Who had bigger shoes to fill: Bill Guthridge or Aaron Keck? OK, so maybe that’s not fair to Keck, given Guthridge had the hugely unenviable task of filling the shoes once worn by legendary UNC Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith. But Keck is faced with the daunting job of filling the vacancy left by Ron Stutts, for 40 plus years the voice of 97.9 The Hill.
“It’s a challenge and I’m also excited about it at the same time,” Aaron Keck said. “Ron is just such an icon in the community and that’s been the case for decades, and only continued to be more and more of the case as he went on in his career. I always tell people that Ron is very much like the Johnny Carson of Chapel Hill. If I can be the Jay Leno, I’m good with that.”
Stutts retired from WCHL in December 2020 after 43 years. His was the voice many of his listeners woke up to for decades. Once the The Hill came to terms with Stutts’ departure, Keck, who has been with the station for 10 years and hosted the Aaron Keck show in the afternoon, seemed like the logical choice.
Keck sat down with the News of Orange County to talk about what will change and what remain the same on the morning show at WCHL The Hill.
NEWS OF Orange County: How did you get your start at WCHL?
AARON KECK: I started in September of 2010, and my first day on the job was just working in the newsroom as a writer with the idea that I would eventually start going on air and hosting the evening newscast. But that came a little bit later. My first day on the job was literally the day after the NCAA investigators arrived in Chapel Hill to begin investigating UNC football. So, that was the start of my tenure and I always said that my last day would be the day after the NCAA investigation was over. And then it ended and I was still here so I guess I’m in it for the long haul now.
NOC: Were you always interested in a career in radio?
AK: I had a journalism internship in 2000 and that was literally my only journalism experience before I came here. My background is academia actually. I got a PhD. from Rutgers and I came down here in 2008. I lucked into a postdoc at Duke. I almost didn’t even apply for it because I knew there’s no way I’m getting that. I’m sending out 30 other applications, I might as well make it 31. And then I got it. In 2010, my contract at Duke was expiring, and I had fallen in love with the area. The job market in academia was terrible because it was 2010 and the absolute low point of the recession. I had started doing comedy improv at DSI Comedy in Carrboro. They did this piece every weekday morning on Ron’s show called DSEyewitness News, which was Saturday Night Live Weekend Update, but local, like all local headlines, local character bits and everything. I’d started writing for them and then I got to be the head writer for that pretty quickly. I was coming into the station and doing that pretty regularly. My contract was up at Duke and I was looking for something to do to stay around this area. One of my friends, Molly Stillman, who also wrote and performed with that piece, said I should apply for a job at WCHL. They were looking for a news director. I sent in an application and they immediately thought it was a joke. All they knew me from was comedy. Then they Googled me and saw that I had a decent background. The station hired a news director from within, but then they hired me to take over that position. A year later, I was the news director and also hosting the evening news.
NOC: Do you anticipate any major changes to the morning show?
AK: We’re kind of picking up the ball where Ron left off. We had a good format for the show. We spent several weeks in conversations about what the format of the new show set should be. On one level we were kind of conceiving it as if we were starting with a blank slate and building a whole new show from scratch. On another level, we knew we had a good thing going with the format that we had with Ron’s show. People liked it so we used that as our as our basis, and made little tweaks. Over the years of hosting the afternoon show and being news director, I have gotten to be pretty good at interviews. So, we built in some more time for on-air interviews. Ron had a little bit more time for music because he comes to radio from a music background, and I come at it from a poli sci background. We’ve got a couple of new features, but for the most part, the format is pretty much the same. One interesting call that we that got in the first week of the show was from someone who was disappointed because his favorite feature was the trivia quiz, in which you call in and answer the trivia question and win a gift card to Cruisers. Ron always did that at 6:50 in the morning. This guy called in and was like, “I’m really disappointed that you’re not doing that anymore.” We were, like, “No, we’re doing, but we’re doing it at 8:50 a.m.” That’s the one little tweak that we made. We kept the same feature, but just like those little changes. The fact that people responded that way shows people really loved Ron, loved his show and woke up with him every morning. So the more we can keep that ball going, the better.
NOC: How has the response been?
AK: Part of the challenge is that apprehension of ‘are people just going to stop listening when when Ron leaves?’ That first week was a little bit nerve wracking because I didn’t get a flood of comments. But then, the second week I started getting more and in the third week I started getting more. We’re getting more and more calls for that trivia quiz. We’re starting to pick up calls in that. The interesting thing, just in terms of doing this in the middle of a pandemic because it’s not just that people are changing their listening habits because the longtime morning host is gone. A lot of people listen on their way to work, which isn’t happening as much. How are habits changing? Back in August or September, when I was still on the afternoon show, we hadn’t done any call-in contests in a while. Our show generally wasn’t a listener call-in and go on the air kind of thing. Every so often we would do calling contests, but we hadn’t since before the pandemic began. In the back of my mind I’m like, ‘are people listening?’ Because I’m looking at the traffic map and I can see there aren’t any cars on the roads. So, what are people’s listening habits? When we did that call-in for the first time in months, I didn’t know if we were gonna get any calls. And then we got the exact same response that we always got. Because people can stream us now they can stream it from home and they can listen on their phones, they can do whatever they want. That’s really reassuring. Every single time we tweak the format in any way, we kind of build this expectation that we’ll get a negative response from a certain percentage of people who really liked the thing that we just got rid of. I say that because we did not get a flood of negative calls when I started the show in that first week, and that was a really good feeling.
NOC: Did you ever expect that you’d be in this type of position.
AK: Expect? No. Hope? Yes. In 2010, when I found myself switching careers without even really being aware of it, there were a few people in my life who were older than me, but still working at the peak of their careers. Some of them were at Duke, like the Chair of the Poli Sci Department at Duke University, which is as high level as it gets when you’re in academia. I saw them and I saw the impact that they had on the people around them and the impact they had on their profession. And then I had an opportunity to see Ron and the impact he had on the people around him, in the community and the impact he had on the profession, and on a certain level I looked at all of those people and I said, “I think Ron actually is having the bigger impact here. I think he’s making the biggest difference.” I made a conscious decision to try to follow in those footsteps as opposed to the other footsteps that I had the opportunity to follow. So, the fact that I’m here now, like, I appreciate the the opportunity. I’m happy that I got here and I really feel lucky that I came here, too.