An oral history of 89.3 the Current's The Morning Show
The faces behind your morning radio.
photo of Riley courtesy MPR, photo of Seel by Nate Ryan
The day's early hours can be make-or-break for radio. When sleepy commuters roll out of their beds and into their cars, many stations try to connect via a bawdy, prank phone-calling, zoo-style show. But at 89.3 the Current, The Morning Show co-hosts Steve Seel and Jill Riley have created a subtler model.
The duo didn't always helm the 6 a.m. shift. From the station's start in 2005 until the end of 2008, 89.3 was home to Minnesota Public Radio's well-loved, long-running version of The Morning Show, anchored by Dale Connelly and Tom Keith, who went by his alter-ego Jim Ed Poole on the radio. When Keith retired at the end of 2008, the Current was faced with creating a morning show of its own -- something to draw in listeners, set the tone for the day, and reflect an identity the station was still growing into.
In an extra segment of this week's cover story on the Current, here's an additional set of stories about how the station got its mornings, told by the people behind them.
Dale Connelly, original co-host of The Morning Show, now 90.3 KFAI news director: The program that I was doing with Tom Keith, [a.k.a.] Jim Ed Poole, was a show that grew out of Garrison Keillor's first morning show many years before. When [Keillor] takes off he leaves the morning show, and Tom and I stepped in and filled that gap. And we did that for 26 years.
Steve Nelson, first program director of the Current: They were amazingly talented and great at what they did. The writing that Dale did, and the voices and bits that Jim Ed made so famous in this region, are unparalleled.
Connelly: When the Current came along, we were weird enough that they figured the morning show audience would follow us there, but what we were doing was never part of the grand vision of the Current, of drawing in a younger listener-ship. In the beginning, it was four hours of the day they didn't have to worry about while they figured out what the rest of the Current would be. They were building a radio station from nothing, really, and brought in a whole new staff. There was plenty to do without having to struggle over what happens in the morning.
Ali Lozoff, marketing manager for the Current, now for MPR: They brought a huge audience to the launch of the Current.
Thorn, first music director of the Current: They were already in place and had an audience and fundraised really well. It was a different-sounding station when they were on the air, but at the time, it was the only decision we could make.
Nelson: I was thrilled to have them as part of the Current as we were rolling out, because we had this new idea, and what is the anchor that's going to ground us to Minnesota Public Radio and our audience? Dale and Tom brought that. And when Tom decided it was time for him to retire, that gave us a chance to re-evaluate and, a few years in, try something different.
Connelly: [Tom] had talked about retiring for years. Then one morning, he said, "Well, I sent it." And I said, "You sent it?" And he said, "Yeah, the email telling them I'm retiring." We got this really lavish send-off with all our friends there, which everybody deserves.
For its final morning, on December 11, 2008, The Morning Show gave a live performance at the Fitzgerald Theater. While the Current figured out what to do next, Steve Seel became the interim host of mornings.
Connelly: I thought we'd have a crowd, but I was surprised at the big crowd that we had, that we couldn't fit everyone in the theater at 6 o'clock in the morning. It was a really good feeling, but melancholy too. I knew that it was the end of something that was not going to be duplicated.
Steve Seel, DJ and co-host of The Morning Show: Dale and Jim Ed's show came to an end, and they decided, this is going to be painful, but we need to play the same stuff in the morning that we play the rest of the day, instead of Joan Baez.
Jill Riley, DJ and co-host of The Morning Show: Steve was put on as the interim host. I was doing late nights.
Connelly: Jill did overnights. We would come in and start our show and be taking the hand-off from Jill. She was pretty new at it. She became great at it. Steve was a different kind of character, in classical music. He's like a triple threat, because he can do everything. I hear him on the air and I think, "Oh god, if I had that voice."
Seel: They planned to do a national search, and then the economic downtown really hit its bottom, and they decided I was going to be the permanent host of mornings. Then Jim got here.
Jim McGuinn, program director: I got to walk in and try to put a morning show together. It was one of those things, public radio music programs have never had anything resembling a morning show, so what should a morning show look like? Should it be what you think public radio should be, like some serious discourse about music? Or should it be like a joke-fest? If that's the two poles, where does it lie?
Riley: Jim really wanted to build a morning show, because morning shows are really important to a station's identity. I mean, that's where people really connect with radio. It becomes part of their routine, and that's where the companionship matters.
Seel: So Jim said, "Why do you only have one person on the morning show? You need a partner." And I said, "You should listen to Jill Riley."
McGuinn: Jill was doing very late night stuff on the air, but I thought she was just funny as shit and could really be a good counterbalance with Steve, who's very smart but kind of serious. I thought they could be really good in time together.
Seel: The way Jim remembers it is that it was Jim's idea to put her on the show, and the way I remember it is it was mine.
Riley: It was like creating another baby. We knew that we didn't want to do what everybody else was doing. We knew we didn't want to be a zoo. But we knew that we wanted it to be friendly enough where people would connect. One thing we knew is that if we're gonna do it, we're gonna be known as co-hosts. Like, there's no host and sidekick. In the business, they're called side chicks. We really made this agreement that, this is gonna be our show.
Seel: Jill and I thought, there's not going to be a driver and a passenger. If we're going to do this show, we're going to do it together. So it kind of emerged that I sort of provide the bread and Jill creates the delicious filling.
Riley: We gave it a test run for a few weeks, and we were gonna launch it the day after Easter. But then I busted my leg playing roller derby, and I called Jim from my hospital bed and I'm like, "Hey dude, I had surgery this morning, so... we can't launch yet." I was back two weeks after Easter, I think it was April of '09, walking through here with my newscast in my mouth, crutching to the studio.
Seel: We sat down with Jim, and he said, "Let's come up with features." And he said, "You know, you should do like a Top 5 at 5 kind of thing, only it's in the morning." And we were like, "Okay. Let's call it the 9:30 coffee break." It was supposed to be three songs, and Jill and I made it into a half-hour instead, because we're greedy that way.
Riley: We have Random Vinyl early in the morning, because I have this huge record collection.
Seel: She's shockingly knowledgeable about music she has no right to be knowledgeable about, because she's 30 years old but has this encyclopedic knowledge of '60s music and a record room.
Riley: Then it was just learning how to be on the radio together. We have a natural camaraderie. You know, we mesh. I think it's because we see things sort of in the same way, but we take different ways to get there. I'm really sarcastic, I can be smart-mouthed, and Steve balances me out. And we have a lot of fun together too.
Seel: Having Jill there as a foil, to be the one who thinks on her feet and is wittier than I am and whatnot, it's a nice kind of balance. Sometimes I can be the Paul Shaffer to her Letterman.
Riley: You wake up and it's almost like waking up in the middle of the night. Now it's easier, but there are days where if we have a 12-minute music set, I'm laying on the floor with my sweater under my head, and Steve might have his hat tipped down a little bit. We call it our morning nap time.
Seel: I started off doing weeknight overnights, which was midnight to 5, and Jill Riley was doing weekend overnights. That's the irony of it. To this day we're both still late-night people, and now we do the morning show.
McGuinn: They balance each other so well, that's the funny thing. The characteristics that each bring to the show is what makes it work really well. They bring things out in each other that make it better.
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