DeAnn Stephens is in the middle of praising her new on-air partner, JD Pelletier. "He's been wonderful," she says. "He's a professional; he really is." Pelletier grumbles, "She still hasn't invited me over to dinner."
Then we get to the honesty.
"That's because I don't cook," Stephens says. "I keep telling him he should thank me for not inviting him over for dinner."
Such is the banter that country music fans have been tuning in to on WBUL-FM 98.1's JD and DeAnn since the beginning of the year while getting their kids to school and driving to work.
And such banter is an important part of why WBUL has the top-rated morning show in the area, despite a turbulent year for the co-host position across from Stephens.
"It's important to have a morning show on The Bull that plays here, lives here and works here," says Michael Jordan, director of operations for Clear Channel Radio-Lexington, WBUL's parent company.
Such a morning team is becoming more of the exception than the rule on commercial radio. Even at Clear Channel in Lexington, other stations go with syndicated morning shows, including Bob and Tom on rock outpost WKQQ-FM 100.1 and Dave and Jimmy on Top 40 WLKT-FM 104.5 (those stations do have local personalities at other times of the day). WBUL's country competitor, Cumulus Radio's WLXX-FM 92.9, just ended its local morning show and now runs Nashville-based Tony and Kris.
"I'm not knocking syndicated shows," Jordan says. "Syndicated programs have been very successful for some of our stations. We have had several opportunities the last few years to go to a syndicated show with The Bull. But local is really important for that market."
In fact, Jordan says, Stephens, a former television reporter and anchor for WKYT (Channel 27), has been successful on the show because she exemplifies WBUL's target audience: young mothers.
Stephens likes the change
After Kenny Chesney's She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy finishes playing, the on-air banter between the hosts turns to Stephens' elementary school-age daughter, Kennedy, and her early brushes with romance. Pelletier jokes that maybe daughter is behaving like mother — we're not going into more detail here to protect the innocent child.
Stephens says she doesn't tell any stories about her daughter until after 7:30 a.m., when Kennedy — and more important, her classmates — are in school.
"She doesn't need to get teased about things I say on the air," Stephens says.
But part of her job is to share slices of her life with listeners, which is very different from her job at WKYT.
It's a welcome change, she says.
"I like having a life," Stephens says shortly after getting off the air on a Thursday morning. "It's a totally different world, going from talking about car wrecks and murders to entertaining people.
"You couldn't show a lot of personality in television, and that's one thing I enjoy here: It's all about personality. It's all about having fun and getting people out the door with a smile on their faces to start their day off right. That's really our job."
Stephens got some opportunities to show personality on WKYT, one time in particular: while profiling Central Kentucky star country music duo Montgomery Gentry.
"I hated country music until I was in college," says Stephens, who graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1994. "Then, I had a sorority sister who I spent a week with in Florida, and she loved country music, so I didn't have a choice."
Now, she and Pelletier are on the same page when it comes to country.
Really into country
"Country music is real," Pelletier says. "I did it for 13 years in West Palm Beach (Fla.) and have personal relationships with a lot of the artists that we play."
He cites touring partners Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood.
"The first time they ever talked was because of me," Pelletier says.
He gave Paisley a glass Star Trek statue from Next Generation star Patrick Stewart because Paisley was a big Star Trek geek.
"I told him, 'Carrie Underwood is a big Star Trek fan, too,' and he said, 'Get out,' " Pelletier says. "So the first conversation they ever had was, 'JD tells me you're a big Star Trek fan,' and they talked about Star Trek for half an hour."
Pelletier eventually was laid off in Florida, falling victim to the same troubles that have hit radio stations across the country.
Stephens has not had such a solid pairing in radio. Her first dawn-patrol job, on The Moo Crew with Karl Shannon and Scott Wilson, was dismantled when Shannon and Wilson were laid off in a round of Clear Channel cuts last April. Then she was paired with Dusty Dan, whose real name is Roy Daniel Baldridge, until he was arrested in October on child pornography charges. He is awaiting trial and no longer with the station.
That left a door open for the unemployed Pelletier.
Through all the changes, WBUL's morning show, in any of its incarnations, remained atop the Arbitron ratings.
"I was actually brought in because the ratings were too high," Pelletier jokes. "We needed to bring them down a little."
Coming back 'home'
"The first line of his e-mail to us was, 'This is home for me,' " Jordan says of Pelletier. "That was important to us, that he wants to connect to the community."
Pelletier had lived in Lexington briefly, going to Tates Creek Junior High School in a year that he declines to disclose.
Since arriving in Lexington in January, he has tried to make himself at home, submerging himself in local culture, including the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.
"I saw you wearing our T-shirt on ESPN," Pelletier says in a phone conversation with Darren Moscoe, the "boogie man" who dances to Mony Mony during the second half of UK basketball games at Rupp Arena.
"He's been taking phone calls and putting listeners on the air," Jordan says. "He's been willing to go out and shake hands and kiss babies."
Pelletier is waiting until the end of the current school year to move his wife and children from Florida.
Stephens has tried to give him a little vicarious parental experience, inviting him to her daughter's school for lunch.
"She won't invite me over for dinner," Pelletier says, "but she will feed me cafeteria food."