By Charles Hallman
Derrick Stevens was born in New York and was ‘weaned’ on radio. It was listening to the late legendary DJ Frankie Crocker (1937-2000), who pioneered the “urban contemporary” music format back in the 1970s that convinced him radio was the place to be.
“I knew I wanted to be in radio when I was eight years old,” admitted Stevens, the production manager at KCMP-FM. “I grew up listening to Frankie Crocker on the radio — he was my everything, the king of the radio. I was enthused with how he went into a song. I [also] had a bad stuttering problem as a youngster and I used to take cassette players and record the radio and Frankie Crocker’s breaks. I would then memorized the break and would repeat it back. That actually allowed me to get a hold of my stuttering problem.”
He is among the Current’s original staff but only a 34-word quote from him made a local weekly’s feature article on the station’s 10th-year anniversary in January. As a result we contacted the longtime radio professional, who spoke to the MSR recently at the station’s downtown St. Paul headquarters.
His production managing duties involves “basically anything pre-recorded that goes on the airwaves comes from my department,” explained Stevens during a break before he manned the board for a local musical group’s in-studio recording session. “Anything from bands coming in, to promos – we don’t do commercials per se, station imaging, sweepers and anything of that nature. I give it the OK and it goes on the air.”
To be effective in production, “You have to have a good ear,” continued Stevens.
After his family relocated to Minneapolis, and Stevens as a North High broadcasting magnet student got a local radio job at Pete Rhodes’ cable radio station in 1984, working there for three years. Like the theme song in WKRP in Cincinnati, Stevens after graduation then bounced around the dial with two stints at KMOJ (1987-90; 1995-1999), and the old B96 (2001-2003).
He once “temporary left radio” for a couple of years as well: “When I applied for the job here at MPR,” remembered Stevens. “I had just been released from B96, a hip hop station that played 99.5 percent Black music. The program director was a White guy from Alabama” who pointed out to him that most of the station’s audience also was White. “I had an air check with my program director — this guy’s feedback to me — he wanted me to talk with a higher pitched [voice] to make people who were not African American feel comfortable. Me and this program director basically came to the same conclusion — B96 wasn’t going to be a fit for me” and soon thereafter left and took a full-time non-radio job.
“I completely left radio alone. It’s been challenging to have a professional radio career here in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” said Stevens. “There aren’t many opportunities for jocks of color.”
A former radio colleague then encouraged Stevens to apply for a job at the then-new format at 89.3 FM, The Current, a 100,000-watt radio station owned and operated by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). “I’ve always heard that MPR was a lily-White organization — I had my reservations [thinking that] I’m not going to fit over there so I won’t waste my time,” he recalled, but his friend therefore kept insisting that he apply. “Radio is something I always wanted to do but never have been able to work in radio full time — either volunteering or working part time at a station. I decided to try again.
“Within probably an hour [after he applied, former program director Steve Nelson] gave me a call back and said, ‘I really like what you sent me. Is it possible you can come over and meet me?’ It was a fairly easy process once I went through it,” noted Stevens, who has been with the station since 2005.
Also he left the area for California where Stevens’ vocals brought “MC Skat Kat” to life in Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” video (1989). “I wished I was making some money off that thing,” he said smiling. “Had I been on the ground floor of that project, things could have worked out a little more beneficial financially for me.”
On the Current, an alternative music station that seemingly is more popular among Whites, Stevens said that Blacks oftentimes “have to hear voices that sound like theirs. We have a very varied and wide play list. We are not afraid to go out there and play different things, and expose new artists to people who might not thought they would like something like that.”
Admittedly, Stevens know he’s among the few voices of color on MPR. “I think honestly in order to reconcile some of these issues the Black community has with MPR, MPR is going to have to step up their practice of hiring more [people] of color.”
Finally, “To be able to step in here at MPR and become the production manager, and to have proven myself on all three services — I’ve done production on classical, news and the Current, so they know I can do the job,” says Stevens proudly.
“It definitely has been a fulfilling thing for me to be over here,” he concludes.
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