With expectations stoked by more than five years of public anticipation, months of tedious planning and a handful of vocal skeptics, The Spy’s studio was awash with frenzy and panic Sunday, Nov. 22.
The countdown was relentless; nothing was working.
Toiling for months at his Northwest Oklahoma City home, Ferris O’Brien had manually transferred thousands of songs from his album collection into the station’s automation software. Each track was handpicked by O’Brien, who had the dreary task of going through each, one by one, to tweak and edit each song’s levels to ensure his playlist would broadcast with an even mix.
By about 11 p.m., he knew The Spy wouldn’t meet the deadline. Midnight came and went, and then the feedback started; phone calls, e-mails, Twitter and Facebook posts came in. Listeners were confused as ESPN Deportes continued to stream in Spanish from KINB-FM.
For a moment, listener Jeremy Grayson, thought The Spy’s return was a ruse.
“When I heard for sure they were coming back, I went crazy. I couldn’t wait,” Grayson, a 36-year-old IT tech who lives east of the metro, said. “Nothing happened, and I started to worry, maybe it was some trick to get people talking and buzzing. But I checked online and was relieved. Everyone was.”
“It was just crazy around here, that night,” O’Brien said while working the board and manning the microphone during a 2 to 7 p.m. DJ shift in the first week of December. “Obviously, we didn’t launch when we were supposed to. That was just heartbreaking.”
Overwhelmed by technical problems and the station’s finicky software, he didn’t give up until 2 a.m. that Monday. Plans for the switchover were remade for the next day. At 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 24, The Spy finally and formally returned to the air. Simultaneously streaming live on the Internet, O’Brien said Spy listeners crashed the studio’s servers six times early that morning. By noon on the first full day of broadcasting, the hosting company called three more times to report overloads.
The new Spy opened with The Cult’s “Revolution.”
Amid a wash of reverberating guitars, an echoic Ian Astbury asked, “What does revolution mean to you?”
For O’Brien, revolution means finally running his own radio station.
O’Brien earned a degree in print journalism from the University of Oklahoma, but his radio career began in 1989 at KDGE-FM in Dallas, and later took a job in California, where he lived as a child. He worked on-air in San Diego for a few years before returning to Oklahoma in the late ’90s to work for KHBZ-FM, which was then alternative radio station 95X.
Later, he left 95X and Oklahoma City for a post at Stillwater’s KSPI-FM. When that station changed formats in 2000, O’Brien joined KSYY-FM, an alternative station owned by radio giant Citadel Communications. Ferris helmed KSYY’s switch to an alternative format in 2002, creating what would become The Spy’s signature: underground, obscure and atypical rock ‘n’ roll, presented by O’Brien and celebrated DJs Buddha and Chainsaw Kittens front man Tyson Meade.
In June 2004, The Spy died, and KSYY was reformatted into regional Mexican station La Indomable. O’Brien stuck with Citadel and moved back to Oklahoma City, where he kept The Spy brand alive ” barely ” with a one-hour Thursday night show broadcast “from a converted closet” at the company’s mother station, KATT-FM.
This March, he approached Larry Bastida, the market manager for Citadel in Oklahoma City.
“I told him that I had a crazy idea,” O’Brien said. “He kind of looked at me like, ‘Oh, shit, what in the hell do you want to do?'”
O’Brien wanted to bring The Spy back, this time on his own, and said he was surprised by Bastida’s interest, willingness and moral support, which helped convince Citadel to turn the reins over to the DJ.
“We’ve always had a good relationship,” O’Brien, 40, said about Bastida, adding that The Spy wouldn’t have launched without his boss’ blessing. “He vouched for me with Citadel. “I’m not sure it would have happened as smoothly, as friendly as it did without him. He’s the one that brought The Spy back to Oklahoma City. He thought it was a good move.”
Although he’s in charge, O’Brien doesn’t yet own the station. His dream is on lease from Citadel until at least the first quarter of 2010, when he hopes to complete the piles of FCC paperwork necessary to write a check and formally buy the station.
FAMILY OF SPIES
O’Brien’s mom came up from Dallas to be with her son in the studio during The Spy’s inaugural re-launch.
“I looked over at her, and she was a giddy little schoolgirl just like I was,” he said. “She’s excited about it, but you know, she’s excited for me.”
For its first week, The Spy ran commercial-free, much to the delight of its listeners. The station’s first ad was for The Flaming Lips’ New Year’s Eve show at the Cox Convention Center, and O’Brien is hopeful new accounts will offset his considerable investment in the station. For now, it is completely financed by O’Brien, whose dreams are riding on the investment of a silent partner: his dad, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2001.
“That’s the only thing I’d change about this. I wish my dad was here,” O’Brien said, his slick, confident broadcasting delivery slowing to a more measured waver.
Gene Howard was a licensed CPA who started an insurance business in Dallas. A pilot and airplane enthusiast, his father eventually shifted the business to focus on aviation insurance. O’Brien said his dad always hoped he would take over the business one day, but the DJ said he long struggled with parental expectations and his career choice.
“We went round and round so many times about radio,” he said. “I’m not the coat-and-tie guy, you know? I’m not the nine-to-fiver.”
In 1997, O’Brien’s dad came up to Oklahoma City to watch his son work the boards for the first time at 95X. After that, O’Brien said, “He never had another ill word to say about radio. He was my biggest fan.”
O’Brien said the cancer was in its final stages by the time it was discovered in 1999, and his father spent his last years selling off parts of the business.
“It took him two years to sell everything and set up the trust and make sure my mom and I really would never have to worry about anything, ever.” he said. “When he signed that document, he died that week. It sounds like a Lifetime movie, but he literally fought it until it was done.”
The day after The Spy’s failed return to the airwaves, O’Brien’s wife confiscated his laptop. She didn’t want him logging on to read and interact with a handful of local detractors, many residing in radio-industry Internet forums and message boards.
He had already defended himself on http://www.radio-info.com, where one particularly fiery person lambasted The Spy’s leadership for its “delusional hubris.” Not making it onto the air after midnight that first day only added fuel to the digital fervor.
“I was taking a beating on the radio sites,” O’Brien said. “Not from Spy listeners, but from some of the other douchebags in this market.”
A listener since the station’s Stillwater days, Grayson said The Spy has been a topic among his friends since it left in 2004.
“I mean, I get it: It’s probably a tough sell to some of the dumber local businesses, but it’s just always been cool, and cool things are worth supporting,” he said. “Even if you’re in your 30s, like me, you need that, something out there that you can feel like you discovered. If you love The Spy, it’s because it makes you feel like you are the only one who found it.”
Cueing up “This Town” by The Go-Go’s, O’Brien is now confident. He doesn’t think an independently owned radio station is such a crazy idea, even with listeners constantly courted by their iPods and other entertainment outlets, and he insists “unexpectedness” will keep listeners dialed into The Spy and keep it alive for a third and final time.
“If this ship goes down, I’m gonna go down with it,” he said, “screaming and ranting and raving and saying, ‘Buy more Morrissey records.'” “Joe Wertz