Sunday, July 01, 2007
Drew Walker is the afternoon host at WUSN, US-99, Chicago's country music station.
WKRS-AM, Waukegan, 2002 (weekend board operator, promotions)
WXLC-FM, Waukegan, 2002 (promotions)
WZSR-FM, Crystal Lake, 2003 (weekend on-air / weekday fill-in / promotions)
WAIT-AM, Crystal Lake, 2003 (promotions)
WMYX-FM, Milwaukee, 2003-2004 (weekends on-air / weekday fill-in)
WUSN-FM, Chicago, 2004-present (weekend overnights, to weekend daytime & weekday fill-in, now weekday afternoons)
Rick: You grew up in Indiana. Who were some of the people on the air who influenced you during your formative years?
Drew: I mostly remember the morning show on WAZY-FM 96.5 "Z-96" (Lafayette, IN … and the station is still on the air today!). Not so much for who they were, but for the excitement and craziness they created each morning. I could not wait to get up, tune in, try to be caller #9 and win as many things as I could. I was a pain. Thinking back, I was always fascinated with the fact that you can be talking to so many people, in so many different places, all at one time, through this one medium. It was excitement that you couldn’t find anywhere else.
Rick: The first time I heard your name was when I stumbled onto your www.djheadlines.com website. That is such a huge project it must have been a labor of love. How did you get started doing that site, and do you miss being able to work on it more now that you're fulltime at US-99?
Drew: It *was* a labor of love. The site grew out of another website I'd put together for my wedding. I essentially started blogging (before it was called that) about anything and everything Chicago radio and TV that I could find. I loved the different personalities, promotions, you name it. It grew from there, and it remains a passion today. The Radio Stations Directory page lists every station in town, all the personalities, formats, phone numbers, everything. I also maintain the Where Are They Now section, plus old audio clips and a few other things too.
It was very time-consuming, and I do miss the detail sometimes. However, what I do now is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m very blessed for the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have. I wouldn't change a thing.
Rick: Your climb up the ladder at US-99 is pretty astounding. Do you have any secrets to share with other aspiring DJs?
Drew: Pretty crazy, huh? Like I said, I’ve been very blessed. Full-time in market #3 in less than 5 years is something I’m very proud of. I've had some amazing mentors and good advice. Jim Moran gave me my first break, and I’m grateful to this day. Tom Gjerdrum and Tom Rivers also took chances on me, and one of my biggest mentors is Tom Lazar. My goodness, that’s a lot of Toms.
The best piece of advice I ever received? "Pleasant persistence pays off" from Jeff Corder. I truly believe it. I think you can achieve anything with a lot of hard work, a great attitude, some talent, a bit of luck and "right place / right time" (for anything you do), and to surround yourself with similar-minded people. It helps when you work with folks who are as driven as you are. If you all want to succeed, the goals and the challenges become easier to reach for. That said, our team at ‘USN now is firing on all cylinders. Mike Peterson came to town and tweaked some minor things here and there; ratings went up, we grabbed the CMA Station of the Year award last year (the biggest honor in country radio), and we try to have fun every day. Absolutely.
One more small secret - always be yourself. I think that’s the one part I love the best about my job now. I get to talk with folks every day, about the things that matter to them, and I don’t have to be anything other than myself.
Rick: Now that you've been holding down the fort for a few years, and your afternoon show is in the top ten in Chicago, what have been some of the highlights for you?
Drew: I've had a few very big highlights. One of my favorites was that I was featured in a national music video by one of our new stars - Miranda Lambert. The song's called "New Strings" (great song to boot), and my two cameos are of an in-studio interview. It’s still available at CMT.com, and plays on CMT / GAC occasionally. What a thrill!
I also really enjoy my live broadcast shows. This summer alone, I have at least 7 on the schedule already!
The one I’m most excited about? I talked about Willie Nelson’s new [Ben & Jerry’s] ice cream flavor on the show a few months ago, and I’d mentioned my wife’s dream flavor, along with all the listener choices (for their flavor creations) as well.
A Chicagoland ice cream shop contacted me. They’re going to make my wife’s flavor, we’ll name it, and I’m going to broadcast a full show from their business next month. The best part is that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the new flavor will benefit a local charity of their choice.
Things that come together like this are why I love what I do.
Rick: I've always been amazed at the way the country music industry and country radio have managed to work so closely together. You'll never see another portion of the music industry give out an award to a radio star every year like they do at the Country Music Awards. You're really all on the same team aren't you? Why do you think that is, and what role has that played in both the artists' and radio stations' respective success?
Drew: Great question! We are on the same team – country radio / country artists / country listeners. Artists recognize how much of their success is owed to their fans. The fans connect to them through their local radio stations, the stations connect to the artists directly, and we serve as a liaison. Yes, there are other mediums to deliver music, but not in the way we do.
A quick example. This year is the station's 25th anniversary of broadcasting country music in town. One of our very special birthday events just took place. Brad Paisley (picture), a superstar, flew into the DuPage County Airport at lunchtime. Stepped off his jet, picked up a guitar, did a 45-minute acoustic set for 100 listeners in an airplane hangar, a quick Q&A, and then back on the plane to Nashville. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those in attendance, and through the internet now (the station website), our entire listening audience can now view the video, hear the performance, and much more.
I truly believe our listeners hear that we care about them, and that the artists do as well. It is very much a relationship that we value. (Photo: Drew Walker & George Strait)
Rick: Why can't the other formats figure that out and emulate it?
Drew: I don't know. Maybe it’s never been that way before, or no one’s ever tried to focus on that? It is interesting, as although there are similarities with a few other genres, the country audience is very passionate, dedicated to the artists, and they truly feel the station is the additional member of their family. For me, that’s what I’m trying to achieve every day. To be the extra member, and I think availability is a big key to that. Through the phone, e-mail, www.US99.com, instant messenger, MySpace, www.DrewWalker.com – all of these things are open and working each afternoon. I let the listeners know this continuously, and I know they pick up on that.
Paul Harvey was interviewed by Larry King a few years ago (still saved on my TiVo). King asked him how he felt about his 12 million + audience each day, and the impact of that. Without pause, Harvey said, “Well, you know, Larry, I’m only talking to one person.” That is a very powerful statement.
Rick: After listening to country music all day, and going to country music events at night, what other shows in Chicago do you listen to--to get away from it all?
Drew: Music-wise, I like it all. Music is the one thing I can’t imagine my life without. My favorite is 80s – most genres too, but admittedly, I dig the hair bands. We have Sirius at home through our dish – one of my favorite channels is called “Hair Nation.” Love classic rock as well.
As for other radio shows, I get up early to take my wife to the Metra train. She really enjoys Eric & Kathy, so our bathroom radio is on the Mix right now.
I think Joe Cicero's morning show on WXLC in Waukegan is very good too. It can be funny, moves along really well, and he & his co-host Rebecca Ortiz have a great on-air rapport.
I'm enjoying Big John & Cisco's new show in WIND too.
I think Bob Stroud's show on WDRV is fantastic. You learn something every day, the music is great, and the vibe is very enjoyable.
Electra on Q101 – her personality, the Last Letter Game. Good stuff.
In the afternoon, I was always a big fan of Roe & Garry, and continue to enjoy both of their programs when I can catch them.
We check out Ryan Manno's new Q101 evening show too. Again, a great music mix now, and the program moves really well.
Someone who's no longer in town, but I still enjoy his stuff – Kevin Matthews.
Music-wise alone, we listen to 9fm and Jack in the car too.
Rick: Your mom Sheena was on the air with you from Arlington Park about a month ago. How has she reacted to your success?
(Photo: Drew with his mom and wife Jill)
Drew: My Mom & Dad are straight off the boat from Scotland (their siblings are still overseas). So, you can understand if she's a little more traditional than most folks. My sisters & I tease her about it now, but growing up was another story. Strict and proper.
First thing she said when I excitedly called her about my full-time promotion?
"Well, that's great, honey, but you can always go back to accounting." HA! She’s always looking out for me and my CPA.
In all seriousness, she is very supportive and I think she got a big kick out of experiencing the live show, with the listeners and the madness at Arlington Park.
Regardless, if I’d known her appearance fee beforehand, I might have reconsidered.