Ferris O’Brien

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Ferris O’Brien: The Spy teams up with KOSU and reigns supreme again

By Heide Brandes
Photos by Michael Downes

Ferris O’Brien is brimming with nervous energy as he stands next to the lime green old VW van at Oklahoma City’s Plaza District. It’s the anniversary of The Spy radio station’s special programming, the VDub Sessions, and there’s a party in the city.

But Ferris has to get back to his radio station. He needs to make sure one of the programs gets finished or he’ll have dead air. And there’s nothing worse than dead air, especially for a guy who has single-handedly reincarnated Oklahoma’s alternative rock show over and over and over from the dead.

Ferris has managed to escape the word dead more times than Rasputin. Over and over, The Spy radio, with its signature peering and slightly sinister eyes, has faced demise. Each time, like some music shaman, Ferris has managed to bring it from the brink and back into the light.

Just when corporate radio pushed the Spy into the Internet – which ended up being a blessing for the station – KOSU, the NPR station serving Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Stillwater, entered into a content partnership with The Spy. Starting late 2012, KOSU’s schedule began featuring the original shows and wide array of independent music to its listeners.

“We moved into our current building two years ago, and once we figured out that the web Spy was the plan, the city rallied behind us,” Ferris said. “We get 8,000 to 10,000 listeners, from the fanatics to the casual. It all adds up. That’s our captive audience. There are no rules on the web, no commercials.”

And The Spy, which has haunted in and out of Oklahoma City airwaves for years, is here to stay.

THE DJ LIFE
When Ferris was a child living in Los Angeles, he and his mother were in the waiting room of a car dealership when the old lady changed his life. The only other person in the room, the old woman was watching him. She stared at him.

“She finally got up and walked over to us. She said, ‘Excuse me ma’am, but I’m a psychic and I’m getting some strong readings from your son,’” Ferris said. “She knew a lot. She knew I was a Scorpio and that I was creative – eerie little things like that. Then she said, ‘I see your son doing something in the public eye, a celebrity of sorts, either in media or politics.’ I think that stuck with me.”

Like many other kids graduating high school, Ferris had no idea what he wanted to do. His family had moved from Los Angeles to Dallas, and Ferris eventually chose to attend the University of Oklahoma. His best friend was dating a DJ from Y95 radio in Dallas, and when the two returned home for Christmas break, the girl planted the seed.

“She said, ‘You should think about radio.’ I had never thought about it before,” said Ferris. “I kept thinking about it though, so a couple weeks later, I called her and asked what I needed to do.”

A new radio station was opening in Dallas, and Ferris was connected to Larry Neilson, the program director for the new 94.5 The Edge station. The two hit it off; they spoke over three hours on the phone before Nielson wanted Ferris to meet with him in person.

“I was still in Norman. I told him I’d be there in three hours,” Ferris said. “When I got there, we talked music. We talked about the Clash, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys. I had no idea what a role he would play in my life.”

Despite attending college in Norman, he was offered a DJ position on the new station, joining radio heroes like George Gimarc. The real delimma was how he was going to attend college in Oklahoma and work in Dallas at the same time. He was terrified to talk to his parents about it.

“I did the next best thing,” Ferris said. “I lied to them. But, I came up with a plan. I talked to the counselor and got all my classes moved so they would be done by Wednesday, and I worked at the station Thursday through Sunday.”

From 1988 to 1994, The Edge took off. Featuring alternative music like Morrissey and Nirvana, the station became wildly popular until finally Ferris had to admit to his parents that he wanted to quit school to continue being a DJ.

“We did a lot at the Edge. Everything I applied to The Spy I learned at the Edge,” Ferris said. “Everything was artist and album driven. That’s why people listened. Big corporate radio plays to the lowest common denominator.”

When Ferris left The Edge, he thought he’d have to earn his bones at big corporate radio to become successful. He heard that Clear Channel in Oklahoma City was flipping a station to alternative, and he got the morning show job at 95 X. The station lasted 15 months.

“Ten months to a year, they pulled the reins on us. They hired a consultant, which ruined radio and took the creativity out of it,” he said. “They took the DJ’s creativity away. That’s what made radio great – the Wolfman Jacks and the Howard Sterns. Our ship went down due to those constraints.”

A day or two after leaving Clear Channel, Ferris was approached about another radio station, KSPY, in Stillwater. The radio station was chaotic. It played music from Depeche Mode to Muddy Waters to tribal drums. While it had a broader selection, it had no rhyme or reason.

“So I moved to Stillwater to enter my first venture into programming and I’ve said this a million times, but those years in Stillwater were the best of my life,” Ferris said. “The people I met, the radio station I love – it was the most amazing place.”

Ferris brought structure and a mode of operation he learned from The Edge to KSPY, and soon everyone realized the station was a product that was hard to walk away from. The Spy made great money, raked in top ratings and everyone was happy. The station was popular, healthy and showcasing music that big corporate radio wouldn’t.

But the fairy tale was about to end. The death toll of any independent programming, a consultant was hired and in 2002, KSPY became Hot 93.7, featuring the same Top 40 music that all the other stations were playing.

“Again, the consultants killed us,” Ferris said. “They kept me on by giving me five hours on Sunday when I could play alternative music. But I saw the writing on the wall and I wasn’t getting any younger. I was approaching the 35 mark, so I started looking for other jobs.”

Though it looked like The Spy was dead, its ghost rose up again. Citadel Communications contacted Ferris with the idea of bringing back the Spy on 105.3. Sharing the call letters with The Sports Animal, Ferris was told the station would be around for 30 years.

“The response was huge. (Radio Personality) Blade Runner and I did The Spy. We had a three-year run. We were left alone, and we were doing good,” Ferris said. “But at the three-year mark, the newness wore off. Getting pressure from corporate, they flipped The Spy to a Spanish channel.”

Spy radio moved to a spot on KATT 100.5, and Ferris kept the alternative music alive there for eight more years. Seven of those eight years, he was nominated for Plug Awards for his programming.

“It kept me happy, and it kept The Spy alive,” Ferris said. “But in late 2008, I got wind that 105.3 was turning into ESPN Spanish, which usually means that the station is for sale. I talked it over with my family, walked into the GM’s office and told him I wanted to buy 105.3.”

FROM AIRWAVES TO WEB
Long story short, Ferris entered into a lease management agreement and began operating his own “The Spy” out of the basement in his house. He built the studio from the ground up and offered programming like The Lost Ogle Show and Clayton Bahr’s Tasting Notes. The signature eyes became the logo.

Meanwhile, Ferris was waiting through the grueling FCC approval process. To get a station of your own, you have to go through background checks, financial studies and deep investigations. After 10 months, Ferris got his approval, but again, luck was not on his side. The station didn’t appraise anywhere close to what Citadel was trying to sell it for.

In late 2010, the deal fell through. The Spy was once again on the brink of death.

“Every month was better than the last. That’s what was so frustrating. We were in line for January 2011 being our best month ever,” Ferris said. “I knew around Thanksgiving of 2010 it wasn’t going to happen.”

Strangely enough, however, the ARbitron ratings for radio showed that 90 percent of The Spy’s listeners listened to the channel in other ways than air waves. Suddenly, the idea of an internet radio station didn’t seem so crazy.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. Is this such a bad thing? We could get on the web just long enough to come up with a Plan B,” said Ferris. “It wasn’t nearly as expensive, and it was really easy. Web Stations were growing and a lot of them were done by people who weren’t in the industry.”

Hovering at death, The Spy moved onto the internet, and it found new life. Turns out, the web was the Plan B Ferris was looking for.

“Instead of selling commercials, we took the public radio route and offered sponsorhips,” Ferris said. “After nine months, it was going good.”

Two years ago, The Spy moved to its current location, the David Wanzer-designed building near downtown Oklahoma City.

“We’re going great. None of our shows have left, and it’s fun and exciting,” Ferris said.

The VDub Sessions is a music video series that began in 2010 as a partnership between Fowler Volkswagen of Norman and local indie rock radio station The Spy to support the state’s evolving music culture. The series captures live performances inside a 1977 Volkswagen bus as it tours the streets of downtown Oklahoma City.

The growth only continued. In August 2012, KOSU, the NPR station serving Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Stillwater announced a content partnership with The Spy.

“The Spy has done a tremendous job of tapping into the pulse of the community to provide a vibrant venue for music genres that are completely underserved in our state,” said Kelly Burley, KOSU Director. “Through our partnership, we look forward to amplifying what The Spy does best as we create more uniquely Oklahoma experiences for public radio listeners.”

KOSU now simulcasts The Spy’s original online evening programs, including Freakbeat, with host Kenworth, who navigates the world of Garage Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Art Rock and early Electronic, Mondays at 8 p.m.; The Oklahoma Rock Show, featuring local bands from across the state with hosts Ryan LaCroix and Grace Gordon, Thursdays at 7 p.m.; Juke Joint Revival, resurrecting Rockabilly, Hillbilly, Rock and Roll, Jump Blues and Rhythm and Blues with Juke Joint Jenni, Fridays at 7 p.m.; SpyLab, a mix show of dance music ranging from house to dubstep to chill, hosted by internationally renowned DJ and record producer Katie Wicks, Saturdays at 9 p.m; the Sunday Toaster Brunch with your host E-Roy, featuring two hours of the best reggae, dub, ska and 2tone, Sunday at 10 a.m.; the Night Shift with David Goad, two hours of goth, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.; the Blank Generation, one full hour devoted to Punk, Fridays at 10 p.m.; Millions Now Listening Will Never Die with the legendary Jon Mooneyham, two hours of post-punk, featuring interviews and music from this incredibly intriguing time in music history; You’re Welcome, Oklahoma’s only all-vinyl music show with Beau and Kellen, Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; and Tasting Notes, which pairs wine with music, Mondays at 7 p.m.

KOSU also airs The Spy’s mix of modern music during the remaining evening and overnight hours while continuing popular shows such as A Prairie Home Companion, American Routes, The Blue Door Music Show and Folk Salad.

“Everyone here at The Spy is extremely humbled and honored to be asked by KOSU to become a part of this venture. This is such an incredible opportunity for everyone involved with The Spy; we promise to continue bringing the listener the best in new music as well as classics, producing the best specialty shows in the country,” said Ferris.

But as Oklahomans gathered at the Plaza District to help celebrate the three-year anniversary and 100th episode celebration of the VDub Sessions, Ferris was already heading out. After all the years of struggle to keep Oklahoma’s independent and alternative station alive, there was no way he was going to risk any dead air.

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