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Photos by Jon Gipe, Dave Pratt

Dave Pratt started in Valley radio when he was 19, eventually becoming the most successful morning radio personality in state history. Pratt recently launched a new online morning show, complete with mobile phone apps for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry, which has been met with surprising success.

This story's writer, Jimmy Magahern, then a writer for the Phoenix New Times, squared off with Dave Pratt in the 1980s when he took Pratt to task over a shift in the rock music scene. Pratt told his listeners to collect copies of paper from the newsstands for a massive bonfire on the KUPD lot.

Pratt was unceremoniously let go from FM 108 KMLE in 2008, just a month after he released his autobiography.

Published by Times Publications, July 2011

Dave Pratt says his new broadcasting studio, located on the sixth floor of the Camelback Tower next to the Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale, is “by far, the nicest studio I’ve ever worked in.”

“We have state-of-the-art, brand new audio and HD video studios surrounded by glass windows,” Pratt adds. “The birds-eye view we have of the Valley is unbelievable, especially at sunrise.”

The new digs, complete with a primo view of the Papago Buttes in the distance, are certainly an upgrade compared to the old doublewide trailer parked on a dirt lot in Guadalupe, where a 19-year-old Pratt, then an ASU student fresh out of the small town of Elko, NV, first began his Arizona radio career, doing odd jobs around 98 KUPD-FM until he was finally given a shot as a rock jock in 1982.

Pratt would go on to become one of the most popular morning radio personalities in state history, ranking near the top in Arbitron ratings on hard rock outlet KUPD for 20 years before switching to country station KMLE in 2003.

But when KMLE suddenly let Pratt go in December of 2008, just a month after the tireless self-promoter released his autobiography, "Behind the Mic: 30 Years in Radio," Pratt’s confounded legion of fans were outraged. Though KMLE’s owners, CBS Radio, kept Pratt on the payroll for the two years following his firing, Pratt’s fans remained fiercely loyal. Even during the two years he was off the air, Pratt finished as one of the Valley’s top two “Best Morning DJs” in an annual reader poll conducted by the Arizona Republic, which shrewdly gave Pratt a daily gig as a blogger.

So when Pratt announced last January, via a message posted on his Facebook page, “our morning show is set to return,” listeners and radio insiders alike pondered where possibly the veteran morning man would end up. After Pratt was spotted having lunch with KTAR talk radio host (and former KMLE program director) Bruce St. James, industry watchers gossiped that Pratt was being courted for a slot on FM station 98.7 The Peak, the adult hit radio outlet owned by KTAR’s parent company, Bonneville.

When it was finally revealed in April that Pratt’s big “return” would, in fact, be not on the radio at all but rather as a streaming podcast on his website, it seemed sadly anticlimactic. Everyone — the media, radio insiders and even some longtime fans — found it to be a bit of a letdown that the self-proclaimed “Morning Mayor” of Valley radio would be doing little more than what every wannabe deejay can already do on Blip.fm.

Everyone, that is, except Pratt himself. In his typical ego-fueled fashion, Pratt has masterfully managed to spin the situation around to appear as if it’s him leaving terrestrial broadcasting behind, rather than it being the other way around.

“Total freedom. No restrictions,” he says when asked what he digs about his new off-radio morning show, which can only be heard on his website, DavePrattLive.com, and its accompanying mobile phone app. “No corporate monkeys or stiff suits. Arizona locally owned and operated. It’s just me. I sleep with our CEO,” he adds, referring to his wife of 23 years, Paula, who co-runs Pratt’s new company, which he’s reportedly self-funded with much of the golden parachute severance he received from CBS.

With his handpicked five-member morning crew, including a charmingly ditzy 22-year-old model named Kassi Jayde as his on-air sidekick, helping him broadcast his daily show-without-a-station, Pratt could well be the Valley’s answer to Charlie Sheen. “Staring failure in the face and calling it ‘winning’ — that’s the closest thing we have to an American religion,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield in an essay on Sheen. Apart from the canned sitcom star, only Dave Pratt could stare out of his high-rent tower at a radio landscape no longer willing to pay his asking price and call himself a troll-slaying warlock.

Except for one thing — Pratt’s show actually is a winner. Thanks to the strong track record and good relationships he’s built with advertisers over the years, Pratt was able to line up a slew of commercial sponsors right out of the gate, and his natural ease on the mic immediately sets the stream apart from the thousands of others currently glutting the Internet. Additionally, aside from a smattering of country hits, he’s back to playing the music that went best with his endearing Everymeathead persona: ‘80s hard rock, from David Lee Roth-era Van Halen to Def Leppard and Nazareth.

“It’s good! It really is totally comparable to any morning show on the radio in Phoenix,” says Craig Allen, an associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU, who keeps a critical eye on local radio and television. “He’s got the female partner and (12 News anchor) Mark Curtis as his newsman. Plus, he’s got the one bit of content nobody else has: the sound of Dave Pratt’s voice. In Phoenix, that’s what’s going to get you tens of thousands of listeners.”

Allen says it’s too early to tell whether or not Pratt’s web show will make a significant dent in radio ratings, though he does confirm that Arbitron now monitors such things.

“I don’t think he’s set up to be number one,” he allows. “But if he can get up into the top ten in that time period, it’s gonna raise a lot of eyebrows. It’ll be a trendsetter.”

Leader of the Packed-Off

Certainly Dave Pratt agrees.

“Love me or hate me, every radio personality in the nation should be pulling for me,” he says. “As traditional radio is downsizing, budget-cutting, doubling workloads, reducing benefits and deducting air staffs or playing robotic music from a cold computer sitting in an empty studio, ‘Dave Pratt Live’ is blazing trails that others can follow.”

Indeed, Pratt has had his haters over the years. Back in the ‘80s, when Michael Jackson and Run-DMC were leading a vital crossover from R&B and rap to rock, this writer, in fact, took him to task for attempting to block that integration on his show with self-penned parodies like his “Anti-Jackson Rap” (“I don’t like his music, I think he’s a bum/So let’s keep him out of the Valley of the Sun!”). Pratt responded by directing his throng of listeners to gather up all copies of the paper from the newsstands for a massive bonfire on the KUPD lot. When the paper’s J. Jonah Jameson-like editor and its hefty publisher showed up at the station’s back door for a fistfight, the feud finally fizzled.

But on this count, Pratt could be right. Morning radio has been shedding its established personalities in favor of cheaper but less magnetic voices. And his site — particularly its slick mobile phone app, available for free for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry — puts his daily show right in the pocket of his still-to-be-reckoned-with loyal base of fans. If successful, Pratt’s mobile morning show could pave the way for other displaced radio voices to reconnect with their fans, and eventually may even compete with the big media conglomerates.

“I know he’s doing pretty well out of the box, and I give him credit for going out there and blazing some trails on this,” says Steve Goddard, himself a staple on Valley radio since 1980. Goddard says stations are no longer paying the rates top talent demands, so many of his peers have been looking at other avenues. Goddard himself records a pair of nationally syndicated weekly shows out of his home and has messed around with blogging, but he admits he’s been late to seize the power of the Internet.

“Dave’s way ahead of the curve on this one, and I think it’s pretty exciting,” he says. “I think we’re all watching what’s going on with him and thinking how we can put our own spin on it.”

But it may be a little harder than Pratt’s making it look. “Dave’s a unique case, in that he’s so well-known that he’s already got a good start,” says Marty Manning, a 42-year veteran of the Phoenix radio scene who started out on the pioneering free-form rock station KCAC in the late 1960s and now hosts the remote broadcasts for 99.9 KEZ.

“But he has the same challenges that you’d have if you were just starting out on another radio station. You still have the same problem of getting people to know where you are and getting people listening. And that takes people of your own.”

“The technology’s changed, but the fundamentals of doing radio haven’t,” Allen says. “It still comes down to content, money and promotion. For one thing, you don’t have a ready-made audience like a traditional radio station has. But there’s also no billboards, there’s no publicity, you don’t have partnerships, capital. You can’t go out and get the rights to air the Suns or the Diamondbacks games. Those are the things that make radio big. And as a mom-and-pop Internet thing, you would not have a chance to do that.”

Pratt, however, insists he’s got all the muscle of a Bonneville or Clear Channel heavyweight — without all the fat. “We have a full-time staff,” he says. “Upper management, digital management, sales, marketing, promotions, accounting, legal, engineering and a five-member, full-time morning show.” Dave Pratt Live, or DPL, as he calls it, also has one other crucial component: commercials, with listeners who are actually happy to hear them.

“My listeners are very passionate and active with the businesses we endorse,” he says — and indeed, Pratt’s on-air exchanges with his advertisers, like a recent phone chat with a folksy Big-O Tire store manager in Wickenburg, only showcase his uncanny knack for connecting immediately with the common working man and woman. “We are incredibly grateful to our sponsors and believers. In this economy, and with so many radio and television stations struggling, it is amazing to be in this position so early.”

Manning agrees. He says he’s seen other radio vets go the Internet-only route: his friends Andy Olson and Liz Boyle have been helming Radio Free Phoenix, a donation-supported free-form rock stream in the mold of KCAC and early KDKB, for nearly seven years now. But Manning says no one’s yet approached the medium as ambitiously as Pratt.

“What you mostly see with streaming radio is people doing niche-type things,” he says. “Most of them are happy if they can attract the audience of a small campus radio station. Dave is the only one I’m aware of who is attempting to do it on this level.”

Adds Goddard, “I think we’re all watching him throw it all up there, and we’ll see what sticks.”

Pratt in Pocket

But can Pratt actually compete with the Johnjay and Riches, Beth and Friends and the Tim and Willies of big-budget broadcast radio? As Manning points out, all the big Clear Channel stations also have their own Internet streams these days, which can make it even tougher for an Internet-only show to compete.

Pratt thinks he stands a good chance. For one thing, his timing is perfect: technology and the public’s embrace of mobile apps have evolved to a point where it’s no longer a big challenge to plug a music-playing device into the AUX input on a car radio, and his app’s well-engineered to avoid a lot of buffering.

“Most people today are capable of finding a website or downloading a phone app,” he shrugs — and the research backs him up. An April study by the media research company knowDigital found that roughly two-thirds of the 18- to 44-year-olds surveyed reported some level of streaming radio usage in their cars, primarily through the use of smartphones plugged into their vehicles’ audio jack.

Further, Arbitron, still the leading source of radio audience measurement in the U.S., now monitors music sources not found on the radio dial, and will be able to measure Pratt’s impact — essential to keeping his pricey enterprise afloat with advertisers, says Allen.

“The way they now work — and I know this, because I just spent a period in the Arbitron sample — is you have this meter that you wear on your belt and you walk around with it every waking hour,” says the ASU professor. “And it detects any sound that’s coming out of any source, whether from your car radio, your computer at home, your PDA. Even if you walk into a Home Depot and they’re playing background music, they want to hear it. And if it’s a bona fide radio signal, it goes right into the Arbitron ratings, just like KUPD or KSLX. So Dave’s getting ratings off of that, as is any other person who’s doing Internet radio.”

Of course, most people with an Internet radio presence aren’t attracting large enough audiences to make a ripple in the ratings of a major market like Phoenix. But Allen believes Pratt could be the exception — and not just because people know his name.

“A lot of other people in town who’ve also got big-name recognition could do this, and they could still end up with only ten listeners,” he says. “But he’s a star, even on Internet radio. If you listen to his show, he’s a natural. His voice alone. He’s got that magic gleam, and he’s just the kind of guy that could do it.”

Pratt already has what is a surprisingly winning chemistry with his young sidekick, Kassi Jayde. As a daily feature on DPL, music producer Rob Trygg will shuffle up a random song on his iPod — anything from Metallica to Toby Keith to (shudder!) an ‘80s rap hit by Tone Loc — and Pratt, who turns 50 this December, will challenge Jayde to name that tune. Her reliably clueless responses (“Who’s Joan Jett?”) strike a comic chord with many of his longtime listeners, who, like Pratt, now have kids of their own who are just as disconnected from rock’s glorious past.

“The generation gap makes for natural differences and adds balance to the show,” says Pratt, a father of four who leans away from the dirty-old-man shtick that’s become Howard Stern’s stock-in-trade. Preening over Carrie Underwood, Pratt admits, she’d have to be at least ten years older for him not to sound creepy. Plus, Pratt manages to work in just the right amount of hits by feisty female country singers to keep the testosterone in check.

“I gained a strong female base during my years on KMLE,” he says. “Our audience on KUPD was young and 99 percent male. I am proud that ‘Dave Pratt Live’ is not gender based or age restricted now. Everybody’s welcome.”

Whether Pratt will ever regain his status as Valley radio’s “Morning Mayor” is yet to be seen. Because his 6-to-9 a.m. show repeats for the balance of each day, Pratt says the majority of his listeners don’t even catch his show in the morning, firing up their iPhone app whenever they’ve got a few minutes in the car, since with Internet radio it’s always 6 a.m. somewhere.

For now, Pratt is definitely, to put it in a word, “winning.”

“Surprisingly, my relationship with my listeners over the years has little to do with music and more to do with loyalty, friendship, a love for Arizona and simply sharing some laughs,” he says. “Thank God I don’t have to run on the hamster wheel.

“Hey, if my listeners don’t deserve it,” Pratt wraps things up, parroting the familiar catch-phrase he’s now dragged with him from rock to country radio to the App Store, “whooo does?”

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