Commander Chuck Street
BY SANDY WELLS
Rick Dees is spearheading his own comeback in L.A. radio.
"Without Dees, KIIS might not have the chance to come back
to dominance," said Steve Perun, the seventh program director
to guide the station since KIIS hired Dees. With 10 Billboard
magazine Personality of the Year awards, 44 consecutive rating
periods at No. 1, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a No.
a host gig of late-night network TV talk show and a music countdown
show heard all over the planet, he seems to be the right guy
for the job. Not that the "Rick Dees in the Morning"
show on KIIS-FM and AM ever went away. "He has created the
most compelling show in the morning for 12 years," Perun
said. "Rick Dees is an institution in this market. I thank
God every day that I have a morning show of this caliber."
Dees is an anomaly in the world of high-profile morning radio
personalities these days. In the last few years, "shock
jock" talk shows with little or no commitment to music have
prevailed in the morning-drive rating wars. Yet recent ratings
show the survivor more than holding his own against a formidable
array of competitors. "I can't say which stations have taken
our listeners away, but we're going to get them back," declared
Perun, emphasizing that the station's refocusing efforts won't
be evident until after the winter ratings come out.
Of course, Dees' comeback will depend heavily on the music he
plays. He knows what he wants to play and what he wants the music
industry to deliver.
"Here's what the record companies have to do for us, and
I feel this very strongly," the veteran jock said. "We
need at least three young 20s - mid-20s George Michaels - three
white artists you can listen to. Michael Bolton, Phil Collins,
Elton John: They're into another generation. We need ones for
this generation." However, Dees is dismissive about the
"When I go out and talk to people in high school and junior
highs (my son, Kevin, is in junior high), there's a kind of negative
spirit like: 'I don't think much of our generation; we've been
spat upon.' So they kind of dress in that feeling, which is the
grunge dress. 'It doesn't matter what I wear as long as it's
ugly.' "I'm finding that it's a fad, just like clam-diggers,
Hula-Hoops, polyester, Nehru jackets and so on. We'll look back
some day and remember that guy Cobain that shot his head off."
'And now here he is:
Strong enough to bend records with his bare hands,
able to tell tall tales in a single breath.
Strange visitor from another neighborhood, with powers and abilities
far below those of mortal male and female people and who, disguised
as Rick Dees, mild-mannered disc jockey and morning entertainer
fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the pursuit
of loose women.'
(Rick Dees' morning introduction)
Resisting the monolithic trend in radio, he continues to juggle
hit songs, comic entertainment and information in that astonishingly
smooth mix known as top 40 radio. He and his team play about
six songs every hour during his morning show. "We can be
selective," he said. "We can pick Gin Blossoms, Blind
Melon and then throw in 'Holiday' by Madonna. And you say, 'God,
why would you play that Madonna song?' "We sit there in
an auditorium with these people with these dials all hooked up,
and the second this Madonna song comes on, they pin the dial
- everyone, women and men." Discography is a strong point
for Rick. Having had his own No.1 hit with the disco parody "Disco
Duck" in 1976, he possesses an insider's knowledge of what
it takes to make a hit. On top of that is the research involved
in creating his "Weekly Top 40" show, in addition to
his relationships with those in the recording industry.
"We are the only top 40 station in Los Angeles," noted
Dees, who is enthusiastic about the current direction of the
station under Perun.
"He's a genius. He was the youngest music director at WLS
in Chicago at age 20." Dees believes that Perun and music
director Tracy Austin are making the station a '90s KHJ (referring
to top 40-formatted KHJ's dominance of L.A. radio in the '60s
and '70s). It was KHJ (then at 930 AM) that first drew Dees to
L.A. in 1980. "I was terrified of Los Angeles when I first
arrived," he said. "My big concern was how long will
it take me to learn Spanish."
KHJ cut a deal with Dees: an 18-month contract, during which
time the golden boy was expected to save the station from its
continued fall in the ratings. Despite his best efforts, the
top jock could not stem the flight of top 40 listeners to FM
radio. KHJ switched to country music, leaving Dees without a
job, his career in free fall.
Until then, Dees had enjoyed a charmed DJ's life beginning when
a friend back in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. dared him to
try out for a local radio station. He went for it and landed
the job, effortlessly establishing a career direction. He majored
in TV and radio at the University of North Carolina and followed
the typical route of small and medium stations before finally
capturing the morning show at WMPS in Memphis. He and and his
wife, Julie Dees, who is a voice-over artist in her own right
and regularly contributes material to the show, managed to hang
on by doing voice-over work. At one point, the DJ was the voice
that introduced CBS' "60 Minutes" every Sunday evening.
Even MTV courted the radio vet.
"Bob Pittman called me and said, 'We're starting up this
music channel, and we'd like you to be our first VJ,' "
Dees recalled. "Julie and I sat down and prayed about what
to do: whether to leave Los Angeles and go to New York. After
about a minute I heard this crackle of a studio talk-back switch
and a voice saying, 'You have 10 seconds to introduce Duran Duran.'
We decided to stay." Shortly after Dees turned down MTV,
KIIS-FM offered him the morning show. The station planned to
introduce the new "hot hits" sound. Also called "CHR"
for contemporary hit radio, the new format filled the vacuum
left by the demise of the AM top 40 giants across the country.
Energetic DJs, lots of contests, upbeat music and frequent repetition
of best-selling records characterized CHR. Here in L.A., it didn't
take long for Dees to live up to his promise.
"It's 9:26 in the morning at KIIS," Dees announced
one typical morning in October. "We've got $5,000 for you
sometime today when we play 'I'll Make Love to You' by Boyz II
Men and 'There Is Always Something There to Remind Me' by Naked
Eyes played back to back. Wait 'til the last one's over; then
call KIIS for five thou..." he said, cutting off his mike
as "Ordinary World" by Duran Duran booms over the studio
monitors. In the tradition of the top 40 DJ, Dees has paced his
song introduction to end just before the vocal part of the song
begins. It's classic top 40: the constant contest flow, the jingles
and aggressive-sounding "voicers" extolling the station's
Dees is completely at home in this playful element. His nice-guy
demeanor, almost gentlemanly restraint - contrasted with the
push-the-limits approach of some of his competitors - may account
for his large following among female listeners. He is the consummate
professional, brightening the day for millions with his upbeat
personality and humor.
During the Duran Duran song, Dees taped a call from a woman named
Peggy who asked for a copy of "The O.J. Christmas Album,"
based on a parody promotion she heard on KIIS. The ad boasts
such classics as "I'm Fleeing in a White Bronco" and
"I'll Be Home for Christmas in 2094." She also complained
about her weight. The top 40 vet told her about the KIIS "Lipo-Lotto"
coming up at 9:40. Paul Joseph, Dees' producer for 12 years,
quickly cued the tape of Peggy's call to the part that will go
on the air in 30 seconds.
At 9:42, Dees moved into another "bit" called Candid
Phone. He called Mary of Robinson-May department store. Claiming
to be a husband who pulled a chest muscle lifting weights while
his wife was out, the DJ told Mary that he improvised an ace
bandage using his wife's Wonder Bra. "How can I get it off?"
he pleaded. "You're a woman; you can tell me." Mary
patiently explained that he'll have to "slip the straps
off the shoulder and turn it around." The radio prankster
asked Mary if she'd come over and help him get it off. She said
she couldn't - not even for money. Joseph inserted a cartridge
and the sound effect of a whip cracking indicated that Rick has
freed himself from the bra.
In a manner once common of the great DJs of the '60s and '70s,
Dees handles all the controls personally. He has always insisted
on this practice. When he first came to L.A. in 1980 to work
at KHJ, his contract stipulated that he "run his own board"
although the station was a union shop with engineers paid to
operate the controls. Facing the top jock, separated by glass,
sits his blonde sidekick, Ellen K, who is always ready to read
the news or trade barbs with him. To his right is a smaller booth-sized
studio in which Vic "The Brick" Jacobs announces the
sports in his Brooklyn accent and joins in the comedic fray.
In the air and on the air is KIIS' Metro Traffic reporter Commander
Chuck Street. Producer Joseph stands behind Dees, deftly and
unobtrusively arranging the ads and music for airplay. As a team,
they can pull a bit together using the right combination of music,
effects and sound bites. A Disco Duck neon sign lights up the
wall facing Dees. Every day he is reminded of the parody record
that sold more than four million copies, making him a household
name 18 years ago during the disco-crazed '70s. At the time Dees
was the top morning DJ in Memphis at WMPS.
Without Dees, WMPS soon disappeared in the ratings. Out of work,
he toured the country performing his hit. Three months later,
he went over to the rival Memphis top 40 station, WHBQ, which
soared to No. 1. Victories of this caliber, coupled with his
amazing longevity, have earned him the respect of some of the
biggest names in radio. "He's very consistent," commented
Westwood One's radio personality Casey Kasem, host of "Casey's
Countdown," Dees' major rival for ratings in the syndicated
field. "Rick is a real pro, the kind of competitor that
enhances radio and makes us all look good. He has the ability
to combine music and entertainment very well. He's willing to
take risks, like when he did the late-night talk show for ABC."
Dees' personal concept of success is derived from taking things
a day at a time. "I never thought past what am I going to
do today, because when I start doing that, I get this butterfly
feeling in my stomach: 'Oh, what am I going to do if my job goes
away?' But finally I am at this point as an entertainer; I just
love to perform. Like today was the first day I ever got on the
air. I don't think about the money or the future." So far,
the future does not include syndication of his morning program
in the manner of Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern.
Radio Only magazine noted the value of Dees' persona in July
'94: "There appears to be a huge hole in the syndicated
morning show landscape for an entertaining, clean, high-profile
personality playing adult hits and plenty of managers hunting
for just that kind of show." However, there's the logistical
problem of originating a national morning show from the Pacific
The entertainer's essential milieu is that of the local top 40
DJ , telling local jokes, announcing local weather and telling
the time from the clock on the studio wall.
"I really enjoy playing music, discovering new acts,"
he said. "I think top 40 needs to be a little more open-minded
and listen to all the songs." In a manner once commonplace
among top 40 jocks, Dees establishes a strong identity, talking
over the introduction to a song, integrating his personality
with the music in a positive way. He honed this ability under
the direction of legendary top 40 programmer Bill Drake at WHBQ
in the '70s. By then Drake was already familiar to radio folk
as the guy who had changed top 40 radio back in 1965 at KHJ.
His idea was to make "the station the star," cut back
on commercials, DJ chatter and create a consistent station sound.
"Bill Drake was an absolute genius," Dees said. "I
still use a lot of the formatic elements we used at WHBQ."
KIIS is a part of Dees.
"Every successful music station has to have a soul, a kind
of rhythm to it," Dees said with heart. "KIIS is the
station that has captured the rhythm of Southern California."
Dees' humility and perspective - allowing his station to be the
star- have made him a full-time local legend and part-time national