Mark McGaugh describes himself as “that kid everybody always thought was going to be a doctor or a president.” Known as a young child for reading the encyclopedia and watching the History Channel, it’s no surprise that this 24-year-old’s inquiring mind was fascinated by the possibilities of music. His musical career began in the fourth grade, with a recorder class at Belvedere Elementary School.
By fifth grade, he made his first forays into hip-hop during freestyle rapping sessions in the library with friends. It wasn’t until middle school at King Science & Technology Magnet Center when he picked up the alto saxophone that McGaugh started to explore the worlds of classical and jazz music. Omaha North brought the opportunity to join drumline, but the music alone wasn’t enough to protect a teenage McGaugh from the social pressures he faced.
“Growing up here in North Omaha, in a single-parent household, it’s rough. The story goes on and on, but I went through it,” he says.
When he found himself embroiled in some trouble during his junior year, the young man had to step back and decide what he wanted his focus to be. “It was a turning point in my life,” McGaugh reflects on getting caught up with the wrong crowd as a moment when he chose to dedicate his life to music.
Although hip-hop, church choir, and the musical endeavors of family members have always been in the background, McGaugh realized that his interests in music could only go so far when limited to school band. “To be a DJ, or you know, a little black boy on the corner rapping bars, you can [only] get so far here in Nebraska.” Fortunately, his mother always strongly supported her son’s musical interests, provided he focus on his education first.
When he graduated from North High in 2011, that focus on academic achievement culminated in an opportunity to attend Florida A&M University.
“I flew the coop,” he recalls. “I went to Florida with a dream.” That dream was centered around widening his musical horizons, but the young man found his perspective changing about life as a whole. “Going to Florida A&M, which is a historically black school, just seeing the different perspective of what’s possible for me, that definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
During college, McGaugh discovered a passion for broadcast journalism. As he earned his degree in the field, he hosted campus radio shows that investigated some of the most intense national news issues of the time. From an exclusive interview with the mayor of Flint in the heat of the city’s devastating water crisis, to reporting on violence against students at a Georgia Donald Trump rally, to debate over Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law, McGaugh provided valuable insight and information to his community. “That was a big eye-opener,” he says of the talk show.
While diving into broadcast journalism, McGaugh never lost sight of his dream to pursue music. In addition to his more intense Saturday morning show, he covered sports news and hosted a hip-hop show for campus radio. When he wasn’t studying, he was working for a local music promotion agency to help independent record labels distribute their sound.
“That was a good insight into seeing how the music industry works,” McGaugh says. He learned about the importance of understanding what goes into deciding whose music gets played, met artists, and made connections. He reports that “it’s really an effort over talent thing.”
While he was earning his degree and working with promoters across Florida, McGaugh didn’t forget the needs of his hometown. Upon graduation, he returned to Omaha and could clearly see voids in the artistic community—as well as the potential of the city. “There was an actual music scene that was here when I came back from Florida that wasn’t here when I left.” He refers to a number of musical players changing the Omaha scene—Reverb Lounge, Slowdown, One Percent Productions, and Make Believe Records—all giving new energy to budding artists across the city.
Inspired by these new efforts to invigorate the local music scene, McGaugh made a commitment to making a difference in the musical landscape of the city through community radio. The new Mind and Soul 101.3 station, housed inside the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation on Evans Street, was just the type of platform McGaugh wanted to help develop in his community. He began as assistant program director at the station in January 2017, and now hosts “Lunchtime Live,” formats shows, looks up stories, and keeps things running smoothly to give voice to his community.
“My ultimate goal with being at this radio station is making sure that the message of the community isn’t watered down or isn’t ignored,” McGaugh explains. As he continues to pursue his own passion for music and a newfound interest in DJing, he loves being a part of the platform that shares the messages of all types of people in his city and gives new artists a chance to have their voices heard. McGaugh believes that with the help of organizations like Mind & Soul, the future for Omaha music is bright. “Ultimately, the goal is just to help the world.”
This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.