King of the Morning
In the fickle world of radio, how does Gerry House stay No. 1?
By Kay West
DECEMBER 13, 1999: About 10 years ago, at a dinner party I was hosting in my home, a dozen of us were seated at the dining room table. All were thirtysomething-year-old professionals, single and married, in fields that included law, psychology, education, and journalism. Not a single one of us was from Nashville.
One woman had just moved to town from Boston and was having difficulty adjusting to life in a mid-sized Southern city. All through the dinner, she made snide remarks about our lack of culture, sophistication, and good food. She complained about our bad drivers and hillbilly music, our intellectual prowess, and even our weather. Every one of us found her insufferably rude, but having adopted the local custom of good manners under any circumstances, we refrained from telling her so.
Finally, with all the cheerfulness I could muster, I addressed the table. "Catherine is having such a hard time here. I'm sure we all remember how difficult it is to be new in town. Let's each tell her one thing that we have come to love about Nashville."
Everyone pondered in silence, stymied at the request for something positive to say about our adopted hometown. Finally, one woman spoke up brightly.
"Well, we've got Gerry House."
The entire table, with the exception of the unhappy woman, was at that moment united in appreciation for a man none of us knew personally, but whom all of us spent a good deal of our mornings with five days a week. We broke into applause.
The other thing everyone at that table had in common--and share with a good portion of House's listening audience--was that none of us were dyed-in-the-wool country music fans. I was forced into listening to it by having accepted a position as publicist for RCA Records, which brought me to Nashville. Being in the biz, it seemed prudent to listen to country radio. Tuning in to WSIX-97.9 FM on my way to work in the mornings, I found that although I wasn't particularly enamored with the music, I was always amused by the station's morning radio personality and his cast of regulars--Al Voecks, Duncan Stewart, and Paul Randall--collectively referred to as "The House Foundation."
I also came to discover--via a phenomenon that the station refers to as "car laughers"--that I wasn't alone. Driving about town in the early morning hours, whether I was hustling to get to work or stuck in traffic, I would notice that when House said something funny enough to make me laugh out loud, the person in the car beside me, or behind me, would often be laughing too. At the crankiest time of the day, at the surliest and sourest of moments, Gerry House was making an entire city erupt into giddy laughter.
What makes House most amazing is the fact that he has been doing it for so long. In today's radio world, one that is notoriously mercurial and fickle in its loyalties, deejays fall off the map like marbles dropping from a table. Overnight, stations suddenly adopt new programming strategies, changing course to target new slices of the demographic pie. But at WSIX-FM, Gerry House cruises along, in first place, where he's been for a long, long time.
House often refers to "the eight members of his listening audience," but the number of people who tune in religiously between 6 and 10 a.m. every weekday morning for the latest news, traffic reports, contests, characters, social commentary, celebrity drop-bys, freewheeling live commercials, witty repartee, nonsensical punch lines, and even music is thousands of times greater than that. The most recent Arbitron ratings--the summer book released at the end of October--found House comfortably in the No. 1 position in his time slot. (He registered an 11.3 share--down from the 13.3 he scored in the previous quarter.)
According to the ratings, in any given 15-minute time period, about 104,000 people are listening to House and his House Foundation. The first time House captured the top ratings slot for morning radio was in 1984, in his first go-round at WSIX. Since 1990, he has hit the No. 1 spot every single quarter.
"It really is remarkable, in terms of today's market, for one person to do that for so long," says Dick Williams, vice president and general manager of AM-FM Inc., which in addition to WSIX owns four other Nashville stations. "It might help that he's local, but that doesn't guarantee success."
House's closest competitor in the most recent ratings was the syndicated John Boy & Billy show on WNRQ-105.9 FM ("The Rock"), which landed in second place with a 9.0. The duo's show is actually produced in North Carolina. Longtime rival country station WSM, and its morning man, Bill Cody, came in fourth, notching a 7.4.
Interestingly, House's former WSIX colleague Carl P. Mayfield, who left the station in a much publicized and ballyhooed move to WKDF when that former bastion of rock switched formats to country earlier this year, finished in 10th place, with a 3.3.
While a show's listening audience can be quantified through ratings, how is something as intangible as entertainment value measured? Like the dozens of other morning shows in Middle Tennessee, House and his team deliver the information listeners want and need to start their day: traffic, weather, news, and sports. But rather than browbeat listeners or try to outrage them, the House Foundation has an easy, conversational style. That rapport may come from the fact that they've worked together for quite a while: Newsman Voecks and sports guy Stewart have been with House since the early '80s; Mike Bohan didn't sign on until June 1995, but he's a familiar face to Nashvillians thanks to a long career on WSMV-TV.
The station's format is country, which doesn't hurt in a country-music town. House is also a part of that music community; he has written or cowritten several hit records and counts some of Nashville's top tunesmiths as his writing partners. One of the reasons listeners are drawn to him, in fact, is because he's an insider who's not afraid to make fun of himself. When he drops names, he usually does so self-deprecatingly: He'll note how poorly he dresses compared to MCA president and producer Tony Brown, how badly Narvel Blackstock (Reba McEntire's manager and husband) beats him in tennis, or how songwriter Bob DiPiero never invites him to his home in Seaside, Fla.
But that's only a small part of the entertainment on "The House Foundation." There are the wildly popular characters House assumes each show in prerecorded segments: Mack Truck, the blunt, tough-talking right-wing editorialist; Maurice, the black sportscaster; and Homer, the one-line hillbilly commentator. There are running bits about each of the Foundation members: Bohan's couch-potato laziness and his alleged penchant for donuts; Stewart's drinking and partying; Voecks' age and conservatism; and producer Devon O'Day's dating habits. House even jokes about himself and his own family--wondering, for instance, if his wife Allyson might be the reason why the UPS delivery man comes around the house so often.
In fact, the personal lives of House and cohorts are at the core of "The House Foundation." Anyone who has listened to the show for any length of time knows all about House's miserable sinus problems, his reading habits, his dogs Sake and Louie, his daughter Autumn, and his frequent out-of-town trips. They also know about Bohan's cats and his new house, which has been under construction for what seems like years; O'Day's menagerie of animals and lack of a steady boyfriend; Stewart's serial marriages; and Voecks' multiple surgeries.
"The entire time I was doing television at Channel 4, viewers knew very little, if anything, about my personal life," notes Bohan. "Since joining the House Foundation, people know everything about me. It became immediately apparent that everything was fair game, every bit of minutia in our lives. But if you can't talk about what's going on in your life, then what else would you talk about?"
Unlike true talk-show formats, The House Foundation rarely touches on anything very controversial. House and company have debated such mundane topics as whether, when getting dressed, sock-sock, shoe-shoe is less efficient than sock-shoe, sock-shoe; if leaves should be raked or left on the ground to fertilize the lawn; and if driveway sealing is necessary or a rip-off.
"Always remember who your audience is," says O'Day, the show's producer, who joins the show in the last hour of each program. "They are probably driving to work, stuck in traffic, heading to a job they may not like. Or they're at home with the kids, doing housework. They don't want to hear people arguing about politics or religion. They want to hear a bunch of friends sitting around, talking and laughing about everyday things. That's what we do."
In this regard, "The House Foundation" is much like another hugely successful comedy ensemble--the cast of Seinfeld, which used to muse every week about the inanities of everyday life. In fact, House's broadcast is similar to Seinfeld in several ways: Not only is it a show about nothing, it's delivered with intelligence, quick wit, dry humor, and an observational comedy that doesn't insult or put down the audience.
"I refuse to dumb down for what is perceived as a country music audience," House says emphatically. "In the early days, I would have people say, 'It's a country music show; you can't talk about certain things.' I would say, 'That doesn't make them stupid.' I grew up in a rural, farming community that's about as country as you can get, so I know those people. I think there are an enormous number of intelligent people out there. And if I want to talk about a story I saw in The Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker...why shouldn't I? We just went to Prague this summer, and I guarantee you, if I asked if anyone listening had been to Prague, every single phone line would immediately light up."
His mother Lucille was a homemaker; his father Homer, who passed away in 1989, was an electrician. House remembers his parents as being outspoken and funny. In fact, until her death in 1997, his mother was a very popular call-in guest on his show. "I still get people asking me why I don't call my mother anymore. She had a very unusual way of phrasing things that was just naturally funny. I used to call her Shecky Mom."
With just one sister who was 13 years his senior, House was essentially an only child. Though he grew up in what he calls the sticks, he was always interested in the world outside his own. Beginning at about 8 years old, he rode the Independence Bus Line alone to nearby Cincinnati. "It was a different world then," he recalls. "There was no sense that I wouldn't be safe doing that. I'd go to Cincinnati to see the movies that I couldn't see in Independence. I used to collect antique books and I went to the Salvation Army store there to buy them."
He and his future wife, Allyson Faulkner, who grew up in nearby Walton, Ky., went to the same elementary school, junior high, high school, and college, though they didn't begin dating until high school. House played sports, was a member of school clubs, and played trombone in the school band. "I remember hearing his name a lot before we really got to know each other," says Allyson. "Everyone always said that he was the funniest guy they knew. I was more impressed that he was a lieutenant governor of the Kentucky Youth Assembly--those kids were the movers and shakers. But he was a member of everything back then."
Their first date, when Allyson was 15 and House was 18, was the movie Never on Sunday. "I thought that was a very adult choice," the former cheerleader and elementary school teacher says with a hearty laugh. "Gerry has always, since I have known him, been interested in everything. On our first date, he didn't talk about the next football game, but about the Peace Corps and how effective he thought it was."
House enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University at the height of the Vietnam War, signing up for ROTC because he figured if he ended up getting drafted, he'd at least go as an officer. He was a pre-law student and a member of the school's debate team. One day, he went over to the campus radio station, WEKU, to do an on-air editorial. On his way out of the station, he was stopped by the station manager, Jim Ridings. "He told me that my editorial sucked, but that he liked the way I read," House recalls. "He offered me an on-air position. Jim grew up working radio. He really taught me the basics, the practicalities of the craft. I was so lucky to have that right from the start, and I just fell in love with it. I immediately dropped any interest in debate and law."
The show was called "The World of Music" and featured records by pop mainstays like Andy Williams and Perry Como. "It was horrible. About every three records, I would have to say, 'This is WEKU.' That was it. I would practice it over and over, like the guy in the school play with one line. One day, Jim got up and walked out. He said, 'Let's see how you do with 60 seconds [of on-air time].' I still remember that awful panic. But it was good for me. He taught me not to be afraid of dead air. A lot of people try to fill that up, and it sounds forced. On our show, we use dead air as another character. People can't see a reaction on the radio, but I believe they can feel it if you keep it real."
House also had role models broadcasting from nearby Ohio. "I grew up listening to radio in Cincinnati, one of the last great bastions of big boss jocks. That's how I developed my style, from their example. In fact, I stole the name 'The House Foundation' from a Cincinnati jock who had a show named 'The James Francis Patrick O'Neal Foundation.' I thought 'Foundation' sounded good, that it had a real ensemble feel to it, and it went well with 'House.' "
Gerry and Allyson got married when he got out of college; his first paid radio job was at WCBR, a local station that combined religious programming and Top 40--Led Zeppelin might segue into a Bible show. The station was owned by a minister, and House was paid $115 a week. "Every week, he'd ask me if I wanted my check or if I wanted to give it to the Lord. I told him that I felt the Lord would want Allyson and me to have it--she was still in school and we were so poor."
In late 1975, he was hired at WSIX-AM in Nashville, which was then programming rock. He came in as an afternoon guy and hated it. "I couldn't adjust to it. It really messes up your whole day. As awful as it is getting up in what is essentially the middle of the night, I'd rather do that, do the show, then have the rest of the day to do what I want. Also, in the afternoon, they just really want you to play music. I'd rather talk." After three months, he was moved to mornings.
Since WSIX-AM was then located at the WKRN-TV studio on Murfreesboro Road, House also started doing local television. "I was sure that at any moment, some big-deal television producer would see me and I'd be hosting The Today Show," he says with a laugh. "But eventually, I decided I really didn't like doing television. It's too slow and too much work and effort for such little return. If I could do a television show like radio, that might be fun."
In the early '80s, WSIX moved House to its big country FM station. "I knew that was better for me," he says. "Country music was a better long-term choice of formats. I didn't want to be in my 70s doing rock 'n' roll."
It was then that the deejay began building "The House Foundation." Al Voecks had a talk show on the AM station, and House persuaded him to come over and do news for his show. Duncan Stewart had moved to Nashville from Boston in 1983 and knew the music director at WSIX; House wanted a sports guy, so Stewart was hired. Paul Randall began by doing traffic reports and evolved into what, for want of a better term, House reluctantly calls a sidekick. Many listeners thought Randall was there just to laugh at House's jokes, and he did plenty of that. "Paul just had the greatest laugh in the world. His laugh would make you laugh," House says. Randall died in 1998 after a long illness, three years after leaving the show, and House still cannot speak of him without becoming emotional.
In 1985, with the station beset by internal politics, House left WSIX and moved over to its competitor, WSM. Hosting "The Waking Crew," he succeeded such local broadcast luminaries as Ralph Emery, Teddy Bart, and Charlie Chase--but not quite so successfully. "I took the longest-running live radio show in America and killed it," he says ruefully. "It was a clash of the ancient cultures, an abomination. I had my bits and they--the band and crew--had their bits, and neither one of us got the others' bits. When I left, they canceled the show, and all those people lost their jobs. I'm sure they all still hate me."
Particularly since House was taking off for greener pastures. After being named the Country Music Association's Jock of the Year in a major market in 1985, he got a call from KLAC, a huge country station in Los Angeles. They wanted him and he thought he wanted them, though the decision-making process was tough.
"We went back and forth," Allyson remembers. "For the first time in our adult life, we had friendships a decade old. The determining factor was pinpointing which regret we'd rather live with--leaving behind our friends or not trying something new. We decided to go and give it a shot."
It was at KLAC that House developed the Maurice character. "I had just gotten there and went in to observe the show. The program director said why don't you go ahead and go on the air. He said, 'Be somebody else, make something up.' So I ad-libbed this black sports reporter named Maurice. Well, that station was the Voice of the Lakers, and they used to run Maurice spots during the game. He became so popular among Laker fans, I had to do a personal appearance once and it was the funniest thing. Here were all these black guys waiting to meet Maurice, and I show up, this skinny white guy. They thought it was hysterical."
Though Allyson and Autumn were loving L.A., House had grown disenchanted within a year. His ideas didn't always jibe with the station management's, and he found them tough to work for. He also became increasingly less enamored of the California lifestyle. "At first it was fun; we had a great house in Coldwater Canyon, and I was writing for Roseanne. Professionally, I was doing great. But I began to see the cracks in the culture there. There was so much competition, and it's a very hard place to make and maintain friendships. I had one friend who lived in Pasadena and one in Manhattan Beach, and I never got to see them. I missed the sense of community in Nashville."
Meanwhile, back in Music City--or Beverly Hills with banjos, as House calls it--WSIX had been sold, and the new owner, Steve Hicks, had conducted market research. House's name kept popping up; it was only a matter of time before Hicks contacted the WSIX alum. "I wanted to come back," House says. "I missed my friends, I missed the support system, and I really wanted to be writing songs."
Part of the conditions of House's return was a reunion of the House Foundation--Voecks, Stewart, and Randall--and the addition of a producer. Enter Devon O'Day. A native of Louisiana, O'Day had moved to town not long before and found herself working at WSIX with House's morning replacement, Eddie Edwards, a.k.a. Crazy Eddie. It was not a blissful union.
"He used to say, 'You never laugh at my bits,' " O'Day recalls of Edwards. "I told him that if he ever said something funny, I'd laugh. I got fired from mornings the next day and moved to midday. Eventually, [Edwards] moved to KLAC in Los Angeles, met Gerry, and told him that if he ever had the chance to work with someone named Devon O'Day, to run like the wind. Not long after that, we heard Gerry was coming back, and I was offered the job as his producer. I had no idea what a producer did, but I was told if I didn't take it, there was no job at all. So I took it."
In the beginning, O'Day was in a separate room, not even in view of the studio where the rest of the crew broadcast. There was no computer; monitoring phone lines in one ear and the broadcast in another, she put bits of info on little Post-It notes and ran them into the studio. Her role then was completely behind the scenes. Today, O'Day is an on-air presence like everyone else in the House Foundation; she joins the crew at 9:45 a.m. for her Twang Talk segment and to wrap up the show.
"Gerry really never does any blue humor," she says, "but he knows if he steps over the line with me, he has stepped over the line with his entire female audience."
House gets up every morning about 4 a.m. Since moving closer to town from Mt. Juliet three years ago, the drive to the station is only about 10 minutes. On the way in, he talks by car phone to O'Day, who is at home tuned to CNN for news tidbits. He arrives around 5, and O'Day comes in shortly after that. They both read the daily papers, and O'Day clips stories that might provide material for the show, then tapes them to a sheet of paper with comments or suggestions. House gets his character tapes in order and by 5:55 is joined by Voecks, Stewart, and Bohan.
At 6 a.m. the show begins, and for the next four hours, the ensemble follows a mixture of scheduled bits, service elements, contests, and improvisation. In the entire four-hour broadcast, they play just over 20 songs, most of which are House's choice, unusual in the tight programming confines of radio today. "Gerry has earned the right to be a little more independent in his song choices," says station manager Williams.
In fact, House makes no bones about playing his own cuts, but only if they are bonafide hit records, he says. " 'The Big One,' which I wrote with Devon, was a No. 1 hit for George Strait. 'The River and the Highway' [written with Don Schlitz and recorded by Pam Tillis] was a No. 1 hit, and so was 'On the Side of Angels' [written with Gary Burr and recorded by LeAnn Rimes]. I can't not play a No. 1 song, especially when they're recorded by an artist like George Strait. But once they start dropping down the charts, I stop playing them, just like any other record. I don't keep playing my own records just because they're mine. I'm sure I'm sick of them long before anyone else because I've lived with them so long."
While House has a general idea of what he'll be talking about each morning, the other three on-air personalities come in cold. "I never know what's coming next," Bohan says. "I really don't think any of us want to know. It keeps everything fresh."
Stewart and Voecks come in for 10- to 15-minute segments at the top of each hour, but Bohan remains in the studio the entire show, sitting directly across from House. When he first came on board in June 1995, after 20 years at WSMV, he stepped seamlessly into the role formerly occupied by Randall.
"I never had the sense that I had to fill someone else's shoes," Bohan says. "I didn't know Paul, though I knew how close he and Gerry were and how difficult his departure was on Gerry. But I had known Gerry for a long time, and on the air we just immediately clicked. I had been one of those car-laughers for years--the people you see driving down the road laughing out loud to themselves listening to his show--and now I do it on the air. He is truly one of the funniest people I know. I think he's brilliant and he makes all of us better than we are."
The familiarity and relationships of the crew are crucial to House; he hates doing the show if any one member can't be there. Normally, the entire group schedules vacations at the same time. "I like our little family," says House. "I like knowing everyone and having everything be the same. As a group, our interactions are the same way on the air as off the air. We talk, and if someone gets a laugh, we're out. It doesn't matter who gets it--just stop there and move on to a record."
Soon after he arrives, House and O'Day usually do a postmortem on that morning's show. A couple of days a week, depending on the weather, he golfs; otherwise he gets together with one or more of his tunesmith friends to write. He lunches, often at Sunset Grill with O'Day, usually in the same corner table by the window, then heads back to his house in Forest Hills to write and record Homer, Maurice, and Mack Truck.
For some time, House's life has been one of blissful, productive routine. In 1996, though, he began experiencing extreme weight loss, fatigue, and mood swings. His doctors were perplexed until one day O'Day looked at him and said, "I think you have Graves Disease."
O'Day's sister, actress Faith Ford, had recently been diagnosed with the malady, which affects the thyroid. After one inconclusive test, the diagnosis came back positive, which was, in a way, a relief. "It was very scary, thinking of all the possibilities for fatigue and unexplained weight loss." remembers Allyson. "He kept plucking along, trying to alleviate my fears, but we were both very frightened. He'll be on medication for the rest of his life to control it, but at least we know what it is."
The couple lives in a comfortable but not ostentatious house decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques and contemporary furniture. Art covers the walls--"This is our Polly Cook gallery," Allyson jokes as she points out one room filled with the Nashville artist's paintings and pottery--and a white baby grand piano dominates the den. In one small room are several shelves of awards House has won throughout his career--awards that House just recently allowed his wife to display. On a wall upstairs is a framed layout from a 1996 Vanity Fair, a Hall of Fame of Broadcasters drawn in caricature. House is in the two-page spread, included among some pretty heavy names: Don Imus, Howard Stern, Tom Snyder, Sally Jesse Raphael, Larry King, and Rush Limbaugh.
With his ratings, his awards, his relationships, and his reputation in the industry, Gerry House could probably write his own ticket just about anywhere he wanted to go. But why would he? Life is pretty darn good here in Nashville.
"There's a lot of things I'd like to do," he says. "I'd like to write more and maybe produce. Allyson is so tired of hearing me say I'm going to quit and do something else. She just says, 'You are not going to quit, so stop saying it.' I think sometimes of going somewhere else. I could get a job in New York or Chicago, but I want to live here. I love living in Nashville. I love going to work, and then driving down Music Row and waving to Trisha Yearwood in the car next to me. Going to lunch with my friends and playing golf and writing.... I love what I do. It is totally, absolutely, unequivocally, the greatest job ever."
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