10 Questions with ... Lisa Dent
May 15, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
A 2016 Country Radio Hall of Fame honoree, Lisa Dent has served as co-host of the morning show at CBS Radio/WUSN in Chicago since 2002, Dent began her radio career at WFAW Fort Atkinson, WI in 1981. She was quickly on to major market gigs, landing at KSON in San Diego in 1987 before additional successful stops at WBOB in Minneapolis, KYCW in Seattle and KIKK Houston before the jump to WUSN in 2002. Dent has also hosted nationally syndicated shows "Country Giants" for United Stations and "CMT Insider." As half of the "Lisa Dent And Ramblin' Ray (Stevens)" morning show on WUSN, she has been honored with the CMA Personality of the Year Award in 2005 and 2010. The show was also the 2015 ACM Personality of the Year honoree.
1. Let me begin by asking what induction into the Country Radio Hall of Fame means to you and what you think it says about your radio career.
I have to say my dad is probably in heaven laughing because in high school he would roll into the high school parking lot in the Buick Electra 225 blaring Johnny Cash just to embarrass me. I would beg, 'Please Dad, turn it down,' and it would get louder and louder. He went on to be one of my biggest supporters and also he schooled me on Country music. When I got my first radio job at a Country music station, he was like, 'Ha! You'll be playing Johnny Cash now.' So it's a sense of pride for myself and my family because my parents and my family have supported my career from moment one. My mom has always been there even when I chose to go into radio. My sister Debbie moved me so many times I can't even tell you. My brother Greg was like the best marketer for the Lisa Dent brand in the entire world, so for me, it's a lifetime accomplishment. It's something I've loved since the first day I cracked the mic at WFAW in Fort Atkinson, WI. I'm hoping that in some small way it might make up for all those missed mornings with my son, Liam. There's a little bit of guilt about that, but it's a lasting honor. Hopefully it helps him understand that the contribution that I made to Country radio has value. Hopefully when he chooses his career he learns that perseverance pays off, and when you contribute to your community it means something. He knows that as much as I love radio, as much as I love Country music, and as much as I love the industry as a whole, I love him more. For me, it's a lifetime accomplishment; it's a validation that the choices I've made, the moves I've made, the contribution I've made, does indeed have value and lasting value at that.
2. It's noteworthy that you'll be just the sixth female inducted into the air personality category - I'm sure that's not lost on you, and knowing your strong personality. What were some of the challenges for you when you first started out in radio? How is it different now and are we in a better place?
We're in a much better place now. I thought if anything would keep me out of any kind of honor like Hall of Fame, it would be the fact that I did stomp my feet and raise my voice so loudly on behalf of women in this industry -not just Country music radio but radio in general. I faced some challenges when I left my hometown after five years. It was because I went into the owner's office and said, 'I want to be the next Program Director,' and he looked me in the eye and said, 'I'll never have a goddamn woman run this radio station.' That prompted me to walk out and use the typewriter - because yes, this is pre-computers-and I typed up my letter of resignation and said, 'Then this is not the radio station I want to work for.' It was interesting, because the next day the newspapers picked up on it. I had had a 100 in the Arbitron, which I don't think had ever been done or if it had, it hasn't been done much, but the next day the newspaper said 'Women Don't Ride Airwaves To The Top.' And I thought, you know what, I'm on the front page of my hometown newspaper, but I'm going to change that idea. At some point - I don't know how, but at some point -I'm going to change that idea. And I love [WPOC/Baltimore morning personality] Laurie De Young -if anyone has a success story. She is one of my contemporaries who was inducted a few years ago, and she's been on the air -what is it 25-30 years in the same market? Yeah, there's a superstar that leads by example. And of course Karen Dalessandro up at WMIL/Milwaukee was the first person to reach out and congratulate me. And so although we don't often reach out and support each other as women in the industry, we certainly are there to cheer each other on when something like this happens. The change has been dramatic and great, and it isn't without a fight. I mean, I really fought hard to be a female host of a morning show. I was given that opportunity the first time in San Diego when Jack Diamond left to go to Washington D.C., so I was the second banana. The show was mine, the numbers were great, but when I wanted to make the money he made, it just wasn't there. They weren't willing to put that kind of money forth, because I think at that point we were still proving ourselves as female hosts of morning shows. But that has since changed. I think it's a much better world and a much better industry for women today than it was when I got my first job in 1981.
3. Speaking of strong personalities, you work with one every morning in Ramblin' Ray Stevens. Tell us how you've made that work for so many years? These on air pairings are like a marriage in many ways.
Ray is a tornado - tornado meaning he is powerful He's fearless and I wouldn't be here without him! The greatest thing is that Ray is a man's man. So he is the best partner I could have, because he's strong and he's funny, and things have changed a bit. As he says, I now have him adopting dogs and he has me buying snowmobiles. So something has happened over the course of the last decade where we're now flipping roles or sharing roles or something, but it really does come down to trust and chemistry, and we have the chemistry. We don't sound alike. We don't think alike. There's very little we agree upon, and that makes for great radio. I think that the success is that we are so vastly different, but the core is that we love our families, we love Country music, and we live the life that our audience lives. Obviously we've been afforded the opportunity to live better than the average American because of the financial rewards that come with doing radio and doing morning radio in a major market like Chicago; but nonetheless, his friends and my friends are the same friends we've had since high school. We're still those people and we're pretty reflective of the average person that goes to work every day in Chicago. I think that contributes to our success -not just on the radio but when it comes to attitudes, values, and who we are as people. It helps us get along in the studio.
4. You've also worked in some great markets with some powerful brands - KSON/San Diego, KILT/Houston, and obviously WUSN (US 99)/Chicago. US 99 is an intensely powerful brand. It means a lot to Chicago and it means a lot to the format. That brings with it a tremendous responsibility, doesn't it?
It's a heritage radio station with a huge brand. Not only in Chicago, but it is respected nationwide. It wasn't like I didn't want to work here back after I left Fort Atkinson, WI. I tried. Then when I left San Diego, it was my intention to get to KZLA where you were, or to get to Chicago. They didn't hire me. Then I found a niche in launching radio stations. It was when we were starting to see a division of the format where we're trying to identify those heritage stations and say, hey guess what there something is newer and younger. It's Young Country. It's BOB. It's all these other niche formats that are still Country -we're just on the younger, crazier, wilder end of things. Then I went to launch in Minneapolis, and I got a taste of what it's like to go up against a heritage station in KEEY. When the opportunity came to launch Young Country in Seattle, I jumped at it because it was the right time in my life. My age was perfect to go out there and to take on a heritage station like KMPS, which was awesome until they pretty much bought us. Whenever I see the writing on the wall, I'm the first one to jump off the ship. My theory is always when you're getting run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade. So I had the sense to go to Houston and launch Young Country, which was a brand I believed in because it was so different. It wasn't a ratings generator by any means, but it did put us in the position as the second Country station in the market; therefore you would get the buy, and that's all that mattered was bringing in money to the bottom line. Again, in between all of those stops I would continually try and come back home to work for US 99, but it just wasn't meant to be at that point. What happened in Houston is I was diagnosed with cancer. I recovered, but had lost my fertility. I adopted a child and I went in and I asked Darren Davis what the adoption policy was at the time, and there was none. I realized there was going to be a format change -we saw that the Young Country format was starting to fade because the heritage stations had come back around. There really wasn't room for three Country stations in a market. So I had a year or two to raise my child. I was determined that I was coming home to Chicago, because I wasn't going to raise my child anywhere except among family members. I'm proud to say he's never had a babysitter. He doesn't even know what a babysitter is, because I've always been surrounded by family being back home. I guess it was that sheer determination that finally got me the job at US 99, that and my friend Eric Logan, who had been my previous Program Director in Seattle. He started the day before I got the job. I think you can see the connection. The next day I got the job. Fighting against heritage brands and trying all those years to unseat them and to get traction against them really taught me respect for what a heritage brand is, like KSON and US 99 in Chicago. I revere this radio station. I love it. It's interesting now because after all those years, we have a competitor. I know what their struggles will be, because I was that second and third radio station or second and third morning show in a market just trying to get some traction. I work for a strong brand, and more than that, I work for CBS, and that's a company that I've always been proud to work for. So I feel very blessed to work in the city of my choice. I grew up in Northern Illinois, and I feel very protective of this brand and our place not only in the Country music industry, but at the end of the run, in the books of Country music history. This station will be talked about.
5. It's an incredible set of call letters. So growing up in Northern Illinois, what station or personality did you listen to most growing up and how did either -or both-influence you in pursuing a radio career?
I grew up in Rockford, IL, so we had the legendary WROK and of course WLS. I got to listen every night to WLS' 'The Boogie Check,' and I would practice on my cassette recorder in my bedroom. I just wanted to copy them. I loved radio. I bugged the disc jockeys every night on the phone. I drove them absolutely crazy. But the woman who had the most influence was Yvonne Daniels. After her death in 1991 she was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, and to hear that woman on WLS - her voice was amazing. That's what really connected me to the idea that maybe I could do this someday. WLS, WROK, and then eventually WZOK where ironically I ended up working for my second job in radio, were the motivation for me to want to be in radio. Enough so that I tried to start a radio station in high school. It didn't get off the ground. We didn't have any funding. There was an old radio station in there from the 40s, but I just settled for doing the morning announcements. I got to school early as long as I could get behind a microphone, so I was good.
6. Tell us about your first radio job - and your first-ever live break on the air. Certainly you remember both, right?
That was WFAW in Fort Atkinson, WI. I remembered they told me they would hire me as the Assistant Chief Engineer because I had a first class engineering license, and then I could do the sign off on the AM Country station in the afternoon from 6p in the summer until maybe sunset. It was an AM Daytimer, and I remember I thought I was going to vomit I was so nervous. The studio was all glass in the middle of the programming department. I remember my voice shaking and I was playing records. Back then, it wasn't so much I was worrying what I was going to say, it was am I going to get this queued up properly. Eventually it went into carts very quickly, but I still remember that moment. On the board here I have a magnet and it says, 'Do one thing every day that scares you,' and I think great things arise when you take a chance. I think that's kind of been my motto as far as getting back to that very first moment in radio and going im scared to death but im going to do this anyway.
7. What about mentors? Everybody has a few of them. Who was it for you that helped you, challenged you, and made you believe you could actually make this a career?
The person who's had the most influence came along the way a little later in my career during those startups. He hired me at Young Country in Seattle and Young Country in Houston, and that is Rick Torcasso. Rick not only believed in me but he believed I could be a great personality. He taught me how to do personality radio. I had first seen him at an R&R convention speaking probably back in the early 90s or late 80s, and they were having a big discussion about why you couldn't play two females back to back on the radio. I sat there in an audience that was probably 95% male, and Rick was the only person who thought that the idea that you couldn't play two females back to back was ridiculous. And his point was if it's a good song, it's a good song. So I went up to him and introduced myself and we chatted for a moment. It was one of those industry things. And I followed up by sending a note and then I think I sent a Christmas card. So when he called me out of the blue and said, 'Hey, I'm behind launching this Young Country station in Seattle and I want to talk to you about the morning show,' I couldn't believe it. It had been years, and I had no idea that he had been following my career or that he had any belief in me. The fact that someone believed in you and trusted you to launch a radio station, to be the first voice on that morning show, and as a young female allow you to host that morning show and to create whatever content you wanted, was the belief that gave me the courage to believe in myself and to do something I knew I could do but wasn't certain that anybody before had believed in me. At that radio station a young 21 year old Program Director came to work, and that was Eric Logan. Eric Logan has had quite a successful career as well, and I've had the opportunity to work for him twice in my life - that's someone else who has really helped identify my strengths. I always believe in improving on your strengths and letting someone else carry your weaknesses. You know, just be better at what you already do well, and both of those people supported me in that.
8. There is an industry-wide concern about the thin on-air talent pool and its lack of development. How will we get younger talent ready for prime time, and where will we find younger creative types, in a time where radio isn't seen as cool as it once was?
Well, there are plenty of those people out there. Columbia College here in Chicago is filled with kids that would love to take my job, and they'd do it for minimum wage, frankly. But we've eliminated overnight shifts. You know they don't exist anymore. For a while, many radio stations didn't even have night shifts. Overnights are where everybody starts. I remember my first shift on the air here at US 99 in Chicago. I said, 'I just want to come in and play on the radio from 2-4 in the morning and feel free and know how to run the board and do all that kind of stuff.' That's where we put all of our talent. That's where everybody needs to start -on the overnight shift. Those are gone. Unfortunately, many of the night shifts disappeared. I see them coming back now which is kind of nice, but there are plenty of people out there. We're just not giving them the opportunity to get on-air experience. In a city like Chicago, I mean, realistically, every radio station has a bottom line, so how much do we pay a part-timer to come into this city? I don't know, $15, $20, $22 an hour? But guess what? It costs them $32 to park. What's the incentive if you're going to make $60 for a shift to learn how to do radio but of that $60, $32 just went to park and that didn't factor in the time it took to get into a big city. I think we really have to rely on smaller markets, but what im finding is many people who want to do a morning show in Chicago, do not want to go work in Fort Atkinson and do the overnight show for minimum wage. So the cream of the crop will rise. The people who are most dedicated will take those jobs. They will go to those small markets and work their way back much like I did. That reality hasn't changed. I rented a couch. I'm the original couch surfer. When I worked in Fort Atkinson, I didn't make enough and I rented a couch in the living room and a friend let me use the bathroom once a day and that was it. But that's because I knew what I wanted to do, and there wasn't going to be anything that stopped me from making my way into a bigger role in this industry.
9. You've been in the format a while now. You were on the air during the 90s boom and are still at it now, when Country is still huge. What direction do you see the format heading - are the Pop, Hip-Hop, and Rock influences here to stay?
I think we're growing and evolving. It's interesting because there are a lot of people in Country radio that don't realize the roots of Country radio. I think the core of our format is authenticity. That's the key. People who listen to country music and people who are in the Country music family seem to be possessive. Everyone has this idea of what this should be. But if you go back to Patsy Cline I would bet that she was identified as a Country Pop star or a Pop and Country star. Now today we'd look at her and go, she's traditional Country. No, she was identified as a Pop star after Country. She morphed into that role. And then in the 50s when they wanted to get rid of the hillbilly sound with too many fiddles, Chet Atkins came in and created the Nashville sound which was to get rid of that hillbilly, rough, rowdy, honky tonk music and make it a little more melodic and appeal to a younger generation. If you look at that now, it's exactly what has happened over and over again. Sam Hunt was caught by TMZ after the Stagecoach festival, when he brought Snoop Dogg on stage, and TMZ was like,' you brought Snoop Dogg on stage, what's up with that?' And Sam said, 'I grew up listening to Snoop Dogg. I listen to Country. I love Country. But I love Rap.' I love this and that's exactly who is selling records today. They're speaking to a generation of kids who weren't relegated to one format of radio. This generation could choose whatever music they wanted, and guess what? On their playlist are Snoop Dogg, Hank Williams Jr., Florida Georgia Line, and Keith Urban. They don't put up the parameters, the rules that people who've been in the industry a long time seem to have ingrained in them. I think that it's no different than it's always been. We share with Pop sometimes and we become more popular than Pop sometimes, and they draw from us. Obviously they did that with Taylor Swift. And people might argue that she was always Pop. No she wasn't. She was a kid who loved Country, but she evolved and she grew and that's what will happen. We will lose some artists to other formats, and we will see artists from other formats come into our industry. Some make it. Some don't. But I think we've got to lose the possessiveness of what our idea of Country music is, because it's changing. And change is good for everybody.
10. What has been your proudest moment in radio-could be an off-air or on-air moment?
Winning the CMA Personality of the Year award in 2005 as a solo jock and in 2010 with Ray, and then winning the ACM was really, really cool. That was an honor I never thought that I would see. Let alone this Hall Of Fame honor, which is absolutely overwhelming. But the most important moment was on the air in Seattle. Like I said earlier, Young Country was a freewheeling format. You could kind of just go with the flow of what was happening in the city where you were broadcasting. A homeless man was stoned to death, and I was so stunned that morning when I read about it, because the murder was committed by two 12 year olds. I remember going on the air early in the morning, and I said, 'Really? What we have done as a society if we can create murderers out of two 12 year olds? I mean they've only been on this planet 12 years. How is it they could want to STONE a person to death?' And the phone rings. And it's a 12 year old girl, by the name of Tabitha, and she told me, 'Well, I could kill somebody.' I said, 'Where are you honey? What are you doing?' And she was just kind of hanging out, wasn't going to school that day, and I said, 'Is there anyone taking care of you?' She was kind of unclear about that, and I said, 'Can you get to the radio station because I want to help you."'She came to the radio station, but by then the TV station had heard about it, so the TV station showed up to find out who this child was that said she could probably kill somebody at age 12. But lo and behold, I got Tabatha into the foster care system and became a lifelong friend and mentor to her. Her brother was murdered for stealing a car when he was 16 or 17. Maybe three or four years after I adopted my child, she adopted a baby that was identified as her brother's child, and she has been in my life this whole time. I have always stayed in contact with her. She's in her 30s now, she does well, and she raised that child. She's married, and she'll be coming for a visit this month. I think there are moments in my life that are defined by radio but really the big moments are defined by who I have met through radio, and Tabitha was one of those. That was a moment in time on one radio station in one market where there was connection made that will last a lifetime. That is the power of radio. That is the power of communication. That is the power of connecting and what we all want to do. That really leads to success. If you can connect with people, if you can cut through all the clutter than that makes you memorable.