A new Dees dawn

Times Staff Writer

RICK DEES was asked about his proper place in the history of Los Angeles radio. Leaning into the studio's microphone, he answered with his familiar rounded-edge drawl: "Every great artist has to go out on the stage and say, 'I'm going to be the best ever.' And so I go out on the airwaves and say I'm going to commit myself to be the best ever...."

There was no caller on the line to debate the point -- the microphone he spoke into wasn't turned on and, beyond the walls of a dim Emmis Broadcasting studio in Burbank, not a soul was listening. Asked about his curious pose, Dees blinked hard, chuckled at the force of habit and then pushed back from the console.

"It's like Pavlov's dog; it's like you rang the bell," the 59-year-old said, nodding toward the black-felt microphone. "I'm sorry."

The bell has not been ringing for 2 1/2 years, but that will change at 6 on Monday morning. Dees, love him or hate him, will be back in the ear of Southern California on an upstart new station called Movin' 93.9, which has an up-tempo pop format that took over for the country-twang of KZLA. And he'll be there with a little help from his friends, Jack Nicholson for one, who approached Dees to ask to be the show's first guest.

It's a return to grace for Dees, who was famously fired from L.A. morning radio in February 2004 because, well, everyone -- even corporate America -- eventually shrugs and reaches for the dial to find something new. Dees and his morning show at Top 40 powerhouse KIIS-FM (102.7) had been a national template for the form for more than two decades, though, so Dees was understandably rattled.

"It was like a bad dream, like I was in prison," Dees said. "It went from everything to zero; 60 to zero in four seconds."

Just down the street and up the dial is Ryan Seacrest, the younger model that took over Dees' spot at KIIS. The two have a lot in common. Dees was born in north Florida, Seacrest in Georgia, and both have barely-there drawls, the fresh-scrubbed features of spa regulars and twinkling grins that they present the way salesmen hand out business cards.

Both had success in pop culture outside of radio: Seacrest had the hosting job on top-rated "American Idol." And in 1976, five years before Dees was hired by KIIS, Dees had a No. 1 hit, "Disco Duck," on the U.S. pop charts. The song is not exactly a pop classic, but it should be noted that Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Bob Dylan never managed to claim the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Dees was plainly pleased: "What does Rick Dees have that Dylan doesn't have?"

Dees recorded "Disco Duck" while in Memphis, Tenn., and although it appeared in the film "Saturday Night Fever," Dees says his agent at the time sabotaged the plan to include it on that film's soundtrack. "He told them it would compete with sales of my own album," Dees recalled with a groan. That cost him a Grammy and considerable royalty checks. "It's sold 25 million copies, and it would been, I don't know, a dime each? That's my business acumen."

Dees was a highly paid golden boy when he arrived in L.A., and, whether or not you appreciate his vanilla humor, he found a way to make most people like him for a very long time in a place that doesn't do that often. His new station has a playlist that is not all that different from what you can hear just about everywhere else (Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani), so it's up to Dees, not the hits, to carve out the new personality.

"The music comes and goes, but people are the same and the challenges they have every day are the same whether they are 21 or 91," Dees said. "I love to get into their heads every day to make them laugh."

Business decision

DEES referred to KIIS only as "the other place" and "another station in town" and explained his ouster this way: "I guess it's a matter of big business and all and their stock prices going to a certain level or saying, 'We can't pay this money for this division' and all. I think I got caught up in one of those divisions."

Oh, and during the interview, the topic of Seacrest was out. "I have nothing against them other than the fact that I love what I do and haven't had a chance to do it for two years. It was a terrible, terrible feeling."

KIIS is one of the properties of Clear Channel, the behemoth of American radio, and Dees' new station (which will go by the call letters KMVN) is owned by Emmis, a smaller but substantial competitor of the leading conglomerate and locally owns Power 106, KPWR-FM. Salaries and standings are, of course, pressing matters at his new corporate home too. In radio trades, the assumption is that the investment in Dees is connected to the switch of Mancow, the Chicago-based Emmis star, from franchise hero to free agent and the $2 million to $3 million freed up in contract money.

The format switch of the station too may have led to much hand-wringing by country music fans in Southern California who can no longer find singers in Stetsons on their FM dial, but industry observers are saying the new sound will pump up the volume on profits. One Merrill Lynch analyst has projected as much as a 50% jump in revenue if the station realizes the audience and demographic it hopes to win.

But can Dees click with kids? The station leadership must not have been sure. The station did, according to Dees, six months of audience testing and research to see if its host still had it.

"They wanted to see if I still had an appeal or not -- that's when you go back being zero again," Dees conceded. His reaction? " 'But I'm me.' [But] I had to read for the part."

Dees still has his weekly syndicated Top 40 countdown show, but he compares that to doing "300 sit-ups" because, although he likes the result, it's tedious in production and has none of the adrenaline or cachet of doing the "high-wire act of a morning show."

Assist, Nicholson

DEES has been working feverishly to gear up for the first show. In the studio, his huge collection of sound effects on old bulky cassettes was dusted off and stacked at the ready. He also called in some chits. One of them was Nicholson.

Three days after a shellshocked Dees signed off of KIIS, he ran into Nicholson in Toluca Lake and the actor offered his sympathies and a pledge to appear on the first show if Dees ever got back a morning microphone in L.A. Did he mean it? " 'You test me, my friend, you test me Ricky,' " the Oscar winner told the DJ.

On Wednesday, Nicholson delivered with a lengthy taped interview, and he has plans to drop by the station as well. "It was a valentine," Dees said of the rare commitment by the actor. "I had tears in my eyes when I left."

There are other love notes: Vin Scully has recorded the show's preamble (which takes a vague shot at Seacrest), and Justin Timberlake, the man with the No. 1 album in America right now, recorded a polished reworking of his hit "SexyBack" to provide a theme song. The lyrics: "Rick Dees is back / On Movin' 93, he's back / He's going to wake you up and get on track...."

Dees has lived a life with call letters since he was a teenager, and he makes no bones about his desperation to get back on the air. But he said he is not so desperate that he would do it in half-measure.

"This wasn't the first offer; it was the best," he said. "There was an oldies station that had an offer that would have me syndicated all over the nation, and it was serious, we had a letter of agreement

He was talking into the dead microphone again -- not that he noticed -- only this time he was about an hour closer to having an audience on the other end.

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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