[../../../_private/magazine_tmp.htm]Super Dees:
Can He Save Top 40 Radio?

Rick Dees at NAB

 

 

 

Traffic reporter
Commander Chuck Street

 

 

Ellen K.

 

 

Vic "The Brick" Jacobs

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 "grunge" generation.
"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.
It's Super-Dees!
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 virtues.
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 time zone.
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 star.


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