Riding the Waves

WPOC fixture Laurie DeYoung, recently inducted into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame, found success in an unexpected arena

(Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
February 28, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach | chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Laurie DeYoung doesn't hesitate when asked for a defining moment from her 24-plus years as the morning voice of WPOC-FM. The moment was not heard on air, has nothing to do with the country music the station plays and happened well out of the public eye. But it goes a long way toward explaining why she has remained a dominant force on Baltimore's airwaves for more than two decades, and why she was honored in Nashville on Tuesday with her induction to the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame.

About two years back, she says, a couple of young women in their 20s approached her husband, Ed, before services at their Timonium church, where he serves as director of the worship arts ministry. They'd been big fans of DeYoung's for years and were wondering whether they could meet her. Sure thing, he said, and the next day he did the introductions.

"They told me they had been victims of an abusive mom," DeYoung says haltingly, struggling for words for the only time in an hourlong interview at WPOC's North Baltimore studios. The mother "had a lot of issues, alcohol issues. And they said that I got them through their childhood. In the mornings, they would turn on the radio, and they said it was like ... they said, 'You were just there for us every morning.' "

DeYoung smiles and fights back a tear, then smiles even more broadly. There's no telling how many times she has told the story, how many times she has replayed it in her mind. But it clearly moves her. "To have these two girls stand there, weeping, telling you that 'You were there since we were little, and you were one of the only constant things in our life,' that's pretty good, that's an amazing moment. And it will always be the best moment I ever had. I just can't imagine something topping it."

That, friends and fans alike agree, is the Laurie DeYoung they tune into every morning, the working mom who shares stories about her family; who keeps it clean and usually upbeat (but isn't above acknowledging when she's having a rotten day); who asks her audience questions like, "What's the greatest thing you've ever learned from someone who wasn't a member of your family?" and delights in their responses.

"Laurie has just always been able to talk to her audience as a friend," says WJZ-TV's Marty Bass, who has been giving the weather reports and bantering with DeYoung on-air almost since the day she arrived in Baltimore and at WPOC in 1985. Adds Mark Williams, who has been delivering traffic reports and playing Ed McMahon to DeYoung's Johnny Carson for 13 years: "When the mike goes on, it's like we're just sitting around a dining room table, or having dinner somewhere."

On the air, that ease translates into a breezy rapport with Williams, her producer, Jeff St. Pierre, and her audience. Although the days when she could pick her own music are long gone - a video screen near her microphone displays the predetermined set list supplied for her every morning - DeYoung is clearly captain of the ship when it comes to chatting with her audience. "It's exhilarating, to stay connected to people," she says, unsolicited.

Of course, when it comes to longevity and respect and getting inducted to halls of fame, a little success doesn't hurt. And DeYoung has had plenty. In fall 1991, she was the area's top-rated morning-show host. In spring 2000, she had the top-rated morning show among listeners ages 25 to 54, radio's most sought-after demographic. And last month, according to numbers provided by Arbitron, she averaged the second-highest number of total listeners per week of that same age group, with 114,700.

"Talk about consistent!" marvels Steve Rouse, former host of WQSR-FM's morning show. "At some point in the '90s, our show finally surpassed her show for a little while. But the bottom line is, she's been up there for 20-some years."

DeYoung, 53, lovingly cultivates her fan base. But she understands that success in radio offers no guarantee - Rouse, for instance, was among the city's most popular voices when WQSR stopped using DJs in 2005. Radio station profits have been declining and cost-cutting is rampant, meaning that no job - not even one held by a fan favorite like DeYoung - is safe.

"Nobody's bulletproof, I don't care how good their ratings are," she says. "I don't know if you want to call it cynicism, but I wake up every day thinking I'm going to be fired."

WPOC program director Meg Stevens makes it sound as if her morning DJ has nothing to worry about. "I think great talent wins out," she says. "It's that simple. It's like great music gets played; great talent will be on the radio."

For a woman so closely identified with country music, DeYoung started her life considerably north of the Mason-Dixon line - in Minneapolis, where she was born in 1956 to Alfred and Mary Lou Kuhnle. At age 2, the family moved to Detroit; five years later, they settled in Grand Rapids, Mich., about two hours northwest.

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