WIYY gets a new voice and, maybe, a prankster, for morning drive time The Byrd's New Perch

January 23, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

When newsman Bob Lopez said goodbye on Friday to Stash, the morning show voice on WIYY-FM (97.9), he quipped it was probably only temporary -- "until next time, 'til this guy flops."

L In the background, listeners could hear "this guy" laughing.

He's The Byrd, who debuts at 5:30 a.m. today as the new morning personality on 98 Rock, where mornings have been a little rocky.

"I could say it because clearly we have no expectation of that [a flop] happening," says Mr. Lopez, adding that in his 17 years at 98 Rock he's worked with 10 morning teams.

Since late July, Stash has been the show's host. He took over temporarily when Grego and Mo (Greg Onofrio and Maurice Billington) were fired after suffering low ratings and stirring controversy with a raucous show that some listeners found offensive. The Byrd, a 29-year-old native of Canada who will not reveal his real name, comes to Baltimore after 1 1/2 years at top-rated KSHE-FM in St. Louis, Billboard magazine's Major Market Station of the Year in 1994.

He describes his style as "mischievous and irreverent," but adds, "I wouldn't describe it in any way as mean. Push the envelope once in a while? Yeah, but purely to shock people? No."

In St. Louis, he made a media splash last spring with a stunt in which listeners donated 1,300 brassieres to be stretched across the Mississippi River. In his previous job as the morning voice of KOMP-FM in Las Vegas, he sat nude on a billboard promoting the show (save for a discreetly placed rubber chicken) and also auditioned in full drag regalia to be the 40th anniversary centerfold for Playboy.

"I think they were onto me pretty early," The Byrd concedes. But his luxuriously long blond hair helped the illusion, and he did not sport the trim beard he has now. With a microphone hidden at his breast and calling himself "Jolene," he broadcast the stunt live to listeners.

What's in store for Baltimore?

"We have some ideas up our sleeve, but it's not like we're scheming, really," he says coyly.

The Byrd will be heard from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays, and Stash (Steve Ash) moves to the 7 p.m. to midnight slot.

Program director Rick Strauss says the station plans eventually to hire a morning partner for The Byrd, whose St. Louis producer, Kerry Detrich, has also come to 98 Rock to produce the morning show.

"We wanted to get the best morning show that was out there," says Mr. Strauss of the station's almost six-month search. Publicity materials note The Byrd had the best morning show in )) St. Louis two years in a row (according to the city's Spotlight magazine), and he was one of the first radio personal ities invited to make a speech at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters last fall in Los Angeles.

Although new to this area, The Byrd, who is single, already makes nice about Baltimore.

"It's got a nice big-city urbane sophistication, but it doesn't have that bad, edgy, negative side effect. I think people still have a nice Southern charm here. It's a nice cross between sophisticated enough, but not too hip for the room."

The Byrd got interested in radio as a boy growing up in Fort Frances, Ontario, a small rural town just across the border from International Falls, Minn.

Straight A's in school and an interest in math and science caused him to think about becoming a genetic biologist, but he says he "became infatuated with the theater of the mind" offered by radio.

"Basically, living out in the country in Canada in a town where we only had three TV stations, no cable . . . I was trapped in my room with my radio," he says, noting a strong early influence was Chicago station WLS (AM/FM). "I knew that, wow, I gotta do that."

Because of Fort Frances' border location, he says, "I was probably more American-influenced than Canadian." His deep, gravelly voice has only hints of a north-of-the-border accent.

When he was just 15, he got a job at the town's only radio station and immediately began using the nickname he says he has carried since grade school (though he won't reveal its origin because "you can't print it").

AOn that tiny, 1,000-watt AM station, The Byrd played a variety of music, honed his style and gained the notice of Q107-FM in Toronto, Canada's top rock station. At 17, after his high school graduation, he took on the station's late-night heavy metal shift.

Seeking more creative freedom, he worked afternoons for a while at a station in Winnipeg, then returned to Q107 for a couple of years, getting significant fill-in work on the morning show.

In 1990, with his immigration green card in hand, he landed his first full-time morning show at KOMP in Las Vegas.

The Byrd says his show on 98 Rock will not neglect music, as some morning shows tend to do. "I'm a huge music fan and sometimes have to stop myself from doing too much with the music."

The 98 Rock morning show has ample room to build an audience. In the recently released Arbitron ratings for the fall quarter, the station's drive-time hours scored only a 3.4 share -- a figure so disappointing, says Mr. Strauss, "I didn't even bother to look where we ranked [ninth]."

WPOC-FM (93.1) is the No. drive-time show, with an 11.5 share. (Each share represents 3,600 listeners in an average quarter hour.)

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