Date of Interview: 09/02/2011
As one of the United States’ most-successful radio personalities, Russ Parr has cultivated a reputable entertainment brand over the past two decades. To date, his nationally syndicated radio show covers 24 markets and reaches 3.2 million listeners. Since 1996, the revolutionary partnership between Radio One and the Russ Parr Morning Show has redefined the style, pace and influence of contemporary “urban” broadcasts.
Capitalizing on his cultural capital, Russ Parr has expanded his media empire into the world of cinema. His most-recent project, 35 and Ticking, features cast members such as Kevin Hart, Meagan Good and Tamala Jones. With the release of Parr’s forthcoming theatrical feature, The Under Shepherd, Russ will continue to establish himself as one of Hollywood’s premiere “triple-threats”: writer, director and executive producer.
During a promotional campaign for the DVD release – September 13, 2011 – of 35 and Ticking, Russ Parr managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his early years as a stand-up comedian, the evolution of “urban” radio, and the professional lessons he learned in Hollywood.
Clayton Perry: When you look back over the past two decades, what do you consider to be your greatest contribution to the industry as a radio pioneer?
Russ Parr: One issue that I have worked to bring attention to is the eradication of domestic abuse, which is something that I don’t think I’m known for it , but I have spent many years trying to bring as much attention as possible to this issue. It kind of started for me back when I was working in Los Angeles – decades ago. I used to get phone calls from young girls that were getting beat up by their boyfriends. From the very beginning of my career, it has been a major personal cause.
Clayton Perry: Most people tend to think of radio as merely a source for entertainment. Is there a particular guiding philosophy that made you use and capitalize upon this platform as a tool for social mobility and uplift?
Russ Parr: Sometimes you’ve got to do what you don’t want to do in order to do what you want to do. And I kind of live by that, even to this day. I love my job, but sometimes you’ve got to put up with some crap to get some sugar. And that lesson has been at work throughout my career.
Clayton Perry: What do you consider to be the greatest obstacle that you had to overcome in achieving success and having longevity in the radio business?
Russ Parr: Before I made my start in radio, I used to do stand-up comedy. That has to be the roughest job in the world! [laughing] In a way, it’s like you strip yourself naked onstage every night. One night you kill, and the next night you’re being booed. And it’s kind of a rough business. And I think it prepared me for the career that I have now. You look at criticism, you look at people that don’t want to see you do well. It doesn’t phase me because I went through the worst of it just being up onstage, and living and dying every night. That was one of the roughest jobs that I’ve ever had to do, and got very little money to do it. But it did open the doors for me. It gave me an opportunity to further my career. I didn’t really have a lot of radio experience beforehand. I used to drive up to L.A. from Central California and listen to a lot of the wild pop radio. You know, Dr. Donald Rose, and guys up at KFRC in San Francisco. They used to do like really crazy comedy stuff with bells and whistles, sound effects. I didn’t invent it—but no one was doing it when I was doing it. So I kind of stole that concept and made it urban. I’d be on the radio and it would sound like six people were on the radio because I had all these different sound effects going and all that whole nine. So, I think I might have revolutionized, just a little bit, or one of the revolutionaries in bringing a brand of comedy to urban radio.
Clayton Perry: When you look back over the past two decades, in particular the labeling of certain stations as “urban radio,” what has been the biggest – or unexpected – change in the industry?
Russ Parr: Back in the day, they wanted to control your content. They always fell actually in music-intensified stations like what I’ve always worked on. They always wanted us to kind of dumb down our conversations. They didn’t really want us to engage an audience if it’s about an issue that affects all of us. I was fortunate to have bosses who embraced me having a point of view and taking a chance on losing our listeners because they didn’t like my position. And to this day, I’ve always engaged an audience in topics that affect our community. And that wasn’t something that we used to do with that. It was like play it safe. Don’t say anything that’s going to piss anybody off. So, I think that has changed. I think the other thing is that radio has become less gut and more research. I think that kind of hurt. Now we’ve got to go test this record to make sure we can play it heavy. Back in the day, you don’t research. You go with your gut. You say: “Wow, that record sounds hot. I’m going to play it.” Now you’ve got to go send it out to some organization and they’ll play the hook for somebody over the phone for fifteen seconds testing whether they like it or not. You’ve got one or two people controlling the whole sound of the country. And that’s how it would look to me.
Clayton Perry: Throughout the course of your career, is there a defining moment in which you went against research and followed your gut instead?
Russ Parr: I’m really proud that I have been able to be a trendsetter. There is a double standard in our business, putting women in the focal point. I have been blessed to be able to give several individuals positions that they rarely would have been hired. Almost everybody that I’ve ever worked with on my show started off as one of my interns. I made it a point to share the knowledge that I had with people and teach them what I knew. If you work hard, you deserve an opportunity to get a shot at being on the radio. If I need a different voice or whatever, I’ll put you on. That has always been my thing. I’ve often had people tell me: “You’ll just put anybody on. That’s unprofessional.” But that’s how a lot of people became big stars. Somebody gave them a shot. And I’m very secure with my ability to be able to share my knowledge and to just pass on or give somebody part of your punch line. I don’t need that. I don’t have an ego like that. And that’s my big thing for me, is I think ego just kills so many careers, and that’s something that I refuse to allow to make decisions for me.
Clayton Perry: It’s hard to imagine how you managed to balance all of the responsibilities that come with the various hats that you wear in a single day. After looking at your recent press release for your film project, 35 and Ticking, which you also wrote, produced and directed, how did you manage to find time for this second passion? And since the project deals with life, love and marriage, what lessons from the movie have been influential within your own life.
Russ Parr: Well, I think the best thing is that I stay consistent with everybody. In my marriage. With my children. I believe that my kids don’t have to guess what’s coming next, or my wife, or people I work with. I try to stay as consistent as possible. I’m not all over the place. And it’s not difficult to wear so many different hats because I have a very supportive wife. And my kids. I think one of the biggest things that’s always bothered me in my entire life is I’ve always worked morning radio and I never could see them off to school. And I’ve got one in college, I’ve got one just ready to go to college and I got one in high school. And that was something that always troubled me. But I think that because I was consistent and I remained there as a constant in their lives, I learned to say it’s okay because they turned out to be pretty good citizens. But one of the big things for me with the movies, it’s the same kind of thing. I have one rule. And my rule is no one is allowed to yell at anybody. That’s the same rule that I have when I’m working on the radio. No grandstanding. Because I think it’s counterproductive. It slows things down. We shot 35 and Ticking in fifteen days. And I financed the whole movie myself. Sold the house and used the profits to make it. You can’t have people at odds if you’ve got fifteen days to shoot something. So that’s a rule that I hold dear. We had ten people we let go that violated the rule on too many occasions. You get tired. I don’t care if you’re a grip, makeup, costumes, set designer, actor. That rule applies to everybody. And that’s the record I want in Hollywood. Like when you go on a Russ Parr set, you have a good time and you’re never humiliated. I don’t believe in directing by committee unless it’s a large scene and it’s a lot of people involved. I direct per individual, because everybody has to be treated differently. And I can speak personally to these people instead of yelling at them from across the room: “What are you doing?” We have so many people that can be demolished, and you don’t want to demolish or crush an actor in front of their peers. You just don’t do that. But I take a different approach to directing. And I’ve been around directors, man, that just lose it, go off, humiliate people. And that’s the last thing I would expect for you to hear about me from anybody. Because after all, I worked with damn near everybody in Hollywood.
Clayton Perry: Did you experience a steep learning curve, or did this new love seem to be second nature?
Russ Parr: Oh man, I’m still learning because that’s how it will affect the other thing. I don’t care if you’re the director or you’re an intern. If you see me doing something and I yell, “Cut,” and they’re like, “Hey, have you ever thought about trying this?” I’ll take anybody’s idea. I take them from my son, from my daughter, my wife. I’ll take an idea. Some of them I don’t use and some are, “Wow,” or it will spawn another idea. You got to let everybody do part of the process. And that’s not kiss everybody’s butt and make everybody say, “Hey, this is one, big, happy family,” because there are going to be some beefs. We just deal with those privately. But I want everybody to feel like they’re part of the project. I don’t know everything. I have a learning experience every movie I do. You know the basics. You know what you want out of a performance. I just finished wrapping a movie called The Under Shepherd with Isaiah Washington. I learned stuff from him, as well as other members of the cast and crew. When people develop the wrong mindset: “Oh, I am the director and I don’t have to listen to anybody.” That’s when you start to fail, when you refuse to listen to other people, their opinions and suggestions. That’s a fact.
Clayton Perry: That’s a life lesson just for everybody, no matter what position they have in life. Having been a comedian, which in certain respects is similar to being an actor on a stage, when did you realize that you had that skill for impersonations? Have you ever shared any of your impersonations face-to-face with any of the individuals you have impersonated?
Russ Parr: Oh, yeah, yeah. Magic Johnson. I never knew I could do voices. I worked with guys like Steve Woods, who passed away a few years ago at 58, at KDAY. And he taught me. He said, “Hey, you’re this person.” And I would go home and look at that person and even take their facial expressions, and that’s how I would come up with doing voices. I never knew I could do them. And also, the phone line disguises. You keep telling somebody it’s Magic Johnson on the phone… After a while, it’s Magic Johnson. Used to do Chick Hearn and Michael Cooper and all those cats back in the day with the L.A. Lakers. But for the most part, man, it’s like you don’t know you can do something until you try. The only thing I can say to you is no.
Clayton Perry: Is there a particular impersonation that was really hard for you to master that you spent a lot of time trying to master?
Russ Parr: You know, I used to do Ronald Reagan, when he was the governor of California. You know, you’d just shake your head like him. “Well, there you go again.” And it’s just a matter of hearing and seeing the face. But for years I did Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson and all these different characters. It wasn’t something that I could do up on stage live because I actually used the tone of the phone line to hide the imperfections in the character’s voice, which I still do to this day when I do characters. I don’t really do many characters anymore. I hired other people that can do like 50 Cent or whoever. But I don’t even have to do everything anymore. But I think radio really prepared me for directing. I mean, I’m a graduate from Cal State Northridge with a degree in radio and television, but I think I was always looking for a director to direct my first movie. And a lady I’ve worked with for years, Bridgette, said: “You’re the best director I know.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You direct every day doing the radio.” And I thought about it and said, “You’re right. You’re right. I’d been out of L.A. for a long time and pulled some resources together and did my own directing.”
Clayton Perry: In an attempt to bring awareness to issues of your heart that you are unable to normally share with the public, is there a particular message that you would like to share with your listening audience and the general public?
Russ Parr: I think that it is really important for people, especially black folks, to open their minds to other artists, other directors, other people that can tell stories. From a business perspective, I don’t think people realize that just because you may not like one black film, if you refuse to go to that film, other films will not be made. In Hollywood, black films are put into the same box. Right now, we have to be in the Tyler Perry box. I respect Tyler. I’m not going to knock on his hustle. He’s made money with what he’s doing. But there’s so many other black directors and so many other stories out there that are not getting told because they are not given the opportunity. Some people think there is victory in saying that they are not going to support a project in order to uphold the moral standard of the black community. But the lesson that I mentioned earlier still hold true: sometimes we’ve got to do what we don’t want to do until we can do what we want to do. That model holds true for Hollywood, too. People have to go out and support black films and black artists!