by Jon Hunt
There are some people that like their drive to work to be devoid of human communication. And that’s okay. That’s why god invented the iPod and the iPhone: if you’d rather crank Van Halen and not have to listen to some DJ yammering on about the day’s events, you can. Blessings to you, and move along. Nothing to see here.
Me, though? I like a good morning show. Growing up, my mom listened religiously to Boone and Erickson on WCCO AM, and that’s probably where it started. I can still hear their goofy-ass “Good Morning” song in my head if I try hard enough — brings to mind the smell of burning pop-tarts and the tart flavor of Tang.
Once I was old enough to make my own choices, I became a religious listener to WLOL’s Hines and Berglund, who dominated the morning airwaves for pretty much the entire 80s. They got it exactly right: the perfect blend of good-natured yukking-it-up with some music and some news and some drive-time weather. They had chemistry, and you can’t fake that. Hines without Berglund (as he is right now on WCCCO radio) is like a chocolate chip cookie without the chips: tasty enough, but missing that extra oomph that makes it special. Those guys were awesome. They were cool even though they were just old-guy gigging DJs — we cared about them and their silly gimmicks (like playing “Hubba Hubba Zoot Zoot” every few days, or plugging weird-ass Norsk soda Champagne Brus). It was silly, but it felt like your family.
There have been some really great morning shows since ‘LOL went off the air in the late-80s.* As soon as it went “wide” (rather than just broadcasting to the U of M dorms), I devoted myself to Radio K and their morning hosts Ren and Brian — Ren’s full name I don’t remember but Brian is, of course, Brian Oake, who later went on to great things at Rev 105 and Cities 97. “Ren and Brian” was a great show — Oake’s sober, knowledgable professionalism was offset by Ren’s giggly optimism, and damn right they had chemistry. It had the roughness of college radio, sure, but you could tell it was a thing that worked, like a DIY version of Hines and Berglund.
Oake continued his morning-show streak at REV 105 and its nominal heir Zone 105, where he hooked up with Mary Lucia (now the Current’s afternoon host) in one of the other great morning show partnerships ever. In retrospect, how awesome is that combo? Oake had by then evolved into a quite damn funny force of nature (his morning show with Steve Nelson was pretty great too), and Mary Lucia is, you know, Mary Lucia — she knows everything about music and is about as true-believery as you can get. It was great stuff. Oake has one of those perfect radio voices, tons of enthusiasm and a million dumb jokes, and Mary played off him marvelously, creating some tremendously funny and super-listenable morning banter. Again, you can’t fake chemistry — it’s either there or it isn’t, and it sure as hell was with those two.
We’ve been pretty lucky since the Current came on the air — well, at least since they fired their original morning DJs, Jim Ed Poole and Dale Connelly, whose old-timey bluegrass vibe was a hilarious mismatch with the Current’s indie playlist. Besides the killer morning show over on The People’s Station, KMOJ (which, if you want actual humor, is your best bet — their call-in segments are some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life), the Current dished up a morning show team that was just as good as Oake/Lucia — Steve Seel and Jill Riley. Like Oake, Seel is a consummate professional with one of those perfect radio voices and a love for esoteric music. And Riley was a perfect pairing with him, with an as-deep knowledge of music (her morning vinyl selections were a reason to tune in) and a great news personality. She was the Berglund to Seel’s Hines (or maybe it was vice versa) — it had chemistry and it worked. And I tuned in every day, which was something I hadn’t done since the glory days of Oake and Lucia. (Oake, of course, did a show over on Cities 97 with Keri Noble. But even though he was as awesome as he ever was — and he had tons of chemistry with Noble! — he found himself increasingly isolated from the crowd that would normally listen to him by Cities’ unadventurous music programming).
When Seel announced in early ’15 that he was taking a leave of absence from the Current’s morning show, there was a lot of speculation as to what the Current would do next. And for the majority of the year, it banked on occasional guest host / famous bassist / trivia host Sean McPherson. McPherson is a competent DJ — he’s great as a fill-in host, with a wide knowledge of music and pop culture and tons of interesting anecdotes. But what he doesn’t have is chemistry with Jill Riley. Like I said, you can’t fake that kind of thing — and for a year, now, they’ve been doing just that, trying to generate the kind of bonhomie that would make for great morning listening. But even though Riley is as great as she ever was, and McPherson as perfectly fine as he ever was, there’s just not that spark that Seel/Riley (or even Jade Tittle / Jill Riley!) used to have. No compelling reason to tune in. It’s fine, I guess. I’m betting they’re bleeding listeners.
So when Oake recently announced his departure from Cities 97 — well, the speculation continues to be huge that he’ll be joining Riley on the Current’s morning show, though there’s been no official (or really, even unofficial) confirmation yet.
If it happens, I couldn’t be more excited. I can’t promise that Oake and Riley will have chemistry, of course. But an Oake/Riley pairing does a couple of things. Firstly, it brings Oake back to an audience that loved him when he was at Rev but didn’t want to listen to Imagine Dragons ten times a day. And frankly, Oake’s indie sensibility is on fleek — he was kind of wasted on a station like Cities to begin with, knowing his taste as I do (or think I do). And secondly, it gives Jill Riley a more challenging partner to play off of. The jovial but boring tete-a-tete she has with McPherson will have to go by the wayside as she’s forced to play against someone with as much personality as she has, which I can only imagine will bring out the best in her. If nothing else, maybe there’ll be some great musical arguments. And Oake has to be better at coming up with “coffee break” topics, right? (Better idea: ditch the “coffee break” altogether).
Look, if you don’t like morning shows, I can’t convince you to like ’em. They’re unabashedly goofy things, very local in nature (Minnesota’s morning shows are so very Minnesotan) and filled with — well, babble. Just that. Goofy jokes and gags and back-and-forth and maybe not so much music (though the Current does a decent balance of music/talking in my opinion). But for those of us that do dig ’em? There’s a little bit of a hole right now. What I wouldn’t give for something awesome and engaging (dammit!) for my drive in. Here’s hoping for an announcement in the new year.
* I suppose you have to mention the right-wing dickbags on KQRS since they’ve made it work for a couple decades — but I can’t stand ’em. They’re mean-spirited and racist and sexist and way too sportsy by half, and whenever someone tells me they think those assholes and poor, put-upon Terry Train are “funny” it automatically makes me question their sanity.