moved the show to five different stations through the years,” he told the Sentinel in 2013, at one of several points he announced his retirement. “We were at KTUC, then KTKT, KVOI, the Jolt, then back at KVOI.”

He’d return to the air multiple times after that. KVOI ended his broadcasts there in 2016, because his liberal talk didn’t fit the conservative bent of most of the station’s programming. He wasn’t a fan of right-wing talk radio.

“It’s all about creating fear and animosity,” he said. “If you scare people, anger people, you can develop an audience for that.”

He picked up again on KEVT, branding himself as a “progressive.” Then returned to KVOI in 2020 after the station was sold.

Scott, an interviewer who was never shy about sharing his own opinions, left many listeners unclear about where he stood on the political spectrum, as he challenged both Republican and Democratic politicians alike. His stint in elective office, as a one-term member of the state House, was as a Democrat. But he unsuccessfully ran in a 1998 GOP legislative primary.

Longtime friend Byron Howard said golfing with Scott was an adventure, especially when he’d been drinking.

“He lost control of the golf cart and dumped it into the lake at El Rio, so we got kicked out of there,” Howard said. “I could tell you a lot of funny stories about our golfing. A lot of people wouldn’t find it humorous, but it was.”

Howard said he eventually helped Scott get sober, even though Scott punched him in the nose while he was taking him to a rehab clinic.

“He broke my nose,” Howard said. “He didn’t want to go.”

But, Howard said, once Scott got sober, he never fell off the bandwagon.

“He never cheated again,” Howard said. “But we never could get him to quit smoking.”

Bill Buckmaster, longtime host of the Buckmaster Show on KVOI and former anchor of KUAT-TV’s Arizona Illustrated, said Scott was a friend who mentored him when he left TV and went into radio.

“I owe John a ton as he helped ease my transition from TV news on ‘Arizona Illustrated’ on AZPM to my own talk radio show in January of 2011,” Buckmaster said. “I just saw him on Wednesday and my last words to him were: ‘We’ve got to get you back on the air.’”

Justice of the Peace Ray Carroll, who was a regular guest on the show after he was appointed to the Pima County Board of Supervisors in 1997, said Scott “was my favorite political commentator on the radio dial.”

“Now he is going to join my favorite political commentator from the weekend dial, Emil Franzi,” Carroll said. “God bless those two guys for all they did for this community.”

Loft Cinema Foundation Executive Director Peggy Johnson, who had a long career as a political correspondent for the local PBS affiliate, said Scott was the first person to give her a broadcast job, at KCUB radio.

“John later hired me to do the sportscast on the 9:30 p.m. news on Channel 11,” Johnson said. “He was larger than life and while we often didn’t see eye to eye, we always had a shared history.”

“Although John was on the radio far longer than he was on TV, he always dressed up rather more than most radio hosts,” said Dylan Smith, editor and co-publisher of the Tucson Sentinel. “He’d wear a fine dress shirt when it was time to broadcast — often with a window-pane check. Right before he’d take the air, he’d adjust his cuffs and tilt his microphone just so — he was a craftsman who knew that talking into the side of the mic would darken up the sound to complement his deep voice, but being slightly off-axis would also mitigate the proximity effect of his resonant words. It gave him some space to become animated as he talked, while not having his voice shift and get thin or too boomy over the radio as he moved and got louder (and sometimes even louder).”

“Those stentorian tones were his trademark, as was often being as cantankerous as his fellow local radio fixture Emil Franzi. John didn’t suffer fools lightly, on or off the air. He could be a Democrat at times, a Republican at others, but his main dedication was to calling bullshit rather than pushing any particular political platform over the long term,” Smith said.

“I’ve always said ‘I’m in the hemp business,'” Scott told the Sentinel in 2013. “I’d give people just enough rope to either hang themselves as they talked, or they could pull people along with them.”

“We did thousands of shows, tens of thousands of interviews,” he said. “I interviewed Bill Clinton. We broadcast from Vietnam and China, Washington and Israel. We made a yearly trip up to the Legislature.”

Scott recalled a 1989 interview with U.S. Sen. John McCain that touched on the Keating Five scandal.

“‘That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard,’ McCain said. So I replied, ‘Senator, if you forgive me my dumb questions, I’ll forgive you your dumb answers.’ And we had a friendly relationship after that; he was on the show many, many times,” Scott said.

In 2011, a two-hour broadcast of Scott’s program was featured on C-SPAN in the wake of the Jan. 8 shootings.

Political consultant David Steele, who formerly worked as an aide to Dennis DeConcini, remembered the first time he saw Scott in person.

“As a kid growing up in Douglas, he was the first ‘celebrity’ I met,” Steele said. “It occurred at a Boy Scout Jamboree camp on the San Pedro River. He was a dashing anchor at one of the local TV stations and gave a great speech to a bunch of Boy Scouts next to a huge bonfire. He always remained a celebrity to me.”

Scott often lent a hand to nonprofits. He was famous for his annual bike-in-a-box giveaways. He would team up with Jesse Lugo and give away hundreds of bikes to needy children ahead of the holiday season.

“He would raise an incredible amount of money,” said longtime friend Ann Rodriguez, the former Pima County recorder. “He would raise $21,000 in small donations.

Terry Dee, who launched the Habitat for Humanity Habistore, said Scott was a big supporter.

“John came to me and said he would like to do his show once a week for the store to help us get started at no cost,” he recalled. “We did it for nine years.”

“John was proud as hell when he was recognized with the ‘Golden Mike Award’ from the local branch of the American Advertising Federation in 2013,” Smith said. “As much as he enjoyed poking the bear — which got him sued and ranted about by various politicians — he cared about local small businesses and charities. That praise for his decades of commitment was very meaningful to him.”

Scott liked to describe his show as talking politics “over a backyard fence.”

“Every day, we gave people something they did not know — an interview, some insight into a news story,” Scott told the Sentinel in 2013. “Our idea was to always ask, ‘what can we learn from this?’ If you listened to the John C. Scott Show and you learned something, our thought was that was a good show.”

Tucson Sentinel’s Dylan Smith contributed background to this report.

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Jim Nintzel/TucsonSentinel.com
Jim Nintzel/TucsonSentinel.com

Jim Nintzel covers politics for the Tucson Sentinel, an online news agency based in Southern Arizona. Prior to joining the Sentinel, Nintzel spent more than three decades as a reporter and editor with Tucson Weekly, covering politics, science and rock ’n’ roll. He has been named a journalist of the year by the Arizona Press Club and the Arizona Newspaper Association and has won more than 50 state and national awards for his work. He has previously worked for the local PBS affiliate, hosting a weekly political roundtable, and has appeared on CBS, ABC, CNN and other national news networks as well as various NPR affiliates. He taught government reporting at the University of Arizona Journalism School for more than 15 years.