2004 flashback: Ryan Cameron profile right before he left Hot 107.9

Profile shot of Ryan Cameron in 2004. CREDIT: Ben Gray/AJC

This was published in the AJC Features front section by Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com on December 24 2004 about Ryan Cameron.

Those were the days when you could write an 80-inch profile in a Friday paper and there were photos taken by FOUR different AJC photographers, plus some by me!

Hot 107.9 morning host Ryan Cameron recently gave his audience insight into his life philosophy via a 24-year-old anecdote.

At age 15, he started as the weed puller at Taco Town on Cobb Parkway but soon became “king of the drive-through, ” he said.

When his boss asked him later to pull weeds again, Cameron refused — and quit. “I thought I was disrespected, ” he said, “made to go backwards.”

To this day, the 39-year-old Atlanta native has always strived to go forward. And that focus has paid off at Hot 107.9, where he’s become king of morning radio among 18- to 34-year-olds, where his ratings are up 30 percent since 2002.

Despite being on an inferior radio signal, Cameron is now competitive with Frank Ski on longtime urban station V-103. Few people thought this was possible eight years ago when he launched his show.

“I’m able to laugh in the face of those even in our own building who said it couldn’t be done, ” Cameron said.

With an average of about 217,000 listeners weekly, he’s in a strong position to negotiate a boost to his $500,000 annual salary. His three-year contract expires Dec. 31. But he hasn’t been able to close a new deal with Hot 107.9.

As a negotiating tactic, the radio station even took away his access card to its studios last week before he left for vacation; he is scheduled to be back on the mike Jan. 3.

Rashan Ali with Ryan Cameron at Hot 107.9. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Whether Cameron opts to stay put, go to a competitor or leave town, he has already made his mark in Atlanta as the clown prince of hip-hop, the hometown ambassador for a lifestyle that now dominates pop culture.

He was one of the first jocks in town to play rap at V-103 in the early ’90s. He introduced TLC to Atlanta. In 1996, he took over the morning slot at Atlanta’s first rap station, Hot 97.5 (now Hot 107.9), where he nurtured interns such as rapper Ludacris and MTV VJ LaLa. He rubbed shoulders with OutKast and Lil Jon before they were household names.

But he’s not a man who wears massive gold chains or carries a rap sheet. “Ryan gets love from the street, ” said Griff, a local comic who used to work on rival Ski’s show. “He talks in universal ghetto language, but he’s not ghetto at all.”

Cameron‘s show, which runs weekdays 6 to 10 a.m., is an on-air party, packed with hip-hop news and banter with listeners.

He recently spent an hour with callers debating whether Lil Jon should have gone on stage as Usher accepted a Billboard music award for his album, “Confessions.” (Lil Jon was a key player on the song, “Yeah!”) He traded laughs with hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari. He grilled Kilo Ali about why the rapper burned his house down while high on cocaine.

And he’s fanatical about serving listeners’ needs, running the same features for years because they serve as benchmarks for his time-pressed fans. The “Chris Tucker Rap, ” for instance, airs every day at 7 a.m. no matter what.

Cameron‘s got clout, too. When hip-hop mogul Dallas Austin needed to fill the Georgia Dome for his film “Drumline” in 2001, he went on Cameron‘s show. The result: 60,000 people showed over two days.

On air, he’s a cheerful goof, mixing smart-street talk and laughs. His humor turns perfectly on timing, delivery and inflection.

But don’t be deceived. Cameron is a serious, driven man who carries the weight of being a role model.

“Every time I do something, every time I say something, ” he said, “I’m representing black fathers, black men.”

He regularly makes school appearances for Another Way Out, a mentoring program, and has his own charity foundation.

His BlackBerry and cellphone are constantly in action. (The ring tone when his agent calls: “The Hallelujah Chorus.”) One day after his show ends at 10 a.m., he gabs with a TV station about Bill Cosby, works out, inhales a roasted turkey sub from Subway, holds a pep talk for at-risk kids, then meets with Hawks management about his gig as public address man at Philips Arena.

By late afternoon, he gets home, kisses his wife, Kysha, and plops his 15-month-old son, Cayden, in his lap. His Mableton home is stylish but not extravagant, filled with abstract paintings, Victorian-style furniture and a basement packed with boy toys: a home theater, coin-op video arcade games and pinball machines.

He plays Ms. Pac-Man and gets a Coke for his 3-year-old daughter, Kai, from the bar. (He also has shared custody of a 6-year-old daughter, Ryan Megan, from a prior relationship.) His wife won’t let the fidgety Cameron answer his phone during dinner. But he is a sponge for news, watching plenty of Fox and local news for material.

Cameron is as demanding on his staff as he is on himself. He’s gone through three producers and is on his fourth round of co-hosts, both of whom he selected in an “American Idol” style competition in 2002. Neither C.J. Simpson nor Rashan Ali had any professional radio experience.

“I tell everybody that if I can do my job, they can do their job, ” he said. “Then we won’t have a problem. Certain people get it. Some don’t.”

Ludacris got a dose of Cameron‘s perfectionism as an intern in the late 1990s.

“I used to get yelled at all the time for little stuff, like I didn’t have a song in the right order, ” Ludacris said. “Something minor. But he was adamant about certain things. Mainly, when the team messes up, that’s him messing up. And he is determined not to mess up.”

Cameron‘s parents were teens who he said conceived him on their first date. His grandparents raised him in the Bankhead area until age 7, when his mom took him to a mostly white Cobb County neighborhood.

He was the first black student elected senior class president at Campbell High School but never graduated from State University of West Georgia, where he admitted partying too much. He got his first break auditioning for “Showtime at the Apollo” in Harlem. But the cocky, wannabe standup comic tried an untested joke, wiggling his butt to the audience. No Jim Carrey, he bombed.

“I still have the videotape, ” Cameron said. “I had time to recover, but I froze.” That horrifying experience of being swept off the Apollo stage didn’t lead to stardom.

“Every time I do something, every time I say something, I’m representing black fathers, black men,” says Ryan Cameron, who recently spent time with at Westlake High (above and below), signing autographs and urging students to avoid lives of crime. CREDIT: Jenni Girtman

Instead, he worked at Blockbuster Video, making $13,500 a year. Then at a comedy competition on Labor Day 1990, he met Mike Roberts, top-rated morning host at V-103. He asked Roberts, who now owns a station in Macon, about internships.

“Meet me Tuesday at 10 a.m., ” Roberts said. Cameron arrived three hours late. Too late, he figured, but he caught Roberts in the elevator. Roberts liked him enough to still give him the internship. “I almost blew a big opportunity there, ” Cameron said. “I learned. You can mess up once, but don’t do it again.”

The ambitious intern soon became a fill-in jock on weekends and overnights. To get used to talking on the radio, he taped a picture of his grandmother to the console as a sounding board.

A year later, Cameron auditioned for a full-time night jock slot for $23,000 a year.

“He was terrible, ” said Mary Catherine Sneed, a V-103 vice president at the time and now chief operating officer of Radio One, owner of Hot 107.9. But he was the best of those who auditioned and given the slot temporarily.

With the pressure off, Sneed said, he was amazing. Within a week, he got the job.

“I was ‘Ryan Cameron — locked inside your radio, ‘ ” he said. “I was getting 40 percent of the teens.” His song, “It’s Ya Burfday, ” became his calling card.

Four years later, in 1995, Sneed launched Hot, Atlanta’s first hip-hop station, hiring Cameron as morning man. Playing the underdog, Cameron worked every promotion he could from club openings to car dealerships. “We needed the advertisers. We overpromoted. We had to make it clear that they needed us, ” Cameron said.

But early on, he faced a personal hurdle. In 1997, a former co-worker sued Cameron and the station, accusing him of harassment. The two sides settled out of court. As part of the settlement, Cameron cannot comment.

Unscathed, Cameron pressed on, and his hard work paid off. He’s now beaten V-103’s Ski in three of the last five quarterly Arbitron ratings periods among 18- to 34-year-olds.

Cameron has become more family-focused since he married Kysha four years ago. He also maintains a firm friendship with his oldest daughter’s mom, Dionne Battle, a Snellville-based financial consultant, whom he was briefly engaged to in 1990 but never married.

“Things weren’t always as smooth, but everybody has adjusted, ” Battle said. “You come to one of Ryan‘s parties, and you can’t tell who is related to whom. Our goal is to be the best parents for our daughter.”

Ryan Cameron, working out at Lee Haney’s gym in City Hall East, is striving for a healthier lifestyle. He’s lost two close friends and three grandparents in the past two years. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Cameron today doesn’t do clubs much anymore. He’s joined the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund board. He even plays golf — and loves it.

But on air, he has managed to keep the teens interested while drawing more 35 year olds into the mix.

“I love how he can do hip-hop but is very articulate, ” said Sherry Moore, a 35-year-old CPA and longtime fan.

Cameron keeps a tight circle of friends and family, a circle that has gotten smaller the past two years as two close buddies and three grandparents died. As a result, he has committed himself to a healthier lifestyle because of his family’s medical history.

The No. 1 morning DJ also lends his skills as the Hawks’ public address man. CREDIT: Laura Noel/ajc.com

Akini Jeffrey, a former producer, said one day a year ago really sticks in his mind: when the normally controlled Cameron found out he had beaten V-103 for the first time. “He really got emotional, kind of broke down, ” Jeffrey said.

Cameron said he was thinking of his late grandmother, the one whose picture he kept on the V-103 console 12 years earlier. “She always told me I could do it, ” he said. “I wish she had been there to experience it.”

— Staff writer Sonia Murray contributed to this article.


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