Comforting, well-balanced, and disarming aren’t the adjectives you’d usually use to describe a morning DJ, but Matt McAllister – the number-one radio personality in Santa Barbara – is all of the above. As the front man and mastermind behind 99.9 KTYD’s The Early Show, which airs every weekday from 5-10 a.m., he’s a complex man made up of calculated and unconscious contradictions. On-air, he cracks crude jokes and pushes the masculine buck, while off-air, he’s emceeing nonprofit functions up and down the coast and genuinely caring for the town where we live. What’s not so complex – but what makes his competing sides co-exist beautifully – is that Matt McAllister is the undisputed funniest person in Santa Barbara.
The palpable chemistry of The Early Show is rooted in its characters, which include Matt, his sidekick Hayseed, and the weather/news straight man/gal Julie Ramos. Their rapport is so strong that you feel as if you’re participating in a chat with close friends when tuning in. It’s a well-constructed relationship- indeed, the finest example of McAllister’s blend of cunning and care – because they each represent one side of everyone’s psyche.
Matt McAllister is the ego, the executive that finds equilibrium between primitive drives such as bathroom humor, his grounded morals, and a strong sense of community and loyalty to his listeners. Hayseed is the id, the irreverent wildcard that asks the questions we’re all thinking but wouldn’t dare utter. Julie is the super ego, the voice of conscience and the one who keeps them all in check. And then there’s the producer, Joe Wallace, another McAllister pick-up, who occasionally chimes in for extra spice. It’s this mysterious alchemy that’s bewitched Santa Barbara’s radio audience for years now.
But this brand of interconnectedness – which relies on a multitude of voices when most morning shows in Santa Barbara and beyond simply use two DJs – didn’t happen overnight. It took eight years for McAllister to create his “dream team.”
“I had an idea what I wanted from the beginning and it was a matter of finding the right people to do that,” said McAllister. “I think this town has a lot of DJs that are on the air … it’s a person or two persons or whatever, but it’s not really a show. My vision from the beginning was to really have a show, and that’s what has made us successful.”
The Ego Meeting Matt McAllister, 34, is a bit shocking. So many smooth radio voices conjure up images of good-looking men and women, only to disappoint when the DJ is seen in person. Not Matt – he sounds zany, speaking with a mischievous tone that’s part frat boy and part Adam Sandler, peppered by random outbursts of simulated anger. So you don’t expect much by way of looks, but then when you see him, he’s movie-star attractive ,blonde with piercing blue eyes and more than six feet tall. How can somebody so goofy be so handsome?
A few mornings ago, McAllister was broadcasting from the sidewalk in front of KTYD headquarters on East Cota Street. As he and Hayseed dropped Mentos into a liter of Diet Coke to see how high the explosion would go, there was a genuine joy in his voice as he described what was happening to his listeners. Like a little kid relishing his “scientific” research, McAllister’s buoyancy -which came across the radio waves loud and clear – was infectious. It’s that obvious love for what he does that is the key to his popularity.
It’s also his refreshing openness – listeners know a lot about Matt’s private life since he chats about it on the air. “My wife will tell you,” he gleefully admitted, “I’m my own favorite topic.” His spouse, Barbara, even phones in once in a while. And his two daughters, Emma and Lilly, aren’t spared the broadcasted attention either.
But most of The Early Show‘s humorous banter derives from McAllister’s self-deprecation, which he mixes with mock-male posturing. Thus, we know both that he drools on the pillow when he sleeps and that he watches lots of sports at home, to his wife’s chagrin.
McAllister was born in Paris, France, where his father was stationed for awhile as a Time magazine correspondent. When he was 6 years old, his parents split up, and he went to live with his mom in Kansas City, Missouri. He graduated from Ohio’s Denison University, where he played rugby and lived in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house, where he developed a lot of his sense of humor.
After graduation, he drove to San Diego looking for surf and nice weather. Instead, he found a career in radio. He got a job answering phones for the afternoon DJ at STAR 100.7 FM. He loved it so much that he’d show up for work three hours early to soak up the atmosphere. Eventually, he got hired full-time and became the third wheel of a unique, new program, which made quite an impression.” Primarily they just talked more than shows that played a lot of music, and honestly I like the talk,” recalled McAllister. “I like people to talk. I like listening to what’s going on. I didn’t even care what they were talking about, as long as they were talking.”
As tends to happen in the tumultuous radio business, McAllister and his co-DJs got fired and they moved to a competing radio station. A year later, the station changed formats, but JCore, the company that owned his contract, offered him a position at KTYD, a sister station in Santa Barbara. When they asked him to go checkout S.B., McAllister remembered “it was two days before I got married to Barbara.”
His Santa Barbara show started very basic. “It started with me,” said McAllister. “One microphone and I did everything because that’s the way it always was around here.” Later, he added Mike Creek as the newsman and then, knowing he needed a female voice, he hired Taylor Morgan. But the chemistry wasn’t there, so he brought an old friend from San Diego, Mike Costa. But still, McAllister explained, “as funny as Mike and Taylor were and as talented as they both still are, we had too many personality conflicts. We had trouble getting along, all three of us.” So Costa and Morgan went their own way, as did Jenna McCarthy, Morgan’s replacement, who left to start a family. So McAllister, once again, found himself having to start all over.
But as fate would have it, a homeless man named Hayseed showed up at the station.
The ID “Oh yeah, I was living on the streets,” said an enthusiastic Hayseed. “I had a big red bag, had about a week’s worth of clothes, and whatever I needed. I slept on park benches. I slept at the ocean. My whole time before here was pretty wild.”
Christopher “Hayseed” Foster, 35, is a gentle giant whose unkempt appearance seems like he just rolled out of that park bench bed. But the most peculiar thing about him is his voice: high pitched, nasally, and whiny, as if he just took a hit off a helium balloon. It lends an innocence that’s priceless and endearing.
Hayseed was homeless by choice. “I had money,” he clarified. “IfI needed to stay at a hotel room I could. I just was intrigued. …Believe me – it was not the smartest thing I ever did.”
He’d heard on the radio that KTYD was looking for an intern, and impulsively Hayseed showed up at a radio party that Matt was hosting at SOhO. “Matt took one look at me,” recalled Hayseed, “and at the time, I had a flannel shirt, jeans, hat backwards, longhair, unshaven – like I am right now. And he looked at me and goes,‘You’re the one.’ He just said, ‘You’re the one.'”
Just like that? “Hayseed was funny,” said McAllister. “Not so much what he said, but I just thought he was funny, kind of like a Kramer. He was choosing to live in his car, which I thought was great, and I thought it would just sound really funny to have a guy on the air that was living in his car and would come in every day and help out.” No doubt, many in high-priced S.B. could relate.
So audiences fell in love with Hayseed. His debut gig was living on top of the Eyeglass Factory on Milpas Street, a publicity stunt developed by McAllister and KTYD to help businesses that were struggling during construction of the roundabout. Having Hayseed live in a tent atop a prominent corner would draw attention to the area, thought McAllister, explaining, “That turned out to be, to this day, one of the best things we ever did.” Starting at dawn every weekday, Hayseed would broadcast live from the top of the building, waving at cars and visitors below. “It was the coldest time,” said Hayseed. “I mean, my hands froze up there.” Not only did it help Eastside businesses, it evolved into a toy drive that ran from November through Christmas.
The Super Ego “I have several moments every single week, where I go, ‘How did I get here?'” exclaimed Julie Ramos, 26.It’s slight shows of insecurity like this that make her the perfect foil to the men of The Early Show. Her delivery of news and weather is not slick and polished like other stations and her professional tone has the right amount of vulnerability to make her sound real. “I look back at the past and the past isn’t linear,”she continued. “It’s so sporadic and so, almost schizophrenic. … I did not think that I would be in radio in Santa Barbara.”
Ramos’s mother, who died when Julie was young, was Mexican, and her father is Puerto Rican. She was raised in Sacramento by her Mexican grandparents, who didn’t speak English. She escaped to UCSB, studying dramatic arts at first, then psychology. After she got an internship at KJEE – the alt-music alternative to KTYD’s classic rock – she “just sort of started climbing the ladder. I started doing commercials and then they gave me my own program. “But after seven years, she was relegated to introducing records in unpopular time slots. When a position opened in KJEE’s morning show, she wasn’t even given the chance.
About that time, while Julie was on the air, McAllister called her request line and told her to check her email in 10 minutes. Skeptically, she went online, and found the email that would change her life dramatically: a job offer to join The Early Show.”I just liked the way she sounded,” explained McAllister. “She has a great voice.”
The Producer Joe Wallace, 24, is the producer. In the studio, he’s literally on the other side of a glass wall. He monitors the incoming and outgoing phone calls, and books and deals with all guests. During the five hours of the show, he’s inconstant communication with McAllister via instant messaging, feeding relevant information. Wallace also searches for those oddball stories that the crew keeps referring to during each episode. More crucially, he tracks down the protagonists of those stories and rounds them up for on-air interviews.
“There’s a certain genre of stories that we like to cover. Typically, they’re unusual predicaments that people find themselves in that don’t result in fatalities,” said Wallace, smirking. “So, somebody gets sucked into a septic tank, and they live to tell about it – that’s perfect.”
Wallace sounds and acts street smart – his arms display several tattoos, his dark eyes have a world-weariness to them. It’s not a show: A year-and-a-half after being hired by KTYD in 2001, he left on his own accord because of a drug addiction that created a deep rift between himself and McAllister. “Methamphetamine was my problem at the time,” he confessed. “We tried to work through it for a while, but I just couldn’t get my shit together and, frankly, I didn’t want to.”
Wallace’s addiction to meth got worse and he lost everything he owned. Then one day, as he was smoking his meth pipe, “It dawned on me that I couldn’t do it anymore.” With nowhere to turn, he moved in with his parents, who “were willing to let me stay on the couch until I could get on my feet again.” With their support, Wallace got clean and sober, and set about repairing the bridges he’d burned. “And there were a lot of them,” he admitted. “It’s like you just walk around with gasoline, and then you throw a match at the end.”
What Wallace wanted most in the world was to get back on The Early Show. “Matt had heard through the grapevine that I had cleaned up and I was doing better, and he was interested and he tested the waters,” Wallace recalled. Sure enough, McAllister gave Wallace the second chance he needed. Why? Part business, part benevolence, the mix that is Matt McAllister. “With Joe, I knew right away that that was a guy who had a lot of potential and a lot of smarts and a lot of tools that would help our show. I mean, as a producer, he’s perfect. He’s a little bit slimy. He’s streetsmart,” said McAllister, adding, poignantly, “Everybody screws up sometimes, and everybody deserves a second chance.”
The Early Show is consistently number one in the morning slot ratings, topping listener totals for every age group. Any given morning, almost every business on State Street, from Blenders in the Grass to the S.B. Bank & Trust, is listening tothe antics of Matt McAllister and his crew. They chat with everyone from rock star Kenny Loggins to the man who bowled for 48 hours straight, and debate everything from last night’s Bowl concert to next week’s pumpkin toss. The interviews that McAllister conducts with victims of the latest bizarre incident aren’t trite or condescending – they’re honest and on-point, as McAllister lets the story play out without too much commenting and cynicism. That’s because they’re like the rest of us, or as Julie Ramos put it, “We’re genuinely curious.”
It’s a formula that results in constant calls and nonstop emails from listeners on random topics. The whole town participates inThe Early Show, and, like the proud town crier, McAllister nicknames callers constantly, instantly creating more characters to love or hate. There’s J-Mac, Ken Beans, Dancin’ Diana, SoSo Cyn, Downtown Naked Lori, to name a small, small few.
“A lot of the nicknames are local nicknames about what little part of the city they live in,” said McAllister. “And, to me, I think it’s one of the things that makes the show about Santa Barbara, is that people call in … Pierpont Scott or La Conchita Matthew. You just know, right away when they call in, if they say La Conchita Matthew, then you kind of know what that dude’s all about. You know he lives in La Conchita, you know what he’s been through. It just gives them more meaning than just, ‘Hey, it’s Matthew.'”
And when it comes to horrible mudslides or post-office shootings, there’s no better coverage for Santa Barbara’s morning-radio listeners than The Early Show. McAllister and crew care about the community, and so they respond with touching respect and diligent reporting, something all too forgotten in the often callous, sensational media. But it goes further than that by becoming a reliable, open conduit for people to speak out and hear a comforting word. (And let’s not forget that they also helped organize a concert at the Arlington to benefit the families of La Conchita, not to mention regular support of such causes as CASA and Heal the Ocean.) It seems this radio man inherited the journalistic impulses of his magazine reporter dad. When bad things happen, McAllister wants the community to “know they can turn on KTYD, and we’re gonna be there, and we’re gonna make sense of it. We can tap our resources there, and we can kind of pull everybody together.”
No story about The Early Show would be complete without mentioning their wildly popular annual “Battle of the Burbs,” in which contestants from Oxnard to Buellton call in daily for one-on-one trivia contests. It goes on for months, leading up to a big finale. “People get fired up to kind of represent their little community,” said McAllister. “It’s insanely long. Sixty-four different neighborhoods in town, one match a day. I love it. We all love it.” It’s just another winner in a growing legacy of success.
“My vision, ; said McAllister, “was just to have a full-service morning show that was The Show in Santa Barbara that everybody listened to. In this town, if you look around, there’s one television station, there’s one daily newspaper. Well, since day one, I wanted to be the one station everybody listened to. It’s the way I still look at it. If I meet somebody and they don’t listen, I’m always wondering why. I’m like, ‘Come on, what do you mean?’ I’m working hard so that everybody in town will listen.”