Rick Dees has got his radio groove back.
The legendary morning personality is jumping out of bed at 3:45 a.m. these days to prep for his new drivetime show at Los Angeles’ KMVN-FM “Movin’ 93.9.” And he’s often in the studio until the middle of the afternoon, eager to perfect the show’s details.
“It’s evolving,” Dees says of his return to radio. “Every day, we feel that was our best show yet.”
As a 40-year vet of the business, Dees could probably get away with a lighter schedule, and his new bosses at Emmis Communications still wouldn’t mind.
But after nearly three years off the air, a reinvigorated Dees is anxious to reclaim his stake in the nation’s second-largest radio market.
“It’s been a great feeling,” says Dees. “I’ve never had more fun.”
Dees left the air so quickly in 2004 that listeners were left wondering what happened — and where he went. The DJ woke up audiences every morning for 22 years on the same radio station in the same market, a longevity virtually unheard of in the business.
“He was the quintessential top 40 morning man for the better part of a couple decades,” says radio vet Don Barrett, who now chronicles the industry for the website LARadio.com. “There’s certainly something to be said for consistency. Not only did he talk to his audience and bond with that listener, but I think there was a sense that people could count on him.”
Then, one day, he vanished.
“It was a nightmare,” Dees says. “It’s one thing to retire. It’s another thing to have to stay off radio involuntarily.”
Dees’ contract at KIIS-FM was up, and although both sides were negotiating a new deal, the San Antonio-based owners at Clear Channel had other ideas. The company had been grooming “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest to eventually fill Dees’ KIIS-FM chair. And although it came sooner than expected, KIIS and Clear Channel ultimately opted to part ways with the man who helped put that station on the map.
For Dees, it was a surreal moment. Seacrest, who patterned his radio career after Dees’, was not just taking over his gig; everything else about the show — even Dees’ sidekick Ellen K — was remaining.
“I heard my show being taken over, but still with all the players who I had hired,” Dees says. “To take me out, stab me in the back and stick someone else on there because he’s on a TV show … it felt horrible. But I got over it.
“I slashed their tires,” he quips. “But I got over it.”
Dees continued to fufill his contract hosting the “Rick Dees Weekly Top 40,” the longest continuously running countdown show on the air. But otherwise, due to his exit arrangement with Clear Channel, he was forced to sit on the sidelines.
He came close to signing on as the morning guy on CBS Radio’s KRTH-FM “K-Earth,” but Clear Channel protested, arguing that Dees hadn’t yet purchased his intellectual property — including the “Weekly Top 40” — back from the company.
Dees quickly did so, but the deal eventually fell apart — and Dees now feels that he dodged a bullet.
“I didn’t want to go back on the radio and play oldies,” says Dees, who bleeds Contemporary Hit Radio. “So I thought, well, no problem, I’ll be right back on elsewhere.”
But with an already crowded morning landscape in Los Angeles, it wasn’t going to happen quickly. To bide his time, Dees launched a Latino-flavored version of his “Weekly Top 40,” featuring reggaeton tracks.
But he also began looking at the possibility of launching a whole new radio station.
Dees then set his sights on KZLA. The Emmis-owned country radio outlet had long been rumored for a format flip, given the continued demographic shift in Los Angeles.
And Emmis was also itching to make a change.
“We weren’t hitting a lot of people we wanted to reach,” says Emmis radio division prexy Rick Cummings. “Country doesn’t attract many non-white listeners. As we looked around the possibilities in the marketplace, we looked at all kinds of music formats. But we also began to wonder what else we could do in setting the station apart.”
Enter Dees. Cummings notes that several generations of listeners from all backgrounds grew up listening to Dees — but particularly white, Latino, African-American and Asian American women.
“We saw with our own research studies, he’s a home run with that audience,” Cummings said. “They still remember him fondly from their high school days, and they still give him superstar ratings. A lot of those women have kids, and the kids listen, too.”
Dees and Emmis began talking last March about striking a deal — and Cummings says he quickly realized that the radio vet was eager to get back on the air. (To make room for Dees, Emmis also parted ways with its pricey Chicago-based morning host Mancow Muller.)
“He still has the chops,” Cummings says of his decision to make a play for Dees. “He was looking for the right thing. If you said to me two years ago that we would land Rick Dees, I would have said you were crazy. But everything lined up properly. It’s something that he does better than anyone else in the world, and we happened to put together the right vehicle for this.”
In August, Emmis officially dumped the KZLA format (to the uproar of country die-hards) and launched “Movin’ 93.9,” a rhythmic adult contemporary station with a playlist of uptempo tunes from the likes of Beyonce, the Black Eyed Peas and Madonna. Dees launched his show a few weeks later.
“I’ve never gone on a station that started with nothing,” Dees says. “We’re literally starting with zero audience.”
Moving to “Movin,” Dees brought several of his staples (“Spousal Arousal,” “Dees Sleaze”) but isn’t relying as much on bits and characters as he once did. These days, he’s carrying on more conversations about the day’s hot topics and putting more listeners on the air.
“We focus on what’s going on today,” he says. “There’s a lot more audience participation. And there are a lot more newsmakers – we just put a call into the wife who saved her husband from a mountain lion, for example. It’s kind of an outgrowth of reality TV – we’re talking more (about real life).”
Cummings says it’s still too early to measure how Dees’ new show is performing – particularly because a good chunk of L.A. radio listeners still don’t know that he’s back. To that end, Cummings admits that Emmis needs to do a better job of promoting Dees in the market.
“We’re going to lean more on Rick in this second phase of promotion,” Cummings says. “Bus ads, TV spots – he’s the difference in this new radio station, and we want to capitalize on that.”
Meanwhile, Dees has spent the last year building his own state-of-the-art studio in Burbank, where he plans to start broadcasting on Valentine’s Day.
The new digs include a recording booth, where artists can tape their music. It also boasts a radio studio with a window on the sidewalk, where fans can watch Dees and new sidekick Patty “Longlegs” Lopez do their show. (Dees plans to split his time between there and his “Movin’ 93.9” studio elsewhere in Burbank.)
Dees’ new world-class studio also serves as a nice bit of insurance for the radio star, given his recent travails.
“I never wanted to be kicked out of a radio station again,” he says.