When her co-host was suddenly fired last August, Jill Riley of 89.3 the Current’s morning show felt blindsided, disappointed, confused and anxious. But she didn’t really feel nervous.
“To say I was bummed is the understatement of the year,” Riley said, “but I’d been the one constant on the show for 10 years. I knew I could do it, and do it alone if I had to.”
The big question was: Did she want to go it alone? Seven months later, the Current’s faithful and unfailingly opinionated audience has learned the answer.
Yes. Riley and the Minnesota Public Radio machinery announced Monday morning that Riley will continue as the sole host from 5 to 10 a.m.
The news may seem anticlimactic. What took MPR brass this long to decide to stand pat? Listeners have been theorizing who might succeed Brian Oake ever since the popular and gregarious co-host was canned after a social media rant and a dust-up with Palace Theatre staff.
Still, the outcome has significant underpinnings.
Riley is now the rare woman helming a morning show on an FM rock, or rock-leaning, station. (Another is Barb Abney, who was fired from the Current in 2015 and now works at community station KFAI.) Riley also now leads off an entirely female daytime lineup at the Current, with Jade Tittle and flagship jockey Mary Lucia following her on weekdays.
The decision also underlines the Current’s core aesthetic: music nerdery. Which conversely adds a bit of a feminist bent to her solo gig, Riley believes.
“The station is so music-centric, it really is about that more than it’s about any of us who talk on the air,” she said. “We mostly talk about music, and, yep, I can do that.
“I see lots of women hanging out at record stores these days, or just sitting around talking about music. It’s good to recognize that, and reflect that it’s not just a boys’ club.”
In fact, the scene was quite the opposite during a visit to the Current studios last month on the fourth floor of MPR headquarters in downtown St. Paul.
Off air, Riley cracked jokes with her “super-producer” Anna Weggel, an amateur actor and improv comedian on the side whose wit is even quicker than the on-air host’s.
When Tittle walked in ahead of her shift, the two DJs talked about first impressions of the new Fillmore nightclub and then went on air together to rave about Hinterland, a music festival near Des Moines that announced its lineup that morning.
“That was some of the best camping we’ve done at a music fest,” Riley, 38, said with a sly tone that suggested stories only for telling off-air. You’ll also often hear her talking up her nonmusical camping excursions with her husband, Chris, and their 4-year-old son, Stanley.
After bidding the audience farewell into the microphone, Riley turned around and addressed the many photos of her on the studio walls, including one with longtime crush Emilio Estevez, and several with her former co-host Oake.
“I’m like the widow who hasn’t cleaned out her late husband’s stuff,” Riley flatly quipped.
Oake wished his former on-air partner well and praised how well she handled the chaotic aftermath of his firing.
“It was hard for both of us because we were friends and worked well together, but then she had to go on the air; I’m sure it was very difficult,” said Oake, who complained that he “never really got a proper explanation” for being canned.
Still, he called the Current “still a vibrant and important asset to the music community,” and he said of both Riley and Weggel, “There are none more capable to carry it forward.”
A longtime Cities 97 morning host before his 3½-year stint at the Current, Oake has launched a new podcast, available via brianoakeshow.com, iheartmedia.com, Apple Music and Spotify.
He riffs on random hot topics while interviewing a grab bag of local cultural heroes, from musicians the Gully Boys, Lydia Liza and Billy Morrissette to comedians Lizz Winstead and Colleen Kruse to such random characters as Jon Clifford of HiFi Hair & Records, Dave Anania of the Blue Man Group, and — guess who? — Jill Riley.
The Current’s managing director, David Safar, who took the reins last year after 13 years as a music director, also commended Riley for coolheadedly handling the chaos amid Oake’s firing.
“I think most people heard what I heard, which was Jill still bringing her best to the job every day,” Safar said.
Riley, Weggel and their bosses — including longtime program director Jim McGuinn — decided to ride it out through December with just Riley, and “let the music and the format we already had in place just stick for a while,” Riley explained.
Come January, it became apparent they should let the solo host stick, too.
“At first, we were just kind of getting through it,” said Weggel, “but eventually the smiles and the laughs started coming back, and that’s where Jill shines.”
Safar denied that the decision was influenced by a desire to save money: “We’re always mindful being stewards of the funding we get from our members,” he said. “[This is] another decision based on how we can best deliver to the audience.”
Marking its 15th anniversary this year, the Current was launched as a noncommercial AAA (adult-alternative) station to bring in new and younger members to MPR’s then-Garrison-Keillor-dominated public-radio family.
The station still has four o.g. DJs left from its January 2005 debut: Lucia, Mark Wheat, Bill DeVille and Riley, who was originally hired to work overnight shifts.
She came to the Current straight out of school from St. Cloud State University, where she spun music at the student station, KVSC (88.1 FM). The late nights came relatively easy since she had also worked nights in summer at the 3M plant in her native Hutchinson, Minn., to help pay for school. She also moonlighted as a roller-derby competitor.
Adjusting to the morning shift was harder. She got the morning gig in 2010 alongside Steve Seel, who switched to MPR’s classical outlet (99.5 FM) five years later. That’s when Oake was brought in, an adjustment that came easy, she said, “because Brian already had a ton of radio experience, and we hit it off fast.”
While she still misses Oake, Riley sees this new venture as maybe her easiest career adjustment of all.
Not much will change. Regular morning-show features will continue, including the daily Coffee Break (a half-hour playlist built around an ever-changing theme) and weekly visits with Trivia Mafia kingpin and fellow Current host Sean McPherson, movie reviewer Euan Kerr, Star Tribune sports columnist Michael Rand and “Rock ’n’ Roll Book Club” pundit Jay Gabler.
“We’re still surrounded by a lot of men,” Riley noted with a laugh, “but ultimately it will be me and Anna calling most of the shots, and I think there’s something empowering and fun about that.
“I couldn’t and can’t change Brian being gone,” she added, “so I’m seizing this as an opportunity now, a chance to have my name out there first.”