When Rickey Smiley finds something funny, he’ll emphatically clap his hands. When he finds something really funny, he’ll leap from his seat and run around his downtown Atlanta studio.
Nowadays, Smiley has plenty of reasons to laugh.
His three-year-old syndicated morning show, heard locally on Hot 107.9, is one of the fastest growing targeting blacks. This year alone, he has added 20 stations and is now heard in 47 markets, including Baltimore, Detroit and Dallas.
“I just want to make sure the show is fun and entertaining,” said Smiley earlier this month. “We have competition everywhere. We have to fight for our listeners.”
Indeed, in Atlanta, he faces off against leaders Frank and Wanda on V-103 and syndicated rivals such as the first successful syndicated black morning host Tom Joyner on Kiss 104.1 (who Smiley idolizes) and Smiley’s mentor, Atlanta-based comic Steve Harvey on sister station Majic 107.5/97.5.
After Hot dumped the local A Team in 2008 and inserted Smiley, ratings suffered. But over the past year, he has found momentum. Smiley, whose target audience is anybody under the age of 35, is now consistently in third place among 18 to 34 year olds only behind Q100’s Bert Show and Frank and Wanda.
Smiley decided last year to move from Dallas to Atlanta. It worked well for him personally and professionally He can visit his family every weekend in Birmingham and access more hip-hop stars. One recent week, Nicki Minaj, Faith Evans and Brandy stopped by.
His fundamentally lighthearted show isn’t reinventing the wheel.
He does prank calls, a morning show staple. He apes Maury Povich with Paternity Test Tuesdays. He plays a daily “Chicken and Waffles” dance mix. At 9 a.m., he follows a gospel tune with inspirational commentary from a pastor. And he’ll tackle a serious issue such as bullying.
Atlantan Special K, who helps write comedy bits with Smiley, said management sometimes gets on his case for double entendres. And to accommodate more conservative stations, they dropped the phrase “Deez Nutz” from the show name. But he said Smiley “always has my back. He has no fear telling management to stay away from our content and let us do what we do.”
Smiley, though the obvious leader, gives his on-air staff plenty of room to shine. HeadKrack gives a hip-hop edge. Ebony Steele is the voice of reason. Rocky Turner is the sports expert. Gary with Da Tea feeds the entertainment scoops. “I’m the ringmaster,” Smiley said. “I keep it going.”
Smiley entered Atlanta with an existing fan base, having already been a regular stand-up comic for two decades.
Charra Patton, a 39-year-old Snellville project coordinator, is a huge fan, calling Smiley “the silliest man ever! He jokes all about himself and people he knows, people we can relate to.” If she misses anything, “I have my girlfriends fill me in.”
With his Southern twang, his strength and appeal is mostly in the Southeast though he does well in places like Baltimore. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” said HeadKrack, who handles the board. “They connect with the things he talks about.”
The past year, Smiley has become addicted to Twitter, posting items constantly during his show. He now has nearly 200,000 followers after posting a whopping 22,447 tweets as of Friday morning.
Every Friday, he holds a “Tweet and Greet,” inviting Twitter fans to sit in on his show. “At least 30 people rotate in and out during the morning,” said Hot operations manager Hurricane Dave. “It’s almost like a live studio audience.”
Loren “Hollywood” Henderson, the show producer, has worked with Ryan Cameron and Frank Ski. He finds Smiley the most laid back and easiest to work with. “I think that most people see Rickey as being real. He sounds more like somebody you can kick it with,” Henderson said. “He’s not pretentious at all.”
Smiley, who began doing a local show in Dallas in 2004, does not do any heavy duty show preparation, leaving guest bookings and such to others including Beyonce, the survivor from the A Team. He enters the studio five minutes before six a.m. and decides quickly what the hot topics are going to be. ”We all have ADD,” Special K said. “We don’t do meetings. If you want to run us out of here fast, tell us there’s a meeting!”
Smiley is a roller coaster freak, likes to cook and enjoys bass fishing and riding wave runners. He has two biological kids and a raft of adopted ones in Birmingham.
His first radio gig came courtesy of Mike Roberts, former V-103 morning host, back in the1990s. “He didn’t put a lot of comedians on the morning how but he put me on,” Smiley said.
“He was always a pleasure to have on the air. He was, he was clean, he was very likable,” said Roberts, who now runs an R&B oldies station in Macon.
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog