Brian Oake, The Current's new co-host of its morning show
Photograph by Caitlin Abrams
For a quarter century, Brian Oake’s baritone has been a broadcasting bulwark in the ever-upheaving landscape of rock radio. The self-effacing college dropout from the “tonier edge” of Coon Rapids, who admits to cutting his rock teeth hanging at the Northtown Mall Musicland in the early ’80s, made a mainstream name for himself during his 15 years at Cities 97. At Cities, Oake hosted the afternoon drive and most recently was the “morning guy,” in addition to creating and hosting indie-rock show Freedom Rock and the waterside live music series Oake on the Water. But when it comes to his new gig, co-hosting The Current’s new morning show with Jill Riley (premieres March 7), it tends to be Oake’s roll in the supernova that was 1990s local alt-rock radio (he had stints at Radio K, Rev 105, and Zone 105) that’s most often cited. We talked to Oake about doing what you love, loving where you live, and why it took him so dang long to find his way “home” to The Current.
What was your first job in music?
In 1986 [at Winona State] they made me music director as a freshman, so I believe I made $35 every two-week pay period. So technically the first time I got paid to do anything in radio was at KQAL in Winona. But then I dropped out of college, and I didn’t do radio again until about ’90 or ’91 when I started doing a Sunday morning shift at WMMR because I missed it and I liked it, but I still really had no aspiration. I was on the very first Radio K morning show. I did that for about nine months and from there jumped to Rev and now here we are.
Did you ever think about going anywhere else?
In radio you go where the jobs are, but I always loved it here—my friends, my family, the connection—and never even considered that maybe I should send out a tape to Chattanooga or Poughkeepsie or wherever the place may be. I’ve been so, so, so fortunate to stay doing the job I’ve wanted to do more than any other job I’ve ever wanted in the place that I grew up and still love more than any other place in the country.
Why is Brian Oake so revered by Twin Cities music fans?
I don’t know, man. That’s a really big question, because to me, getting to do what you want for a living is almost unheard of. But then to find out that it registers with other people and they like it; it’s humbling. I don’t know what it is about me. It’s hard to do any really good self-analysis, but here’s what I’d say: I’m genuine, I’m not trying to sell anybody a bill of goods . . . I’ve always considered myself kind of a dork, so the fact that people have allowed me to live this and be this—you know, I can’t express the level of gratitude I have.
You said The Current “comes closer to exemplifying everything that I’ve ever wanted out of a radio station than any other station I’ve known.” And Current program director Jim McGuinn said, “Brian’s sensibility matches the music of The Current—curious, wide-ranging, influential, and authentic.” What took so long?
When The Current first started, those were all my old pals from the Rev 105 days and the Zone 105 days—[Mary] Lucia and Steve Nelson and Thorn and Mark Wheat—and [people] just assumed “he should be there as well” because that’s how I cut my teeth. . . . [But] I was under contract [with Cities 97] and to be honest I wasn’t invited. Not that my feelings were hurt about that at all, because when no one else had my back, my boss Lauren, the program director at Cities at the time, was my advocate. Then when there was an opportunity a couple years into The Current to possibly come over there, I turned it down because she’d been good to me, and loyalty is a big deal to me. I’ve gotta admit, this feels like home, man. I know it’s early on, and I don’t want to get the cart in front of the horse, but this feels really good—almost too good to be true.
Last question: The Replacements or Hüsker Dü?
Dude! You’re killing me right now! Hüsker Dü. The only reason I pick them over The Replacements—and by the way, I love both very much—is [a trip to now-defunct Northern Lights Records] when I was 16 years old. I walked into the store—this kid with the asymmetrical New Wave haircut from Coon Rapids who was clearly out of his element and trying way too hard—and I said, “Hey, what’s good?” And, you know, cool record store guy could’ve looked at me and been like “this dork,” but instead he walked me over to Hüsker Dü and was like, “This is the best record we have in the store right now.” And I bought Zen Arcade that day and it literally changed my life.
How do you age as a rock and roll DJ?I’m a married man, I have a 17-year-old daughter, and after doing mornings for the past four years, you know getting up at 3:45 a.m. that made my bedtime 8:30 or 9 every night. But at The Current, to be good at what you do and to understand music you don’t have to be a club kid or being at the absolute cutting edge.
When did DJs go from being called “disc jockeys” to being called “hosts”? What do you call you?Filling out forms I’m often like “what am I?” Because there haven’t been actual discs to jockey. Largely, almost universally, it’s all on computers now. DJ’s still kinda a cool term so nobody wants to let that go completely. What I’ve been calling myself for the last four years is “The morning guy at Cities 97.” Sadly, DJ’s a cool name; it’s just not really apt anymore.
In the comments on The Current’s Brian Oake announcement someone implored you to “leave the Top 40 radio banter/voice in the booth at Cities 97,” or as one guy put it, “tweak your commercial radio voice into your new Current voice … What’s up with the baritone bashers?This is who I am. This is how I talk. But they made a point of still wanting me over at The Current because they know I know music. And, yeah, there’s the baritone voice. If you listen to top 40 radio voices, I may have that voice, but I don’t have that style or that delivery . . . I’m not going to try to talk to you like a history professor when I’m excited about a band. I’m going to get a little upbeat, I’m going to use some superlatives that maybe you’re not used to. I feel like I can bring some of the things I’ve learned from doing commercial radio to The Current, without ruining the aesthetic or the vibe but maybe sort of threading that needle and splitting the difference a little bit.
A Brief History of Brian Oake (In His Own Words…)
1983: Despite the fact that I was Troop Chaplain and Patrol Leader of Cobra Patrol, left the Boy Scouts because...girls.
1984: Found Hüsker Du’s ‘Zen Arcade,’ The Replacements ‘Let It Be,’ and The B-52s ‘Wild Planet.’ Nothing would ever be the same.
Fall ‘86: My first actual radio experience. KQAL-FM, Winona State University. Became the stations first freshman Music Director. Fell into disfavor almost immediately for not prioritizing my review of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk.’
Summer ‘87: Dropped out of college.
Early ‘90s: Started doing a shift once a week at U of M station WMMR.
October ‘93: Became one half of the first-ever morning show on Radio K. It was called Morning Breath.
April ’94: Got a call from Kevin Cole asking me if I’d like to do radio for a living. Been shaking my head in disbelief ever since.
May ’94: Began hosting the morning show at REV105, a position I would hold for the nearly three year life of the station.
1996: Got married to a woman who’s reserve of patience must be bottomless, as we are still together.
March ’97: REV sold to ABC/Disney. First time I was fired from any job. I was convinced I’d never work in radio again.
August ’97: Mornings on Zone 105. My home for the next four years. Also, this is when Freedom Rock began. Certainly not a crucial footnote, but for 17 years, this was my expression, my safety valve.
1998: Became a father for the first and only time. This is perhaps the only genuinely important endeavor that I have ever been a part of.
Spring ‘01: New millennium. New Unemployment. Again, I was certain this was the end of the road.
Summer ’01: Hired at Cities 97. Great people. An incredible experience. This marks the first time in my life I actually felt like a ‘grown up’. I would go on to MC hundreds of Studio C performances. Had a front row seat for the unlikely ascendance of ‘Oake On The Water’ as a proper summertime appointment. No one was more surprised by all of this than me. Most importantly, I grew up. Finally learned what it meant to be a professional.
-fast forward 11 years-
Early spring 2012: My boss asks me if I’m willing to go back to mornings. Damn. It’s been more than a decade, but...mornings...I’ve never wanted anything more. I’m told that Keri Noble will be my partner in crime. Sure, why not? Keri is cool and how important can sleep be?
For almost 4 years, Keri and I just got ridiculous. Laughed, cried, and found the sweet spot of that impossible time of day. No, we did not redefine the medium, but we certainly surpassed expectations. And we laughed every single day. After nearly 15 years, my only regret about leaving Cities 97 is not seeing the face of my partner every day…