2016 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
Growing up in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Cleveland, Dee Perry’s family owned a TV like everyone else. But the student at Charles Dickens Elementary School, Alexander Hamilton Junior High, and then John F. Kennedy High School treasured lying on the floor next to the radio, absorbing the stories and dramas delivered over the airwaves.
“The disc jockeys seemed like personal friends, and there was a community connection that I didn’t get from early TV,” recalls the host of “The Sound of Applause” on WCPN. “So that’s what became engrained in my DNA.”
Working as a firefighter and a nurse, respectively, her stepfather, a veteran of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, enjoyed painting watercolors, and her mother loved to sing and took painting and drawing classes at Karamu House in their precious free time. They also fostered a love of reading in Dee, which enabled her to imagine herself pursuing many artistic endeavors as an adult.
After spending five years in New York, Dee enrolled at Cleveland State University, where the late Chris Colombi taught her to appreciate a music she thought she hated: jazz. When she graduated in 1981, she leveraged her radio leanings and newfound music appreciation with her BA in Communications to land a gig as a daytime jazz host on WABQ AM in Cleveland.
Desiring to do more than just spin records back-to-back, she occasionally brought in poets, writers and musicians to interview on-air. “My very first job taught me how to put a show together, find information about artists, and tell stories about them,” she says.
From there, she moved on to WZAK, which sent her to a radio station they acquired in Atlanta for a few years. In 1989, Dee came home, needing something new to rekindle her ardor for radio. That soon arrived in the form of WCPN 90.3 FM, Cleveland’s public radio station. Hired as an early morning host to do news and traffic, Dee quickly moved into hosting mid-day and weekend jazz programs.
Then, Kit Jensen, Chief Operating Officer, asked her to take on a weekday talk show called “Around Noon” in December 1996. Dee spent the next 20 years forging her position as a Cleveland broadcasting icon. The show continued to evolve as the city’s premier arts, culture and entertainment forum. Currently, she hosts and produces 90.3’s two hour daily magazine talk show, Here and Now featuring The Sound of Applause, which combines arts, culture, news, and current events. In 2001, again at Jensen’s behest, Dee took over as host and producer of Applause, WVIZ/PBS’ half-hour weekly television series also devoted to arts and culture.
“It’s been a learning process over the last 20 years of just how much was going on in the community and how many talented, creative people we have here,” Dee says. “The more I discovered people, the more excited I got about who’s the next fascinating person we can feature?”
And let’s talk about that trademark voice, that mellifluous sound that engages and comforts listeners, and that her co-producer, Dave DeOreo considers “one of the best voices in radio.” She’s had it since fifth grade, but she didn’t consider it an asset because, well, it was her mother’s voice. So similar was their sound that on the phone they often confused each other’s friends.
All these years later, though, after learning to inflect range, drama and theatricality, Dee realized the power her voice carries. “I knew I could change the way people heard or understood something,” she says. “So I have to use this tool for good in the community.”
“The personality that you spend your time with on the air is the same person that I spend time with putting the show together.” DeOreo reveals of the affable on-air broadcaster, who also is known for her in-depth research about her subjects. “Her personality really shines through.”
Having interviewed more than 10,000 people for the past two decades, including one of her favorites, the late Robert Bergman, Dee has decided it’s time to put down the headphones in August. But she promises she will still do special projects for ideastream, and we’ll be seeing more of her artwork in writing, preferably for the theater, and her beloved photography.
“Pretty much all of the arts that I’ve ever talked about on the radio I want to try at least once,” she says. “So for me the next phase is to continue talking about art, but also to make time to make it.”