Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ray Stevens

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?

Ray: I was doing an on the street segment for the morning show at Y-108 in 1986. We did this thing called “The Morning Mugging” where we would go out and deliver coffee and donuts to people (with a mug—get it? mugging?). Well this one day they sent me out to this construction site and these guys were totally crazy. They had cut a port-a-potty in half, and were using it as a sled. So I was sledding on the port-a-potty on the air. Joe Collins (photo) was doing traffic, and Joe said “That Ray is a ramblin’ guy.” And the name stuck.

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.

I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I think that if you’re honest, and if you’re authentic, it makes a difference. The guy that really taught me that was John Howell. (Photo: John & Ray) He said ‘hey, they’re either gonna like ya or they won’t,’ might as well be who you really are. Ever since he told me to be myself on the air, I have been, and I think that’s what works. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I’m from here, and people from Chicago appreciate that.

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?

Ray: Everybody says we’re format exclusive, which we are, but we’re obviously much more than that. We’re a hit morning show that talks about everything, and we still get judged up against the Eric and Kathys of this world.  (Photo: Ray and Lisa Dent) Being format exclusive, by the way, is a double-edged sword. We have to appeal to all age groups. We get beat up for not being country enough. We get beat up for being too country. We have all ages listening to us, from the 17-year-olds that want to hear Taylor Swift to the 65 year-olds that want to hear Johnny Cash. It’s not easy to pull that off, to be all things to all people.

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?

Ray: I call them the crazies. Lisa, Bonnie, and our producer Lisa Kosty. This is a different kind of show than the one I did with John Howell. I would say that the greatest success I’ve had came with Howell because he and I are really good friends, we’re true friends, and that came through the radio. I’m friends with Lisa too, but we don’t hang out, and that’s probably a good thing because Howell and I used to go out, and stir up some trouble. How some of the things we did never ended up in Feder’s column is a mystery to me. Pure luck.

With Dent, it seems to work on a different level because she’s a woman, and nothing, no topics of any kind, seem to be off-limits. She’s fun and honest and great to work with—a radio pro. And Bonnie is just Bonnie. (Photo)  It’s like Mark McGwire facing an eighth grade pitcher. She just serves ‘em up for me—fastballs right down the middle—a great set up person. Our producer Lisa Kosty, is like Jersey Shore incarnate. She was Jersey Shore before Jersey Shore.

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?

Ray: I can see why you thought it was weird for you guys, but I think for us, I still get it. We had just come through this tumultuous time as a country, we had just gotten kicked in the balls, and then the Dixie Chicks said what they said, and it felt like we were getting kicked in the balls again. And while that one comment Natalie Maines said was famous— she said a lot of other things after that too. It was like she was trying to alienate our audience. When the country’s in trouble, people come to country radio for comfort. It just seemed like the Dixie Chicks wanted to seem edgy, and that definitely wasn’t where we were. Was the reaction to them a little weird, a little over the edge? Yeah, maybe it was. I think they would be welcomed back now—although they aren’t even together anymore.

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.