Question: The radio industry seems under siege right now from iPods, satellite and the Internet. What's your take?
Answer: Radio is such a personal medium that it will cut through all the clutter. There will come a time when people will say, "I'm tired of listening to just my iPod. I want another human to talk to me." That's why talk radio has thrived. On my show, it's not all music we do a lot of bits and features. So radio, with great personalities, will always be in demand.
Q: So much for iPods. What about the others?
A: The future for radio is in your car and on your computer. Notice I didn't say satellite radio. I think satellite radio is inferior quality because of the lack of bandwidth. The real medium is broadband radio on the computer. Most computers now have external speakers. Those speakers will get bigger and bigger. And you can use the machine for television, computing and broadband radio. At rick.com, we have 25 channels and the advertising comes up as video ads. You get the best of both worlds.
Q: You sound down on satellite radio.
A: Satellite was set up with a faulty mechanism. I don't think people who can get it for free will pay $13 or $14 per month. There are other things to spend it on. They may take that $13 and use it for downloads into their iPod or Zune. That's going to be rough competition for the satellite provider. Three things are going to happen. First, XM and Sirius will merge and charge less money, like $5 per month. Second, satellite providers will embrace broadband, so that when you buy satellite you get the broadband for free with a password. And third, regular terrestrial AM-FM radio will always be around, at least in our lifetime.
Q: How did you get famous?
A: I did the morning show at WMPS in Memphis, Tennessee. The national program director of Plough Broadcasting, a man named Art Wander, said to me "What are you doing? Stop it. Stop being somebody else on the air. I want to you be the guy who tells jokes to the salespeople, who does all those characters and makes people laugh. I want you to be you. And if you don't, you're fired." As he was walking out he said, "Get some new characters starting tomorrow."
Q: So what did you do?
A: That was the day before Halloween, 1974. I had to interview the mayor telling kids to be careful and watch out for cars. It was a non-event. After the TV station left, it was Mayor Wyeth Chandler and I. I sensed they really would fire me if I didn't get better, and I shared that with the mayor. I said, "Mayor, would you just say 'Yes sir, Mr. Dees,' and then "No sir, Mr. Dees?'" He did about 50 different takes. The next day on the air, I said, "Hey mayor, are you running around on your wife?" "Yes sir, Mr. Dees." "Will you get down here and polish my shoes?" "No sir, Mr. Dees." The mayor became my new character. Everybody went crazy and the ratings went through the roof.
Q: How did "Disco Duck" come about?
A: Somebody said, "You've been writing these parody songs. Why don't you hook up with some people and write legitimate funny songs?" So I wrote one called "Disco Duck." The record label gave me a music budget of $500 and I added $300 of my own. I did the vocals and these duck sounds. Next thing you know, we have a song that sounds great. We put it out. Then RSO Records purchased the rights for $3,000 and one penny for each copy sold. It was the worst deal of all time for me, but I'm glad they did it. The song sold 6 million copies and I made $60,000. I spent it all on a geodesic dome in Mississippi.
Q: How did you get to L.A?
A: They wouldn't allow me to play the ("Disco Duck") song on my own radio show; they said it would be a conflict of interest. In September 1976, I mentioned it on the air. I said, "All the stations in America can play my song except in Memphis, and it's No. 5 on the charts." TV stations came to interview me about it. Then, as I was about to fly to Los Angeles to tape "American Bandstand," the general manager called me into his office and fired me. That was the real break they fired me and I came out to Hollywood.
Q: Having grown up in the South, you don't seem to have an accent.
A: It's something I've worked on my whole life. Originally I had a Southern accent not a strong one and if you listen to me, occasionally you can pick up the syntax. I try to have a non-accent.
Q: By returning to L.A. radio, you unwittingly ended the last country music station in the market. How did that make you feel?
A: Actually I was contacted after Emmis decided to jettison the country format. I love country music.
Q: For a short time after that, neither Los Angeles nor New York had a country station. Does that surprise you?
A: No, not if you study the demographics of each city.
Q: Tell about your television business.
A: A few years ago, I went to my friend Ken Lowe (president of E.W. Scripps Co.) and the Scripps board with an idea for a TV network called Fine Living. We started three years ago; we're up to 42 million homes. To be the founder of a TV network has been a lot of fun.
Q: Still, over your career, you seem to prefer radio to TV.
A: It's a much more personal medium than television. With television, usually several people are sitting around watching the game or watching a show as a family. In Los Angeles especially, radio is just one person in one car, closed in. It becomes a very close personal relationship.
Q: What else is Dees Entertainment into?
A: Three years ago, we noticed that music downloads on the Internet amounted to $45 million or $50 million through the record companies. In 2007, $3.8 billion worth of downloads are going to happen minimum. Alex Arnold came to me with a company that allows retailers to build their own virtual Tower Records on the Internet. It gives you all the rights to the music. You can make your own play lists. It's called Burn Lounge. We started a year ago with 11 online retailers. Today we have close to 70,000 retailers. We're the second biggest investor after Alex Arnold and his group. (Arnold is chief executive of Burn Lounge, which he founded with two partners in August 2005.)
Q: When did you first think of yourself as a businessman?
A: Age 6, when I sold mistletoe door-to-door in Jacksonville, Fla., and made $2. I loved the feeling of financial independence it gave me.
Q: What time does a morning DJ go to work? When do you go to bed?
A: I'm in bed by 10 p.m. I get up at 3:45. Our morning show on Movin' 93.9 is 5 to 10 a.m. Then I prep for the next day until 2:30 p.m. We record the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 on Tuesday and Wednesday, so those days go until 6 or 7 p.m. I love it.
Q: How far ahead do you plan your programs?
A: I'm always writing new comedy material. I search books, magazines, the Internet. I ask friends and cab drivers for good one-liners.
Q: You don't seem to gravitate toward raunchy talk radio. What's your recipe for a successful show?
A: The real money is in the masses the audience of whole families listening. I enjoy being vanilla ice cream with an exciting new topping every day.
Q: Finally, what can other entrepreneurs even those who aren't in radio learn from the career of Rick Dees?
A: Stick with what you know. I once invested in Irish knitting mills and I lost big time because I don't know anything about how to knit cloth in Ireland. I have invested heavily in television and radio content with the most success I've ever had. Also, personal relationships matter. That means hand-written thank you notes and personal birthday cards, in your writing. As my friend Warren Buffet once said, all things being equal, people want to do business with people they like. And all things being less than equal, people want to do business with people they like. That's the way it's always been.
Company: Dees Entertainment Inc.
Born: 1950, Jacksonville, Fla.
Education: B.A. in Motion Picture-TV-Radio
Production, University of North Carolina
Career Turning Point: Recorded parody song "Disco Duck" in 1976
Most Influential People: Ken Lowe, chief executive of E.W. Scripps and creator of HGTV (Home & Garden Television)
Hobbies: Golf, water skiing and cooking "thick, gooey" desserts. He loves chocolates.
Personal: Married to Julie, a voice-over artist;
son Kevin owns a TV and radio production company. Dees also owns Sweetbrier Farm in Danville, Ky.
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