If there’s such a thing as a pantheon of local DJs — radio personalities clearly a cut (or three) above the usual nattering journeyman tune-spinners — Brian Oake is among the elite. Last month, when he announced his departure from Cities 97, where he had been hosting a morning show with singer Keri Noble, the suspicion was that he was headed for MPR and The Current.
It was therefore of no surprise at all to find him at The Current on Wednesday, moments before being introduced on air with his old pal (and fellow member of the pantheon) Mary Lucia.
Oake’s status is built on a 25-year run through several of the cities’ more credible (i.e. hipster-accredited) radio venues, starting with the U of M’s Radio K, the short-lived but legendary (to a specific crowd) REV 105 and then Cities 97, where he worked afternoon drive for 11 years before the company’s Voldemort-like research and bean-counting department in San Antonio decided he was best suited for morning drive (and a lot more Taylor Swift). That show was cluttered with way too much corporate pop for Oake’s hard-earned pedigree — and as an adult with adult tastes in music.
Along the twisty, bumpy, not exactly wellremunerated path, Oake stood out as a jock who both enjoyed the music and knew something more about the artists than what was in their promo material, to the point where you could listen to one of his on-air shifts and actually learn a thing or two.
That kind of reputation makes excellent sense for a station that isn’t hobbled by corporate dictums to force, incessantly, the latest wonder down listeners’ throats, or ears.
Over two and a half decades in the business, Oake has also perfected the reliable company man vibe. Consequently, he “couldn’t be more thrilled” to be hitched up with The Current, where “the music is more in my wheelhouse” and has “nothing but good things to say” about his former local boss over at Cities 97.
His stature among Twin Cities music listeners, which is to say the faction that regards itself as connoisseurs as opposed to mere “fans,” makes him kind of a big set of feet landing in a new shop, despite the presence of people like Lucia and Mark Wheat.
How’s he going to handle that?
“Well, I’m not going to play rock star, or anything like that,” he said. “I have no intention of making waves. I have no interest in being the ‘captain of the team,’ as you say. I’m going into a whole new realm for me, and I’m just thrilled to be here. I have a lot to learn about how this works. But if it goes well, a big part of my thinking was that The Current offers me a shot at much longer shelf life than I might have anywhere else. It just feels like a good fit.”
Oake is too savvy to wander into easy criticism of Cities’ slump toward Top 40. Instead he reiterates that, “I didn’t leave iHeart angry” and that he “loved working with Keri. When they first told us we were going to be working together, we didn’t really know each other and I thought, ‘Well, this is kind of risky.’ But it worked out great. I will truly miss her.”
As for the music he’ll now be both curating and playing, he says: “In 20-plus years in this business, I’ve never worked at a place where I picked the music.” (After all, that’s what computers in San Antonio are for.) Presumably he means on his regular day shifts and not “Freedom Rock,” the weekend aggregation he hosted for 17 years.
Where Oake can really up The Current’s game is in enhancing the already knowledgeable fan’s musical education. He is, as he jokes, considered something of a “walking encyclopedia” of who has worked with who, who has zoomed who, what producers have come and gone on a given album or track and where inspiration for great songs came from.
Dropping that kind of background info into an on-air shift adds to a listener’s sense of value in time spent with a station. “But while you and I might like that kind of thing, you have to know when to play and when not,” he said. “Sometimes people just want to let the music take them. You can’t do a college lecture between every track.”
There may be no better proof of Oake’s standing among the local radio/music community than the way he was treated once he decided to leave Cities 97. In most cases, a departing jock is shorn of his security badge and pretty much frogmarched out the door and saddled by a noncompete clause and possible penalties. But Oake says his iHeart boss, Gregg Swedberg, actually stood up to San Antonio and not only whittled the noncompete down to essentially nothing, and — here’s a miracle — let him say goodbye on air. Believe me, that doesn’t happen unless you’re Steve Cannon or you’ve got naked pictures of somebody important in a safe deposit box.
At The Current, Oake will do a 2-6 afternoon shift until March 7 when his new co-host, Jill Riley, returns from maternity leave.