How do you make two 40-something veterans of the radio business pull up well-established stakes and start anew with a rival company?
You let them play the music they like, let them conduct their business their way, configure their studio to their liking, and heck, you go ahead and name the station after them.
The “them” in this oh so enviable equation are Jon Williams and Derek “Deek” Kastner, and the new station is Radio Jon/Deek 94.9 KRMW-FM.
The popular duo, which have worked the Northwest Arkansas airwaves since the mid 1990s and have entertained their listeners — the Loyal and Royal Army — together for the better part of a decade, made the leap from 104.9 KXNA-FM in mid July to their new Cumulus Media-owned home, and two couldn’t be happier.
“People ask how it’s going,” said Kastner, who is the station’s music director, “and I tell them it keeps getting better every day. We know how lucky we are to have a station with our name on it and to get so much support, help and cooperation from the people we’re working with.”
Williams, who owns the morning show that airs weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m., nodded in agreement with Kastner.
“We weren’t looking for a change,” Williams said. “Cumulus wanted our show and our brand.”
Williams and Kastner’s show brought more than two-dozen, loyal advertising partners to the table — as well as a social media footprint that extends beyond 30,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook. Through his radio, charity and public address announcing with the Arkansas Razorbacks and Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Williams has become one of the most popular media personalities in the area.
Kastner is one the most respected jocks in the region not only for his work with Williams, but also for his afternoon show on Tulsa’s classic rock station KMYZ 104.5 The Edge. Thanks to digital technology, Kastner works his show mostly from Northwest Arkansas and travels to Tulsa for events.
The courtship between Cumulus and Jon and Deek was extended, Williams said. There were points where it seemed like the deal might not come together the way it was originally planned or at all.
During the impasse, Williams and Dale Daniels, Cumulus Northwest Arkansas general manager, ran into each other at lunch, and Daniels asked Williams to pitch him ideas about the proposed station and said no ideas were too wild.
“We picked the format, the signal, and the studio we wanted,” Williams said. “It was all calculated. We wanted this signal for its reach. We’re heard strong into Oklahoma, Missouri and down to Fort Smith and all over Northwest Arkansas.”
Kastner suggested if they want crazy, ask them to name the station after the duo.
Cumulus didn’t balk.
“They agreed to it all,” Williams said. “Dale asked what was the crazy part?”
Kastner called the decision a no-brainer.
“What they were offering to us at Cumulus was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can’t imagine we would ever leave here,” Williams said. “They’ve given us everything we’ve ever wanted.”
Kastner and Williams were quick to thank Cumulus engineers Jamie Walker and Gregg Judd for all their work in refitting the studio, and their help in general.
“It’s the little things,” Williams said. “They and everyone else here bent over backwards to make us welcome and to let us do our show the way we want. It’s been a blessing.”
A major attraction of the deal was a music format more in line with the duo’s musical tastes. Radio Jon/Deek’s calling card is, “We play the music we like.”
Neither was entirely comfortable with their former station’s format, and they definitely wanted to stay away from Top 40.
“We didn’t want to be the 45 year old guys playing Arianna Grande,” Kastner said. “That’s just weird.”
The formula they chose is rock centered, but it blends in a lot of shades of the genere and spans the decades.
“My parents introduced me to a lot of their music, and I introduce my kids to a lot of mine,” Kastner said. “The format comes from stations I’ve listened to, and it’s what we pitched, and it works. It fits this area, and it fits our listeners.”
Williams added that the normal Classic Rock, Adult Contemporary, and other traditional formats weren’t gaining traction in the local market place.
“The music we wanted to do was something completely different from anything in this market,” Williams said. “I think Cumulus corporate just said, ‘what do we have to lose?’
“They have successful stations here in Power and The Ticket, but I think they wanted to try something so outside the norm that it would make people say, ‘whoa! Did I just hear The Band and then three songs later The Killers?”
Kastner said the reaction has been great from fans, and he is continuing to tweak the format, adding groups, artists and songs as he goes along.
Cumulus’ attraction to Jon and Deek was twofold, the popular morning show and Williams’ sales success.
Owning the show, Williams draws no salary from Cumulus but rather works off commission, selling advertising spots on his show. Williams said trial and error and a lot of failure has been his best sales trainer. Over time, he has built his business model on a foundation of loyalty.
“When I say Lewis Ford, they are the only new car dealer we will promote or give live endorsements on this show,” Williams said. “No one else does that in radio, or billboards, or anywhere that I know.
“On one hand we miss out on a lot of clients that have a lot of money, but Lewis Ford and my other clients are as loyal to me as I am to them. I’ve been able to successfully have them on the show now for a fifth year. You don’t see that a lot.
“Reciprocity with the sales partners is why we are able to keep them on as long as we have with Lindsey & Associates, Lewis Ford, MetroPCS, Sam’s Furniture, and Rausch Coleman. These are sizable companies that know we won’t promote their competition.”
Why offer such exclusivity if competitors don’t?
“I do it because no one else does it, and that’s a huge selling point when you are a media company like we are. I can look them in the eye and tell them, you don’t have to worry about us promoting your competitor. It’s been a huge help to our sales.”
That loyalty also works with Jon and Deek’s listeners, whom Williams dubbed The Loyal and Royal Army 20 years ago. He even named his company Loyal and Royal Army, Inc.
“I do not know how I came up with The Loyal and Royal Army,” Williams said. “It had a ring to it. What I wanted to imply is that the people who listen never change the channel, always listen to us, and tell everybody they knew about us. That’s just branding.
“I created it 20 years ago, way before I went to Clear Channel. Every time I have left a station, that station has tried to claim it as theirs. I’ve had to tell them that it’s the name of my company, Loyal and Royal Army Inc. It’s state registered. If they want to keep using it, I tell them great. They are advertising for me. The Loyal and Royal Army is something I’m proud of and that I will never stop using.”
For the Loyal and Royal listeners, though, the show is all about the electricity created by the good friends’ personalities. Their talents jibe, but it’s not the secret to their appeal.
“How different we are, is the reason why we have the chemistry we do,” Williams said. “The best thing about it is we are different, but we like who we are, and we can laugh at each other. There are things about me that are ridiculous, and there are thing about him that are ridiculous, and it’s all material. We can mock each other and laugh with the other one when we are being mocked.”
Deek feels the honestly the two bring to the show is also a draw. They personalize the show with details from their lives, including their families.
“I think we are relatable, too, on some level,” Kastner said. “We both have kids, we have struggles with ex-wives, we have problems with teenagers, with babies, the traffic, getting older. We put it all out there. We do it in a funny way, but it’s authentic.”
While their work is comedy, it’s not scripted. At most, they read over bulleted items provided by a news prep service, but their segments are open-ended.
“We can do this because we’ve been best friends for 20 years, and we know each other, and we know what we are doing,” Kastner said. “There’s no need to practice or script it.”
It’s a bit like performing jazz. They know where they start, and they know it will end with a commercial break, but it’s the juicy exploration in between that makes the show hum.
“It’s completely spontaneous and authentic,” Williams said. “It’s organic and real. I’ve known shows, and Deek does too, that are scripted out with not only what they were going to say, but also the tone in how they were going to say it. It’s so phony, and it’s not real.
“The way we work is counter everything radio program director’s teach,” Williams said. “They say have direction, go one way, and if you have something else, save it for after a break. That’s not the way we do it.”
When the two first met, a lasting partnership didn’t seem to be in the making.
Williams, a native of Longmont, Colo., came to Fayetteville as a walk-on baseball player for the Arkansas Razorbacks. When legendary Razorbacks skipper Norm DeBriyn let him down easy about his future on the diamond, Williams turned to his real talent, broadcasting.
“Norm was so nice explaining to me that I had no earthly right to be pitching in the SEC, but he did it in such a classy way that I walked away feeling good about myself,” Williams said.
KUAF news director Kyle Kellams spotted Williams talent and hired him at the public radio station in 1992. Williams then picked up overnight and weekend in work at 102 KISS, but within a year, he was offered the morning show on 92.1 KKEG.
Williams called his father to tell him the good news. His dad said it’s too bad he couldn’t take the job. Adding that Williams needed to finish school.
Williams replied, “I’m not asking permission; I’m calling to tell you I’m doing it.”
Williams has been on the air mornings in Northwest Arkansas practically ever since.
Kastner, a Hot Springs native, described himself as an only child who talked to himself as a kid and was born to do radio. His interest in broadcasting led him to take some technical classes in Little Rock, which help him learn to operate the board, but an opportunity as a guest host on Magic 105 confirmed his career path.
“Most of the guest hosts just introduced the songs,” Kastner said. “When I saw that board, I said I want to do this.”
The crew at the station was impressed with his talent.
Like Williams, part of the reason Kastner found his way to Fayetteville was athletics. However, he wasn’t planning to play; he was aiming to watch.
“The year before the Hogs won the national championship in basketball,” Kastner said. “I told my mom, I was going to go to all the games, and I did.”
Kastner’s talent also quickly got him work at KKEG. When Williams heard Kastner affecting a Robin Leach-like British accent for a Eureka Pizza ad, he was irate.
“I went to the programing director Dave Jackson, who is at The X now — we’re all still friends — and asked, ‘Who does this freaking clown think he is? He’s reading clients’ stuff in a voice. They’re going to be so mad.’ I just went off. I was stupid and didn’t get it.”
Jackson asked Williams to cool his jets, and added that Kastner was talented and that the bit was fun.
When Williams and Kastner actually met in person, Williams was also a bit perturbed. Kastner was more than an hour late for his shift after rolling his ankle playing basketball on campus.
“I was playing with some former Razorbacks, and Roger Crawford swatted my shot viciously on a lay-up attempt, Kastner said. “I came in on crutches late on a Sunday afternoon. Jon covered for me, and he wasn’t happy.”
However, as the two grew to know each other they began to appreciate each other’s talents.
“The more I was around Deek, the more I found that his motivation was to make people laugh,” Williams said. “After I figured that out and got to know him, I asked him to do what we called Torture Tuesday.”
Williams had Kastner do a number of wild stunts on air such as sunbathe at Fiesta Square in sub-freezing January weather, or interrupt a professor teaching a class in Kimpel Hall’s auditorium to get the students to Call the Hogs before a game with LSU.
While crazy stunts like those may be in the past, Kastner is still going for laughs. He’s honing material for a stand-up set with Williams’ and his wife Lexi’s encouragement.
“What he’s going to do with his stand-up — and his going to do it — is gong to be amazing,” Williams said. “Just to see how he processes information and material and how it comes out. It’s unique and real and funny. And it will never be the same act twice.”
Before he makes his debut, Kastner, who enjoys the work of Louis C.K., wants to make sure he is on point.
“I want to be fresh and real, nothing stale.” Kastner said. “I’ve been seeing all the big comics lately — Louis C.K., Jim Gaffigan, Seinfeld, and Kevin Hart. I’m honing the material. Doing local material, I could do five to seven minutes in my sleep, but I’m such a perfectionist. I want all the jokes to hit. That’s with stand-up and with what we do on the show.”