Dave Ryan hits a milestone
A gaggle of women comes spilling out of the entrance to the dance floor. "Shake that ass!" a middle-aged lady in a neon halter shouts as she shimmies to the music. Her friends grip her cautiously as she sidles her way down the stairs, sipping from a pink plastic bottle shaped like a penis.
Inside, women dance distractedly while a tattooed, thong-clad male stripper gyrates on a tiny stage, the KDWB logo behind him. In the dark corners beyond the dance floor, male strippers administer lap dances to shrieking, flush-faced women while friends cackle and snap photos.
This is clearly the level of the ship that gives the event its name: the Booty Cruise.
The women-only booze cruise along the St. Croix River is one of the many outlandish ways Dave Ryan, rakish host of 101.3 KDWB's Dave Ryan in the Morning, has been connecting with his rabid listenership in the Twin Cities.
Weekday mornings from 6 to 10 a.m., he confronts wayward boyfriends after tricking them into revealing their indiscretions during "War of the Roses." He entertains with parodies about overpriced mall chains and pens lyrics about obnoxious drunk friends to the tune of Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend." He has prank-called local car dealerships, organized contests around nudity, and encouraged his producer to run around town in a pig suit.
But you wouldn't know it just by looking at him. Amid the muscle-bound men in butt floss and the women in T-shirts emblazoned with "Bring on the Shlong," Dave Ryan seems downright subdued. Looking much younger than his 49 years, Ryan is boyishly smooth-skinned with mischievous hazel eyes. His shirt is crisp, his jeans pressed, and his light-brown hair closely cropped.
Tonight, Ryan is on. He talks fast and is constantly mingling and moving through the floral-carpeted riverboat. Everyone seems to want to chat with him, get a picture, possibly even flirt.
On this boat, he has a camera-ready smile and a friendly arm around the shoulder for each and every woman who approaches. But a week earlier, during an interview in his office, he admitted that he's really quite introverted.
"Never in a million years would I have thought I'd be around all these women," says Ryan. "I love talking to our listeners because they and I share so many of the same interests, but I'm also actually really shy."
Women did not always clamor to meet him.
"Ever watch that show Freaks and Geeks?" asks Mike Favatella, Ryan's best friend since the seventh grade. "We were the geeks. We were very awkward."
Throughout their adolescence in mid-'70s Colorado Springs, Ryan and Favatella built model airplanes, obsessively watched All in the Family, and talked about girls they liked who didn't like them back. Sometimes, they'd sneak a peek at Ryan's older brother's extensive porn collection.
Then in high school, due to a clerical error, Ryan, Favatella, and another guy were assigned to an all-girls gym class. The mistake was never corrected, and the boys remained in the class the entire semester.
Favatella and the other guy were excited. Ryan wasn't nearly as thrilled.
"Dave wasn't very athletic and all the girls showed him up," Favatella says. "I seem to recall no one wanting Dave for their team and him getting picked last. The girls weren't mean, but they weren't overly affectionate either. They tolerated him."
Though Ryan wasn't much good at scoring points, he discovered a hidden talent when he began studying radio at the local community college. He eventually worked up the courage to drop by an AM Top 40 radio station in town to ask for a job.
"Dave was kind of a gangly, awkward kid," says Dan "Captain Dan" Jackson, Ryan's first boss at KYSN in Colorado Springs. "But he was just so excited and enamored by radio. He was a guy who ate, drank, and slept radio. He showed so much talent even at that young age — he was full of ideas."
Today, his show Dave Ryan in the Morning is almost always near the top of radio-show rankings in the Twin Cities. The two decades he's spent at KDWB is nearly unheard of in a profession where morning shows are increasingly syndicated and jocks typically switch stations every couple of years.
On top of all that, Ryan won the prestigious Marconi Award, the Oscar of the radio industry, last year.
"He's a legend in radio," says Bill Michaels, co-host of the morning show Dwyer and Michaels on WXLP in the Quad Cities. "We borrow from him all the time."
According to Rich Davis, KDWB's program director, Ryan's show is number one in multiple demographics, though Ryan absolutely dominates in a very important one.
"He downright owns the female demographic," Davis says.
When Ryan first started out in radio, and even after he began his tenure in the Twin Cities, his humor was that of the geeky seventh-grade boy. There was a lot less conversation and a lot more prank phone calls and wacky gags.
Back then, Ryan made liberal use of a character he called Hiram, a guy with a high-pitched, nasally voice who loved to make prank calls.
"Hiram would do things like call Ford and say he had his head stuck in a power window and spend a lot of time asking them how to get it out," Ryan explains.
In the days before tight airport security, Ryan and his morning-show cohorts would go to the airport and ask someone to hand-carry a dead walleye on the plane.
"We'd say, 'My brother is going to be waiting for you in St. Louis,'" Ryan recalls. "And then of course no one would be waiting and the person would be stuck with this big dead fish."
As fun as all this was, Ryan could sense the winds of change. Listening habits were evolving. If he was going to survive in an increasingly rough industry, his show would have to evolve, too.
"We don't really do bits and pranks anymore; I think they belong in another era," he says. "Now it's much more lifestyle than comedy, it's more of our personal lives. People like funny stuff, but I think people feel more bonded to us now."
On the fifth floor of a stately modern office building on Utica Avenue in St. Louis Park, Dave Ryan sits behind a desk facing his cast in a cramped studio. He's dressed casually in a pale blue polo shirt and jeans, his short brown hair mussed by his massive headphones. Steve-O (full name Steve LaTart), Crisco (Adam Zalusky), and Falen Bonsett are bursing with energy at 7 a.m.
Steve-O is tall, burly, and dark-haired, with a five o'clock shadow and a permanent smirk. He's the rough-housing, wise-cracking big brother, the personification of a good-natured slap on the back.
Crisco is lumbering and heavyset, with dark blond hair and rather stylish dark-framed glasses. On the show, he plays the buffoon and the slacker, but he has a quick wit and often displays compassion when the others are being plain mean.
Falen is the Southern girl, the strong-willed, take-no-shit female. She has shiny hair and a thick, hearty laugh. She's self-conscious about her extremely voluptuous figure, and Dave sometimes good-naturedly pokes fun at the junk in her trunk.
Right now, the cast is in between segments. They quietly type on their laptops and calmly discuss plans for a bit called "Group Therapy," wherein the cast and the show's listeners discuss a caller's problem.
Steve-O gets the caller on the line, and suddenly they're on the air.
"What's the problem, Rachel, that you need some help with?" Dave asks.
Rachel explains that she has a male friend who is dating a woman who has had three different jobs over the past two years, and the woman seems to be taking advantage of her friend financially.
"I'm worried that this girl is a gold digger," Rachel says. "Should I tell my friend?"
"No matter what you say, he's going to do this anyway," Falen answers resolutely.
Steve-O nearly interrupts. "I say do the opposite. Go to him and say something."
Dave presses his palms together and looks pensive. "I think Falen's right," he decides after a beat. "He's not going to listen."
Dave encourages the listeners to call and weigh in on Rachel's dilemma.
Immediately, someone's on the line. "I've had this happen, and he's just going to work harder to prove you wrong," the caller insists.
Another caller named Jessica chimes in: "I've been on both ends of this. I was told to get out of a relationship before. And I've had friends I've tried to intervene with and now we're not friends anymore."
Dave nods. "When you're in love, it's a very intoxicating feeling."
Ryan and his cast have been doing this "Group Therapy" segment for five years now, and it's indicative of the "lifestyle" slant the show has been taking. Later on in the show, they plug their most popular bit, "War of the Roses," which will make its season debut a couple of days later.
In "War of the Roses," a listener will call in to talk about why she believes her boyfriend might be cheating. Falen then calls the boyfriend and pretends to be conducting a phone-company survey. The prize for participating, she tells the guy enthusiastically, is a bouquet of "romantic long-stemmed red roses," which he can have delivered to anyone.
The roses are a test of the guy's fidelity. If he has them delivered to his girlfriend, he's in the clear and his girlfriend's suspicions are wrong. But if he has the roses delivered to another girl, he's a rat-bastard cheater. After the boyfriend has made his choice, Ryan gets on the line for a man-to-man chat.
"Everybody's favorite thing is 'War of the Roses,'" says Crisco during a phone interview a couple of weeks later. "People tune in every Thursday morning like it's a TV show they watch every week. I think it's so popular because drama is one of those things you can't live without. And when it's not your drama, it's even more interesting."
All of the cast members seem to agree on the roles they play in their radio "family": Dave is the conservative but surprisingly cool "dad," Crisco is the endearing doofus brother, Steve-O is the sarcastic but weirdly likeable brother, and Falen is the smart, reactionary sister with diarrhea of the mouth.
"In a cast, I look for very strong identities and different personalities," Ryan says. "It's kind of like Gilligan's Island. If everyone were smart like the professor or hot like Ginger, it would have been a boring show."
According to Ryan, there have been four different casts in the nearly 20 years Dave Ryan in the Morning has been on the air in the Twin Cities. And though each cast member is important, perhaps the most vital is the lone woman.
"I'm the female that we're trying to talk to," says Bonsett. "I'm the heart of our demographic. A lot of our listeners say they like me because I give the guys crap right back. If Dave says something stupid, I'll tell him. I won't just agree because he's the host."
Corey Foley, who was the show's female co-host from 2003 to 2007, saw her role in a similar way.
"I didn't want to be the giggle box," Foley recalls. "So many women in radio are just there to laugh at what the guys say. If Dave said something dumb, I'd call him on it."
Ryan is most comfortable when talking about life with his family — his wife Susan, his 20-year-old daughter Allison, and his 11-year-old son Carson. Much of his humor is self-deprecating.
"I'm obviously a dad and older than everyone else on the show," Ryan says. "I don't pretend that I'm 30. I don't pretend that I know everything about the Kardashians. I think people appreciate that because not that many people are hip."
He does, however, try to retain some modicum of cool. He got his pilot's license and runs marathons. He recently started collecting Harleys, and attended the legendary Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for the first time this past summer. And during one morning show a couple of years ago, he got a microphone tattooed on his calf.
"I think people have realized that just because you're over 40, you don't have to start acting like your Aunt Gladys," Ryan says.
Back on the Booty Cruise, things are starting to get strange. Grown women, most of whom are now thoroughly inebriated, are chasing a man who resembles a human Q Tip.
"Gaaaary!" they scream in unison.
The man scurries into the men's room and a couple of women actually attempt to follow.
"Gaaaary!" is Gary Spivey, a psychic who regularly appears on Dave Ryan in the Morning. He's clothed in all white, and wears a giant white Afro wig that, he later confides, is permanently woven into his real hair.
According to Ryan, Spivey is extremely popular with the morning show's listeners. In public, he's often harassed this way, Ryan says, because people are desperate to ask him pressing questions about their futures.
As Spivey hides in the bathroom, Ryan grabs the microphone and warms up the crowd. They can ask Spivey questions, Ryan promises, but they'll have to ask those questions in front of everyone else.
"If you look around the room, you'll never see any of these crazy bitches ever again, so you can ask that question about that guy and that other guy and that married guy," Ryan tells the audience.
Spivey emerges from the restroom amid a cacophony of screams. Ryan runs around the dining room with the microphone, fielding questions like he does on the air during "Group Therapy."
"My husband doesn't have sex with me. What should I do?"
"Am I ever going to get pregnant?"
"Is this guy I'm with worth it?"
Ryan is compassionate and reassuringly conspiratorial.
"What's the deal with this guy? She's obviously a great girl."
"What do you think, Gary, will she be able to have a baby soon?"
"Is this the one, is this guy her soul mate?"
The women seem to implicitly trust Ryan with the questions. They wave their hands in the air, hoping to be noticed.
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