[upbeat music] - Guitars, music, and Memphis.
We're in the art studio with Ron Olson.
We're talking about painting, radio in his hometown.
I'm George Larrimore.
Join me for a Conversation with Ron Olson.
[upbeat rock music continues] - So, Joe Birch.
- With the Rotary Club invited you to speak.
- And then, he's invited me to introduce you.
- So I'm trying to figure out what you're gonna talk about so I don't say-- - You pretty much know the stories.
- I do know the stories.
[Ron laughs] I know all of the stories.
Maybe once a year you tell a story I've never heard, 'cause I've known you a long time.
- Yes, rare.
- So, but I'm gonna introduce you.
And I thought I might start out with in my introduction, who is Ron Olson?
- We'll find out.
[Karen laughs] - From 6 to 10 AM weekday mornings, people wake up and go to work with Ron Olson and his on air partner, Karen Perrin, on 104.5 "The River".
- Good morning, it's 7:57, Ron and Karen.
It's a Tuesday, looking pretty good outside today.
- [knocks on table] It's not bad at all.
- Digging it, baby.
Time to take a deep breath, Karen, - Ron's been a familiar radio presence in his hometown market for more than four decades, with a career that's earned him a place in the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.
Over the years, some of his on-air exploits ha ve become the stuff of legend.
- So we said the pandas had escaped near Christian Brothers.
So we had people dressed in big panda costumes, thank you Barry Lincoln.
And we had 'em dressed in panda costumes running all around the interstate - You know when you go - Around the interstate - By Walnut Grove.
- With that big field there.
So we asked people, if you see 'em to please call in a report, if you see 'em.
And so these two guys in panda things are running across the field where you could clearly see 'em.
People are going crazy, "I just saw 'em, [Karen laughs] "They're about a hundred yards behind the school and they're running!"
[laughs] - It was pretty funny.
- But perhaps the most essential long-term relationship in Ron's life is his marriage and family with his wife Vicki.
- Basically Ron will tell you it was love at first sight for him.
And for me.
- And you were married six-- - Six months later, we were married, yes.
So, you know, we weren't spring chickens, we weren't really young and we just knew, and it went really quick, and that's worked out well for us.
- You spotted in him at that moment that he was, I believe you described as spontaneous.
- He was, he was very spontaneous and I think he liked the fact that I knew a little bit about radio and, "Okay, wow, she might actually understand me."
- I'll tell you this, this is what most people may or may not know.
Without Vicki, there would be no Ron.
Please know that.
- These days Vicki Olson is supporting Ron in his latest role as a creative visual artist.
His music and Memphis themed artwork are seen not only in private sales and charity auctions, but also in some of the city's top collections and public spaces.
Now, how do you feel about the art career?
[Vicki laughs] What did you think about that?
Were you okay with it when he said he wanted to try it?
- Well, I'm okay with it.
Ron is so brave and just has so much more guts than I do.
I mean, to just put yourself out there in a totally something opposite of what you do normally and ask the public, what do y'all think about this?
I don't have that kind of, you know, that is some self-confidence.
I think I have a lot of self-confidence.
But Ron is just, he is just really, he likes that he's good with the craft.
He's at home on stage and presenting himself.
Whereas I would be a little more withdrawn, like if I started art late in life and putting it out.
And by the way, would you like to buy it?
[laughs] But actually I love my new career.
I'm helping him reproduce it and sell it, and had no idea I was gonna have this job.
- I caught up with Ron Olson in his home studio where he's been working on some recent commissions.
You have been on the radio for a long time.
- I have.
[laughs] - How did you figure out that you could do this?
That you could be a painter?
- Boy, I tell you what, you know what, I'll tell you the funny story is, it's something I always wanted to do in the back of my mind, but never really pursued it.
And I love the freedom it gives you when you paint and everything.
So a friend of mine owned a David's Frame Shop and still does over on Poplar, across from East High School.
And I would go by, 'cause he frames all the really good artists that are in Memphis.
I mean everybody knows David.
So I'd go by there periodically and I'd go back in the back of his shop and I would look at different art that was there and I was real curious about how they did this and that.
And I'd ask him questions about how did they do this particular, the look on an art piece.
Then I started to ask him, how much does this one go for?
And he'd say, that's $3000.
I'm like, $3000?
Okay, and what about this one?
And this one over here, that's $1500.
And I'm like, you know, I think I can do this.
- Getting more attractive all the time.
- It was getting attractive 'cause I had this vision of money being stacked up like this.
And so I got inspired by David and then I got in an art group.
He told me to go out and buy supplies.
He said, just start doing something.
So I did and it was like, a tree, and then there might have been like the church in the valley thing with the red roof and stuff that you've seen a thousand times before.
And then I actually got in with an art group and went to the Botanic Gardens, and Linda Hill, who was the art curator for Methodist, was out there.
She came up and told me, she said, "I just bought three of your pieces."
I'm like, you've got to be kidding me.
- We ran into her at Le Bonheur just the other day.
And she's still talking about you.
- Well, she was like the real spark and the catalyst that kind of got me going into it, and I love it.
I just, I enjoy every, if I'm in this room painting, all your troubles seem to go away and it's fun.
I think radio for the longest time was a real creative outlet for me.
And that's kind of changed a little bit.
It's still creative, but not like it was years ago.
So this is a way for me to be creative 'cause of the connection to the music.
And you'll notice that a lot of my art has guitars in it.
And to me that's symbolic of the city of Memphis.
I think if there was one image besides the bridge or the Pyramid, that the guitar would be prominent because of the history that the city has and also the love of the word Memphis all around the world.
I mean, it's pretty special.
- I mean, how many, what, seven hundred songs with the word Memphis in the title?
- There's no other city comes close to that.
And I've tried to paint every one of those titles into a picture.
If I don't, I'll eventually get to 700.
How did it feel the first time you had a show or first time you displayed, you've had all the stuff you've been working on in your studio, and then now, you've gotta put it out there for somebody to see.
- It's nerve wracking because it's like you're putting your soul up on the wall there.
And it took me a long time to really get over.
One of my favorite stories I've told Vicki before is that I invited myself to a show at St. George's and I didn't realize how the whole process worked.
And they had all these really great artists coming in for their big art show.
So I'd lugged my stuff over there and I thought, oh, this will be cool.
And then they hung it for me and I went back to the show that night and I walked in, and I looked around at some of the art, and there's one piece in particular of a moose, but it looked like a real moose.
Like you could have fed the moose.
And I think it was like $7000 or $8000.
So after I saw the moose, I walked back down where my stuff was and I pulled my name tag off and wadded it up, and Vicki's like, what are you doing?
I said, I'm going home.
I said this, I gotta get my game.
It's got to be upped big time.
I can't compete with the moose.
I said, but before I go though, I'm gonna go get some free meatballs, and you answer questions, I'm going home.
So after that I thought, okay, if you're gonna get in this game, you better get in it and go.
And that was kind of another spark to let's get serious about the painting.
I'm gonna come back to the sort of commercial side of it in a second, but, your paintings are in a lot of private collections in people's homes, et cetera.
But you also, we were at Le Bonheur as I mentioned earlier, that we were over there the other day and you have paintings in a family waiting room.
And there are other, that's for them.
That's for people to enjoy and to relax in difficult circumstances.
You also contribute to a lot of nonprofits to let them raise money off of your work.
How does that happen?
- They generally contact you, and I love that part of it.
- But it's something you want to do?
And don't go crazy, [laughs] but I do, if somebody, there's a lot of regular auctions, art auctions and stuff and so if you can give 'em an original piece or a print or whatever and it helps them raise money, like, I know for Make-A-Wish we've done some paintings for them in the past where they sold for like $16,000, and other pieces, you might get $500 here or there or in any kind of auction.
But it all adds up and it's just a great way to help, and you don't have to necessarily write a check, but I'd be glad to give them an original piece and it makes a difference.
- Vicki was telling me a few minutes ago, and I didn't realize this, but you've got a couple of pieces in the entrance to the Mayor's Office.
- You've got pieces, We were in a retail store the other day and there's a huge display of your stuff, so you're well known.
- Well, we're getting that way.
- Did you expect that?
- No, I did not.
Again, it goes back to it's just something you do because you're passionate about it and it's kind of like a hobby and I just, I can't tell you how much I love it and I would encourage other people to give it a shot.
You gotta get the push and get going and it works, it's fun.
- Now Vicki was saying that she thought that this is connected possibly to the way you used to be.
You would carry a camera around and take pictures, that images appeal to you.
And y'all have been together all time.
- Still do.
I love that.
- And so is there is a connection between those things?
- Yes, the photography thing is one of the other things that I love doing, I love all that.
I would love to be able to do the clay stuff with your hands and make things.
And I think about the ornamental metal museum downtown.
I would love to go down there and learn how to weld and do some art in that form.
So, I think about it all the time.
- If you don't mind, I'd like to, you're one of the great storytellers I've ever met.
You've got a story [Ron chuckles] for every occasion, but I want to try to talk about the biggest piece you've ever painted because you told me this story and I love it.
So you met this couple who had bought a house and I'm gonna tell part of it to make it little simpler.
But this couple bought a house on the bluff overlooking the river.
And you went down, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of discussion about what you were going to do.
Then you saw the view of the house and all of a sudden, it clicked with this Chuck Berry song.
- It did, it was because this house is located between the two bridges on the bluff, just spectacular view of the river.
And I think one afternoon, 'cause I was starting to try to figure out what I was gonna do.
This is a big mural kind of inside the home.
And so, for some reason we were listening to "Memphis" by Johnny Rivers and there's a line in the song it goes, "Her home is on the southside high upon the ridge just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge."
so I say, stop, wait a minute.
This house is exactly a half mile from the bridge.
And I said, this is what they were writing about.
So I incorporated that, the lyrics on the wall to that song.
So when everybody came over and they saw the mural, there was a story that went with the painting.
Same thing with, I custom made four guitars that went on the wall.
Then there was the numbers, I think it was 2032 or something like that, big numbers.
And again, somebody's gonna say, what's the significance of the numbers?
And I said, that's the length of the Mississippi River, which is right outside your front door here.
And so it was kind of a fun thing to do.
It was great.
I loved it.
- Now this house has a new owner, and for privacy reason we're not gonna divulge who the new owner is, but let's just say he wears really large shoes.
- He does.
[laughs] - Now tell me about radio, let's talk about radio now.
Your dad got you, in a sense, hooked on radio.
- Yeah, he was, his whole life, in the World War II, he was an electronics guy.
My dad used to try to teach me morse code when we were kids.
During the war he was a radio operator on several aircraft carriers and sub hunter.
And he was like Indiana Jones.
But his electronic skills that when I was in a kid going to bed at night, I would listen to the radio and it was always, the radio was turned up.
He had to get up every night, come in, turn the radio off and so we could go to bed.
So he finally bought me a system, a radio thing that he put in the wall above my bed with an earpiece where I could listen to stations all over the country, and then he wouldn't have to get up and come in there anymore.
So he was inspirational in a lot of ways that you didn't realize.
And I remember one day he made a radio out of a soap bottle with some copper wire, and it actually worked, and I'm like, so he was pretty smart about all that stuff, and he was an inspiration for sure.
- Now you've been in radio a long time.
Number of different radio stations in Memphis.
Do you still love it?
- Oh yeah.
I love it, it's great.
- What's the difference now, is radio is important as it was?
- Well, it's all changed a little bit.
When I first got into it, it was pretty wide open.
I mean, I'm talking about all the things you could do that you literally cannot do now, legally.
And we took advantage of every loophole there was.
And had fun.
I remember one of my favorite program directors, the guys that kind of run the stations, one in particular, his big deal, instead of coming in and asking me why I did this or didn't do that, he would come in and say, he'd simply say, "Did did you have fun today?"
And I said, "Yeah, we did."
He goes, "Good, 'cause that comes out over the speakers.
So that should be your mission, go in there and have fun."
- I want to ask you, you were notorious for pranks.
There was one in which you said that the pandas that had just recently been acquired by the zoo had escaped and you had gotten two guys to dress up in pandas suits and people saw them.
So you actually did that?
- Now there was another one where you told everybody they needed to turn in their $20 bills, because in a couple of months, they weren't gonna be any good anymore.
- You did that.
- That was pandemonium, yes.
- Okay, so now there's the story about the president of the United States and the richest man in the world.
And we're talking about the first President Bush, who is in fact going to Arkansas to visit with Sam Walton.
- So you have someone on your staff who does a dead on George Bush impersonation.
- So what happens then?
- So we thought it would be funny if we called Bentonville knowing that my partner Preston Davis does a great George Bush.
So we thought we'd call the office in Bentonville just to see if we can get Sam on the phone.
Which is, for us it was like this Super Bowl time, if we can get this done.
So we call the Walmart office in Bentonville, and this receptionist answers the phone.
And I told her, I said, "This is Secret Service "Agent Johnson calling on behalf of the president.
"President would like to talk to Sam if possible "before we get on Air Force One and come to Bentonville to visit you."
And she goes, "Oh, he's not here, but would you like his home phone number?"
And I'm like, "Yes ma'am, we would.
That would be excellent."
So, of course we hang up the phone, we're laughing so hard that she gave us the phone number.
So we go, okay, here we go.
So we call the phone number and this other guy, gruff-sounding guy answers the phone, "Hello?"
And I'm like, same thing, "This is Agent Johnson, president would like to talk to Mr. Walton if possible."
And he goes, "Yes sir, hold on sir, I'll go get him."
And then a few minutes later, Sam Walton picks up the phone, "Hello, Mr.
And Preston is just doing this George Bush and they're going back and forth, "Hey Sam, how are you, Sam?
Looking forward to come and see you today."
"Yes, sir, Mr. President, yes sir, yes sir, yes sir."
And so Preston says, well, "We wonder if you could do Barbara a favor."
And he goes, what does she?
"She needs a couple hog hats.
Can you give us a couple of those plastic hog hats 'cause we really love those things."
[laughs] And so he said, "Yes sir, we'll have hog hats.
You'll be covered on it."
And then, just before he hung up, Preston says, "Sam, why don't we call the hogs together?
So here's Sam Walton who is getting up in age and he's going, "Sooie, sooie, sooie!"
And then President Bush is with him going, "Sooie, sooie!
La la la, it's hysterical.
Then, then we hang up, "We'll see you a little bit."
So then, we're laughing so hard that I'm like, okay, before we play, normally we would just play it on the air and not worry about it, so I said, let's think about this.
- So this was not on the air live.
- No, this was pre-recorded.
So I said, we're dealing with the richest man in the world.
If we humiliate him or embarrass him in any way, he'll come after us, like, he'll crush us like [blows raspberry] - And the President of the United States.
- Yes, the whole package.
So I called the phone number back and I asked, the guy answers the phone, but I turned into the DJ thing.
I said, "Hey, this is Ron Olson calling from FM 100 "in Memphis and we've got a guy here that does a great impersonation of President Bush."
And then there was a pause, and all I heard was, in as mean a voice as you could be, those words like, "Don't even think about it."
And I'm like, "That's why I called you.
That's why I called you back, just wanna make sure."
And so we hung up and we never played the bit.
And I always think that had we played it, I would've been fired and sued, but I would've been working in Denver or Los Angeles who they would've, let's go get that crazy dude that did the phone call thing.
- That's the way it works.
- It worked out for the best, it was funny.
- There are days, you said this to me the other day, that there are days in radio where you do things that you're not trained for.
9/11 is one.
- The day Elvis died is another, the day a Memphis police officer was killed and there was an outpouring of emotion in the community.
We've had a lot of that lately, with the death of Eliza Fletcher and Tyre Nichols.
How do you know what your audience expects of you when you go to work that morning?
- Well, that's a good question.
I think you just have to be... the thing that I've learned is you be honest with what's going on.
I have no problem saying what I think about things and I'm pretty tenderhearted.
It doesn't take much to get me going.
But in situations like that, like the 9/11 thing, that was, like you said, you're not trained for any of this stuff.
Or even in the death of Elvis Presley, I was on the air when he died, and stuff comes outta left field.
So, there's no way to train for it.
You had to be real and be honest.
And that's what you gotta do.
'Cause I kid around and joke about a lot of stuff and most of the time people don't know whether I'm lying or not.
But when there's moments like that, you just, you address it and deal with it.
- And you are a guy who's kind of got, in a way, sort of got two marriages.
You have your wife Vicki, [Ron laughs] whom you've been married to for 40 something years.
And you have Karen Perrin, your partner in the morning.
- ♪ Ron and Steve and Karen on my way ♪ - What's it like in a partnership on the radio in the morning with somebody that you've known as long as you've known?
- Oh, it's great.
It's like I was telling somebody the other day, she's just, she really gets me.
She likes all my humor and stuff.
But we work together so well and I love her.
I mean, she's the best partner I've ever had, 'cause it's so easy, and I wish you could hear the stuff that goes on off the air.
- There's the seven foot rule you mentioned.
- Seven foot rule that we respect, that we don't, we talk about things that I probably wouldn't talk about even with Vicki, or, and we clearly understand that it stays in this room and doesn't go on the air.
And so I'm real comfortable with her and she's real comfortable with me, which is the secret to having a on-air good relationship.
I mean, it's magical, it's pretty cool.
- It sounds like a good marriage too.
- Oh, it is.
- The way that marriage works.
- It is, it really is.
And we complain about our marriages to each other a lot.
[laughs] - But you've been together 40 years with Vicki, so.
- That's right.
- All right, we got a couple of minutes left.
And I want to, this has gone by so fast.
It's been such a pleasure.
You mentioned to me again, we were talking a few weeks ago and you said someone in your past in radio had told you, you were asking sort of, what am I supposed to do?
And this guy told you that you need to sort of wake up every day with the notion that you're gonna do something for your community.
- Yeah, yeah.
I think that's the secret.
And he was telling me that, and this is from Kidd Kraddick in Dallas, Texas, and I always thought Kidd had this great following and all this kind of stuff, and I'm like, he's not doing anything that we're not doing.
And I asked him, "What's your secret to this thing?"
And he said, "Care for your community."
And he said they'll remember that a lot longer than they remember winning a car, or $20,000, whatever.
They remember the things that you do for the community.
And it's almost like, you go back locally, you look at what WDIA has done over the years.
I mean, their whole thing was take care of the community from the get-go.
And they blazed a trail in that type of stuff.
I believe it in a hundred percent.
It's not just selling ad vertising, which is important, but I think it's also every chance you get to make a difference in the community, and I'm serious about it, that's what you should do.
- It seems to me, again, you've been doing this for a long time.
I would guess that you doubted in the early days that you would still be on radio at this point.
But do you feel extraordinarily lucky at the end of the day?
- Yeah, I used to have a friend of mine who worked with one of the radio guys, he'd always ask me, "What's your next plan?
What's your plan B?
What are you gonna do?"
And I'm like, "I don't have a plan B, I do not have a plan B."
And I love doing radio and always had, and I have been really lucky and fortunate to work with all the different partners that I've had, the general managers, the program directors, it's almost like it's a parade.
Instead of being in the parade, you're watching the parade as the parade of people go by and the parade of partners go by and you're still kind of in the same spot.
I suppose there have been opportunities to go other places and do things, but I love Memphis and I always have, and always got my burial plot already picked out.
So I'll be buried here.
- You're here for the duration.
- I am here for the duration.
[laughs] - We appreciate you.
We really enjoyed that.
- Thank you, George.
- Thank you so much, Ron Olson, being with us today.
And thank you for watching here on WKNO A Conversation with Ron Olson.
We've really enjoyed it.
We appreciate you being here.
We appreciate WKNO making this possible.
We'll see you next time.
[upbeat rock music] [acoustic guitar chords]