Three decades ago, KNKX's Dick Stein was in the chimney sweeping business, and thought he was done with radio.
Boy was he wrong.
After 30 years on the air here, Dick is broadcasting his last show today. As he heads into retirement, he sat down with KNKX's Kevin Kniestedt to look back at his career.
Listen to their conversation above, or read a transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Kniestedt, producer: I once heard you say that you made a promise to yourself to never sound like anybody on the radio, other than you basically being yourself rather than being some personality. Can you explain that? Why that was important to you?
Dick Stein, retiring jazz host: I think the best explanation of that was once said by Oscar Wilde. He said “be yourself, everyone else is taken.” I've said in the past to other people, “be yourself only a little bit more so,” you know, because you've got a break through that membrane a little bit. But if being yourself does not give you enough stuff to make it worthwhile for someone to listen to you on the radio, then maybe you ought to think about doing something else.
Kniestedt: Does that kind of factor into how you ended up making pledge drives fun? I mean, you made a tote bag famous. That's pretty impressive. Did it just come naturally?
Stein: You know, I think it was similar analogous. I listen to these fund drives and other radio stations and I thought, “oh, my God,” you know, people sound awful. They sound desperate. You know, you can almost see a flop sweat on them. Nobody wants to hear that. And nobody wants to be made to feel guilty. You can't do that to people. They just change the channel. You know, let's have fun. There's no reason why we can't have fun. And I've always felt that KPLU and now KNKX, that's what we were really about, having fun. Which, sure, the news department covers a lot of serious stuff. But you know, I've always thought that what really made us successful was we were a little bit irreverent and a little more real. You know, let's get real. That should have been our slogan.
Kniestedt: Jimmy Jazzoid. What made you decide you wanted to do a radio show about a jazz host by day and a DJ detective by night?
Stein: You know what it may have been? And I think the first one, Jimmy and the Death Beak of Ballad. I'd always wanted to sing the song "Alley Oop" on the radio. And so it's always the tail wagging the dog with the same thing happens. The same thing happens when I cook. I've got a little left over rice, so I’ll make stuffed cabbage. So that may have been it. I honestly don't remember. I think I may have suggested it to (general manager) Joey (Cohn) or someone and got locked in with it and, you know, turned out to be a huge amount of fun and then did get three more of those things.
Kniestedt: One thing I remember about when you were writing, the first one was you had me tested one line for it. And after I read it, I'm pretty sure you said, “Yeah, I'm going to see how busy Adam Gehrke is” and you asked me to read for you again.
So every Friday, you play a version of the song "Jeannine" and the short version, so correct me if I'm wrong, if I got this right, the story goes a long time ago, you got pulled over and you tried to sweet talk your way out of the ticket. And the officer's name was Jeannine. And she just wasn't having it. So I’ve got to ask, is it a true story or is that is that made up?
Stein: Well, Kevin, it could be true, it could be just “truthy” or it could be that I just really like the song "Jeannine" and just wound up doing that.
Kniestedt: I like to have this image in my head that there's a retired police officer out there that every morning has their morning coffee and sort of gazes out the window wondering if she made the wrong decision all those years ago.
Stein: If that story were true, and I neither confirm nor deny it, I think she probably would have thought arresting me was the thing to do.
Kniestedt: So I'm sure you realize that there are people out there that actually think that the Big Red Switch is a real thing. Do you have any regrets for misleading them?
Stein: Well, actually, I didn't mislead them. There really was a big red switch. Now it can be told. Two studios ago, in our original studios at PLU, our studio was a pretty small— little room with board and mic on one side, and the rack with all the gear and flashing lights on it on the other end. And there was a red switch right in the middle of that thing. And it was pretty big. It was about an inch square, red and it had one of those clear plastic safety covers over it. And on a label, you know, from a label maker right above it in big capital letters, it said “NO.” I always wondered what that thing was about, but it just it just kind of bemused me. And I started saying, “it's Dick Stein behind the Big Red Switch that says 'no.'” It eventually that got shortened to “the Big Red Switch.”
Kniestedt: So, you know, you've got a lot of people listening to you right now, I would say, if I had to guess more of whom, in my opinion, probably look at you as more of a companion or even a friend rather than, you know, radio personality. You know, I was going to use the word celebrity, but I thought that might make you ill.
Stein: I'm famous among a very small group of people.
Kniestedt: There are people who turn on the radio just to hear you and they're going to miss you. And that's the truth. And so I wonder how you feel about knowing that there are people out there that, you know, you were a companion for and turn on the radio just to to hear your voice and and listen to you that are going to miss you?
Stein: Well, I would rather have people ask me, “why did you retire?” than ask me, “why don't you retire?” Yeah, it just seemed time, but it's very gratifying. I really have been overwhelmed by the response. I honestly didn't expect all these really nice emails and comments and stuff from the listeners. It’s really been great.
Kniestedt: Well, Richard, I am going to be one of those people who misses you at the station. And thanks for everything that you've done for this station. I know you said you were surprised by the response, but I was not. And you really have done a lot for the station. And I'm fortunate that I got to work with you and that I get to call you friend, too. So thank you very much.
Stein: Well, thank you, Kevin. I feel the same way, Kevin.