During his self-titled weekday morning show on dominant Twin Cities pop radio station KDWB (101.3 FM), host Dave Ryan dishes celebrity gossip, offers relationship advice and talks about everything from pineapple boobs (use your imagination) to his love language (maybe don’t).
He’ll talk anything and everything — well, almost everything.
The status of his teenage son’s romantic relationships, he says, is off limits. So are certain marital issues. But then he proceeds to share a piece of super-intimate, ridiculously personal and, if we’re being honest, slightly gross information about his wife. And says it’s OK to write about it in the paper.
“I think it’s kind of funny; I mean, it just is,” he says.
Ryan just can’t help himself.
He isn’t a shock jock to the degree of Howard Stern. (His show has been called “Pop-Tarts” to Stern’s “Fruity Pebbles eaten out of a stripper’s bra.”) But over the past two-plus decades, he’s earned a reputation for fearlessly going there: for surprising, provoking, entertaining and charming his audience and, most important, keeping people listening.
That’s why “The Dave Ryan Show” has long been among the top-ranked local morning shows, why other DJs around the country crib its ideas and why its namesake earned the radio equivalent of an Oscar.
In an industry known for job hopping, Ryan and KDWB have stuck with each other as he’s outlasted his pop-radio peers — despite having managed to offend everyone from pet lovers and parents to the University of Minnesota and the NAACP.
If you haven’t listened to KDWB since “I Will Always Love You” and “Whoomp! (There It Is)” topped the Billboard charts in the early ’90s, you might think of Ryan as a prank-loving Peter Pan. But over the past 25 years, he has changed as much as the hits.
Watching radio being created is a little like seeing the proverbial sausage being made. Every weekday morning, just before 6 a.m., Ryan squeezes into a cramped studio in a St. Louis Park office tower with co-host Falen Bonsett and co-host/producer Steve LaTart.
It’s a decidedly unglamorous home for the stars of Twin Cities radio (according to Twitter popularity, anyway), without much to look at besides a table-cum-junk drawer and a cute note from a kid. (“KDWB, you are the best. I listen to your show every day. Thank you for playing with me at McDonald’s.”)
Between talk segments, the studio can be surprisingly quiet as the three quietly blog, tweet and text to fulfill their listeners’ desires to connect on social media.
The close dynamic between Ryan and his younger co-hosts suggests a dad and adult children who treat him like a peer. He wears his hair short and preppy and favors T-shirts displaying biceps that, says Bonsett, “seem dece for someone who doesn’t work out,” along with shorts that reveal tattoos of a boom box on one calf and a microphone on the other.
Save for the salt in his stubble, Ryan might be mistaken for a 20-something who rode in on the skateboard that’s propped up in the corner. (He declined to share his age.)
Ryan adopted what he now calls his “boring” stage name when he landed his first radio gig at 17. After being fired from a role as the “squarest, whitest” guy at an Arizona hip-hop station, he came to Minnesota in 1993. During his interview with the KDWB bigwigs, Ryan threw out a “terrible” joke about law enforcement’s siege of the Branch Davidian cult’s Waco compound (“Why is the American Cancer Society so excited? Because 100 people just stopped smoking in Texas”), which “could have gone either way.” The bigwigs laughed. Soon he and co-host Lee Valsvik were spinning the Spin Doctors and sporting matching feathered hairstyles.
Ryan admits that DJs, sometimes deservedly, get the reputation for being hacks or cheesy (“one notch below mimes” in the professional pecking order, he jokes). Ryan doesn’t curate the music playlist — DJs at large commercial stations haven’t done so for decades — but he and his co-hosts are responsible for roughly two hours of talk time during each four-hour show.
The threesome’s chatter might sound spontaneous, but it’s planned spontaneity, which usually creates something far more listenable than ad-libbing. That requires hours of planning in the off-hours. Typically the crew convenes for at least an hour after their show wraps, then regroups online in the evenings to finalize the next day’s plan.
But good radio also involves going out and having a life, Ryan says, so you have something to talk about when you’re back on air. For Ryan, who lives in Chanhassen with his wife and youngest son, that might be flying planes, riding motorcycles, performing in the brass band he started with a group of KDWB listeners or trying various publicity stunts, such as the time he dressed as Darth Vader and married a couple before a “Star Wars” screening.
In between ads for chewable Viagra and slip-resistant tile flooring, the substance of “The Dave Ryan Show” includes plenty of celebrity gossip — Justin Bieber’s wedding, Ariana Grande’s new pet pig — and news of the weird, such as the story of a guy who called 911 when Burger King wouldn’t honor his free Whopper coupon.
The hosts offer “Group Therapy” to a bride who can’t decide whether to invite her friend’s obnoxious boyfriend to her wedding. They also play “Drunk or a Kid,” which involves callers telling stories about, say, waking up in the middle of the night and eating an entire stick of butter, and the hosts guess if it happened when the caller was drunk or a kid. The show’s most popular recurring segment is “War of the Roses,” prank calls that help suspicious girlfriends catch cheaters, often involving unbelievable “Jerry Springer”-esque plotlines.
Some bits, like fat-shaming co-host LaTart, feel boorish. Others are simply boring, including the crew’s recent blind taste test of red, yellow and green peppers. But you have to risk a few stink bombs to find a diamond in the rough, LaTart says. And that’s a byproduct of Ryan’s fearlessness: “He’s not afraid to do something and have it not work,” LaTart notes.
But there are enough diamonds that KDWB’s mornings typically place among the top three in local Nielsen ratings. And even the stink bombs don’t seem all that smelly when they’re narrated by Ryan’s hypnotic “radio voice.” There’s something about his rapper-smooth cadence, expressive pauses and inflection, and his ability to riff endlessly and fluently about pretty much anything while rarely uttering an “um” or a “like,” that makes the mundane seem magical.
Ryan can talk about the dead fly trapped in the studio’s double-pane window, and somehow, improbably, it comes off as mind-blowing as a “Nova” special, as thrilling as Stefon Diggs’ NFC division-clinching touchdown.
Ryan relishes a good hoax. He’s suggested that Gopher football fans riot after games (which he was forced to retract after U lawyers threatened legal action) and that parents leave their babies in LaTart’s hands in exchange for a Sony PS3 video game console.
One April Fools’ prank lured hundreds of people to a park hoping to grab $50 bills thrown from a helicopter. (The “bills” were $50 invoices for listening to the show.) Another bit of hijinks, the fake website petsbymail.com, suggested that customers whose purchases arrived dead could simply mail back the carcass for a full refund — and brought the sheriff to Ryan’s doorstep.
A “Dave Ryan Show” billboard with the message “Don’t Vote” irked then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and the NAACP. Another one featuring awkward preteen photos of Ryan and former co-host Angi Taylor with the message “Ugly Kids” disrupted traffic so much that the Minnesota Department of Transportation requested they take it down early.
But Ryan’s pranks look like child’s play compared with his media-grabbing comments about racial minorities and reproductive choices.
After weathering blowback from a Mexican “Sinko de Mayo” gag and a “Muslim Jeopardy” skit, the show made its most notorious race-based remarks in a 2011 parody song “30 Hmongs in a House” with the lyrics: “Hmong get pregnant early, first baby at 16, seven kids by 23.” HealthPartners pulled its advertising and more than 200 protesters staked out KDWB’s headquarters.
The station’s initial apology, posted on its Facebook page, came off as more defensive than contrite. Hmong author Kao Kalia Yang penned an editorial asking the station to do better: “Our standards for each other have gone up,” she wrote. “It is time to call on a greater compassion, a more authentic experience of one another.” Ryan and LaTart subsequently offered sincere apologies.
“We do talk without a safety net, and when you talk for thousands of hours, chances are you’re going to say something that rubs people the wrong way,” Ryan says. “We never intentionally try to offend anybody, but there have been a couple of times when we’ve made mistakes.”
Many remarks that listeners have found offensive — including offering concert tickets to the youngest pregnant teen and the woman with the most “baby daddies” — Ryan says he intended as sarcasm, to point out the way our society accepts and even rewards poor choices. As Dan Seeman, the station’s GM at the time of the Gopher football dust-up, explained to the Associated Press: “More than anything, [Ryan] was making fun of those people who think [rioting] is an acceptable way to celebrate.”
His social critiques often mirror comedians’ tendency to get a laugh by making light of something awful. And he continues to exercise his right to “Go right ahead and be judgmental,” which happens to be bon mot No. 67 of 101 in his 2015 self-published self-help book, “Take a Shower, Show Up on Time, and Don’t Steal Anything.”
Listeners, for their part, have mostly given Ryan the benefit of the doubt. They’ve come to view him as a generally decent guy, he believes, and are willing to forgive the occasional misstep. But he acknowledges that today’s listeners have less tolerance for insensitive remarks: “It’s become more difficult to do what we do in 2018 because we also have to run it through the filter, ‘Will people be offended?’ ”
Ryan’s recent pranks have taken safer ground. In 2016, a “gotcha” video of Ryan berating a restaurant server circulated widely on social media with comments calling for his head on a platter — before KDWB revealed the server was an actor.
‘I’m flawed and I talk about it’
While KQRS and KFAN have dominated the Twin Cities’ male radio listeners with classic rock and sports, KDWB has focused on women.
So instead of talking about whatever on earth “Fortnite” is for National Video Games Day, for example, “The Dave Ryan Show” aired callers’ stories about breaking up with a partner because of electronic addictions.
Aiming the show at women means emotional processing has replaced much of the old pranks and potty humor.
This year, KDWB finally did away with the notorious Booty Cruises, which sent female listeners down the St. Croix River with thong-clad male strippers and booze and often ended in inebriated shenanigans, including a fight where five women were cited for disorderly conduct. “It turned into something we didn’t want to be associated with,” Ryan says.
“Twenty-five years ago, it was all silliness and zaniness and wackiness and very little serious stuff,” Ryan says. “Instead of being a faceless, nameless jokester/prankster, people feel like they want to get to know and trust the people that they listen to on the radio — they expect a human side of you, too.”
That means Ryan increasingly trains his critical eye on himself.
“I’m flawed and I talk about it,” he says. “I got in a fight with my wife, or I’ve got four kids and three different moms, or my one kid drives me crazy, or my sister is borrowing money from me again. I’ll talk about all these things that are human that we all face, and I think people respect that because those are things that friends talk about.”
Randy Lane, a Los Angeles-based radio personality coach who has worked with Ryan for a decade, attributes the host’s success to his ability to tell captivating stories, facilitate engaging conversations and authentically balance likability with a strong point of view.
“Dave is often vulnerable and self-deprecating, and those characteristics deepen his connection with his female target audience,” Lane says.
In many ways, the show’s content — chatting about current events, dissecting personal dilemmas, showing affection with good-natured razzing — mimics a catch-up session with old friends. For longtime fans, listening can feel like a virtual bonding session with the hosts, especially during more recent discussions of serious topics such as infertility, parenting transgender kids and Ryan’s wife’s cancer scare.
Regardless of what he’s talking about, Ryan’s goal has always been to connect on a personal level. Listen closely, and you’ll notice he never addresses his radio audience as “folks” or “everybody” but simply “you.”
At the station, he’s kept a photo of a random woman he ripped from a magazine taped to his desk to remind himself that his audience is made up of individuals.
The real secret to Ryan’s amassing thousands of fans may be his ability to make each one feel like he’s talking only to them.