Rick Dees comes back to tell what he's learned

Staff writerMay 8, 2011 

  • When: 1 p.m. today

    Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill

    Cost: Free and open to the public

    Information: 962-1204 or tinyurl.com/3wm555 z

Say the name Rick Dees, and the first image that comes to mind might be a duck. The man did top the charts in 1976 with the novelty hit "Disco Duck," after all. But in this era of narrowcasting and satellite radio, Dees might be one of the last survivors of a vanishing dinosaur-like species: the terrestrial-radio air personality.

Dees is in the Triangle today to give the commencement address at UNC-Chapel Hill's school of journalism, where he received his degree in 1972. We caught up with him by phone recently.

Q: So what wisdom will you impart to those who want to break into broadcasting?

The first thing I'll do is a list of top-10 things they may not have taught you at the University of North Carolina, and most are about communication. But if you can give me your attention for the length of three hit songs, they're quick and fast, and I hope and pray you'll take something away that will change your life. They changed mine and everyone is welcome to steal them.

Q: What memories of UNC do you have?

When I got to UNC, I was fortunate to be a finalist for a Morehead scholarship, and at the end I was one who did not get it. That was 1968 and I remember my father said these words: "Oh darn, that's $8,000 a year we'll have to come up with." Rather than, "I'm so proud of you." That motivated me to say, "Dad, you don't have to pay for anything. I'll take care of it."

I got two jobs in radio, and going to class became a distant second place. I graduated with a degree in radio-television-motion pictures having almost never gone to class, the educational equivalent of climbing Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. I'm not super-proud of that, other than to say I'm a UNC graduate. I love the school, and it's the most beautiful campus ever.

Q: What was your first time on the air?

The first week I was in Granville Towers, I started a campus station with Ken Lowe, who now runs Scripps Network Interactive. We were roommates and started a station called WILD in the basement. We were a carrier current station, just on campus. A guy came in to do my first interview ever, disheveled, long hair, looked like he'd slept in his clothes, slight fragrance of ganja.

He asks, "Have you done a lot of interviews?" "No," I said, "You're my first. Have you done a lot of records?" "This is my first one." "Then we're even."

"You're on Apple Records, the Beatles' label. How does the son of the dean of medicine at UNC think he'll have a hit?" He said, "That's rude. No wonder it's your first interview." That was James Taylor, his and my first interview. It turned out great for both of us.

Q: Do you ever wish your calling card was something other than "Disco Duck"?

I love having that as my calling card. It helped me meet my wife. I was in Hollywood to perform it on a show called "Wacko," which was like a kids' "Laugh-In" at the time. She was on it to do some impressions. Julie McWhirter. I thought she was phenomenal. She did Cher, people on TV. It took some time for her to go out with me even though I did sing "Disco Duck." We've been married 100 years. Well, 32, actually.

Q: Forty years ago, could you have imagined the media landscape of today?

If I could go back to the '70s, I'd tell people not to worry about AM, buy FM stations. It's gone so fast. Survey students and ask what they'd rather go without for two days, eating or their mobile phone, they choose to go without eating. They'd rather be tethered to their cellphone. Rather than say there's something wrong with that, we need to accept that and steer them in the right direction. It's not the end for terrestrial radio. I think it's going to be another wonderful chapter for it.

I love being on terrestrial radio. It's live, immediate, you can do it alone and connect one-on-one. People take their radios into personal places, and it's a personal relationship.

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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