Saturday, February 20, 2010
Ray Stevens is the morning man at Chicago's country music station, WUSN-FM, US-99
Rick: The nickname...what’s the origin of Ramblin Ray?
There’s a story behind the name Stevens too. That’s not my real last name. It’s actually Stejskal. I showed up for an interview at this station in Aurora, for my first radio gig. I was supposed to be meeting the PD Bruce Summers. Well, I pulled up to the station in this cool old mustang convertible, and there was a front window to the station. This guy saw my car and came running out to talk to me. He said: “I need to use your car in a parade. Would you mind?” I told him I was supposed to meet Bruce Summers. He said: “That’s me.” So, you know, I used some of that Chicago moxie and made a bargain. I said: “Sure, you can use it if you give me an airshift.” And I’ve been on the air ever since.
Before my first air-shift he pulled out an R&R, and started reading out the last names in the positions sought section. I had never been on the air before, and I didn’t really give any thought to selling out my mother and father’s name like that—I was just green. So he listed off a bunch of names, and when he got to Stevens, I thought, that’ll work. That’s pretty close to Stejskal, and I just stuck with it.
Rick: Did you know about the singer?
Ray: Oh sure, I knew about him—The Streak, and all those songs, but it didn’t really apply to us. We weren’t doing country at all. We were doing a bad old 70s format. But you know, there are a lot of people in Chicago radio that worked at that station at one time or another. Megan Reed was working out there at the time. Scott Wagner. On and on it goes. I eventually moved to the morning shift, and then moved to US-99 in 1990. I’ve been there ever since.
Rick: There are people that just work at country stations. But then there are people like you, who not only work there, they really live the country music lifestyle. You know what I mean by that. You’re an outdoorsman—snowmobiler, you drive a truck, you love NASCAR. Do you think that’s been part of the secret of your appeal: Your authenticity?
Ray: I drive the truck because I get paid to drive it. (laughs) I make more to drive this truck than I made my first 5 years in radio. In all seriousness, I do think you have a point there. I have a pretty blue collar background. I worked for my dad in heating/air conditioning/architectural sheet metal starting in eighth grade. And I worked construction, which is hard work. The first day I worked in radio in an air conditioned studio on a really hot day I thought, hey this isn’t so bad.
Rick: I know that Mayor Daley is a big country music fan. I hear some of the Blackhawks on your show, and it’s obvious that they’re country fans too. As the morning guy at the country station you know this better than anyone, because you run into celebrities all the time. Give me a few names of celebrity country music fans in Chicago or beyond that might surprise the non-country world.
Ray: Mayor Daley used to call in occasionally. Yes, he’s a big country music guy. Pat Quinn, our governor, is a fan and a listener. Dr. Oz is a fan. Not just of the music—he’s a fan of the show, a fan of mine. He invites me on his show. I’ve been on his show a few times. You’d be surprised how many people are into country music.
Rick: You’ve been with US-99 forever now, and it’s been a ratings juggernaut for going on twenty years. Why do you think that your show doesn’t get the kind of attention within the industry that some of the other stations in other formats in this town?
As far as being respected by other people in the business, I just think that’s not an issue. I know that people like Steve Dahl, Steve Cochran, Garry Meier, Lin Brehmer, Felicia Middlebrooks, you name ‘em, they respect our show and what we do. I know because they’ve told me. Eric Ferguson said this in that Tribune article a few weeks ago, and it’s true. Eric said: “look at the ratings.” That’s the bottom line.
Rick: Let’s talk about the ladies on your show, Lisa Dent and Bonnie Greene. Bonnie and I worked together at WJMK a million years ago and she’s a real character. Lisa just signed a new multi-million dollar contract to stay with the show too. They really are an important part of what you do, aren’t they?
I love having all of ‘em on the show, and it’s great for the station too. Let’s face it, it’s a highly listened to female radio station, and they can relate to the women on the show. I’m there for the guy appeal, although I think the women like me too because I’m sort of the bad boy. Lisa can be a bad boy too. That’s one of the things I like about her.
Rick: You really worked your way up through the ranks, paid your dues, learned all the different parts of doing a radio show. Has that helped you as a host?
Ray: I think so, yeah. I get it. I was doing 10-2 at night in 1994 when John Katzbeck died. He was a great guy—we all loved him. But they asked me to step in and take his place, and I gotta tell ya, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be the guy who stepped in to a show that had just lost a good friend, and then try to replace him. But they told me if I didn’t take it, I was out of a job. I was lucky. It worked out. I must have done something right, because I’m still here.
To answer your question, yeah, I do think it helps. I’m really not that much different than I was in high school, for better or worse (laughs). I know what it’s like to do the grunt work. I was a producer. I was the guy on the street. I was the sidekick. All those crazy things that help build you. It’s too bad that you can’t rise through the ranks like that anymore—there’s nowhere you can go to be bad. All the suburban stations and small market stations are doing syndicated shows, and they don’t give talent a chance to learn on the job anymore. We have an assistant producer on our show, and he doesn’t have the chance to do the stuff that I did twenty years ago. It doesn’t seem fair.
Rick: How do you like your new PD?
Ray: I know this is going to sound like BS, but I really think that Bill Gamble (photo) is one of the smartest guys I ever worked for—he leaves us alone and lets us do our thing. Plus, I told him that if he ever fires me and takes food out of my kids’ mouths, I’ll kill him. (laughs). Just kidding. I really did say that to him. But I’m just kidding.
Rick: Speaking of killing, I was going through some of my old videotapes the other day, getting rid of stuff from my radio days, and I ran into the Chicago radio version of the game show “The Weakest Link." There you were, with Steve Cochran, Leslie Keiling, Jeanne Sparrow, and Steve Dahl. Am I missing anyone?
Ray: I was in the finals against Steve Dahl. They gave me an impossible question and threw him some softball question, and he won. (laughs) Not that I’m bitter.
Rick: OK, one last thing that I’ve been dying to ask somebody in country radio, and it’s about the Dixie Chicks. I was working on John Landecker’s show when that whole controversy went down in early 2003. After 9/11 we started the show every morning with their beautiful version of the National Anthem. When Natalie Maines made her comments a little over a year later, our program director told us that if we ever played that song again, we would be fired. I know there was a similar reaction at your station. At the time, your station played a ton of Dixie Chicks songs, but that ended the moment the controversy erupted. Suddenly they were dead to the entire format across the country. How do you look back at that time now?
To tell you the truth, I don’t like to talk politics on the show—it just seems to tick people off. Just the other day I said some nice things about Pat Quinn because he’s a fan of the show, and people ripped me. I’ll leave the discussion of politics to the other shows.