Originally posted Sunday, September 16, 2018 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Sean Demery, the quirky music impresario who helped launch rock station 99X in Atlanta in 1992 as music director, has passed away eight months after suffering a massive stroke. He was 60.
Demery had been most recently program director and afternoon host at a Portland rock station 101.9/KINK-FM. According to Ramp247, a site for music and radio pros, he died in Salt Lake City surrounded by family.
Steve Craig, current morning host at Atlanta classic hits station 97.1/The River and long-time mid-day host at 99X, worked with Demery at the station from 1992 to 1999 and during Demery’s brief stint as morning host in 2006-07. He reported the unfortunate news on Facebook Saturday night.
“Words cannot adequately express the love & gratitude I have for Sean Demery. For 40 years, he's been my best friend, best man, mentor, career counselor, confidant and so much more. He taught me what unconditional friendship really is.”
Craig said on Saturday that Demery “peacefully passed away this afternoon surrounded by family, and in the company of friends and colleagues.”
“Radio was his passion, and his life was a 500,000 watt signal that reverberated in your soul. Rest well, my friend and I'll see you on the B side,” he added.
Jimmy Baron, part of the iconic Morning X show for 99X, said Demery was a key reason why he came to the station in 1993.
“Sean was an icon in the modern rock radio business and the industry is devastated. But even more devastated are the individuals with whom he closely worked over his long career, because we know that the world has not just lost a radio legend, but a loving, caring, beautiful friend who put a smile on the face of every person he ever touched with a corny joke told through that big dumb megaphone.”
In an interview Sunday morning, Baron said Demery was part of a family of 99Xers from the early years who were bound by the station itself, from management and sales to on-air staff. He said Demery was only the second major 99X player to pass away from that time, following creative director and voice imaging guy Keith Eubanks. “It makes us all remember how privileged we were to have experienced such a magical thing together,” he said.
Demery made decisions at 99X for the greater good, Baron said. For instance, in 1994, he realized Steve Barnes would make a better morning host than him. So he swapped with Barnes for a less prestigious afternoon gig. “He was the ultimate team player,” Baron said. “There were a lot of people in Sean’s position whose egos would not have allowed them to move from mornings to afternoons. But Sean realized that was the best move for the station.”
Along with Leslie Fram and Rick Stacy, Demery (known on air at the time as “Shotgun” Sean) were working on a struggling top 40 station called Power 99 in the fall of 1992. Management had given them permission to shift the music more rock to reflect the changing scene as Nirvana and Pearl Jam were becoming hot.
Just as the station was about the make a shift, Demery and Stacy at the last second went rogue and basically dumped the top 40 format completely without official management clearance.
“I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for the 10,000 faxes and phone calls we received in the first weeks of that change, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today,” Demery said in 1999 to the publication “Virtually Alternative.” “We were trying to create a radio station that was outside of anyone’s category. We never paid to attention to if it was right. It just was.”
Demery helped turn 99X into a hugely successful station in the 1990s, a ground-breaking blend of Gen-X insouciance, goofiness, sophistication and musical diversity which cemented loyalty among its listeners.
Brian Philips, program director during 99X’s formative years into its heyday, loved having his office next to Demery’s. They’d overhear each other’s conversation and bust each other’s chops all day. “It was like one long comic riff,” he mused.
And as his boss, Philips said Demery made his life super easy. “In a world where everyone had some affectations you shrug and put up with because they’re talented, he was a good-natured, well-rounded human being who happened to be able to flip on the genius switch when he hit the control room,” Philips said. “That’s what Atlanta got.”
He said Demery was like a “young Andy Rooney contrarian on air. He’d go into his high range for comic effect. He introduced people to new music, made you laugh and think and most importantly, he made you feel like you weren’t alone. He had that great one-on-one gift on the radio. He was able to gather all the facets of his personality and make special moments with fans and friends and musicians and colleagues.”
Melissa Carter, who joined 99X in 1995 and was a news reader for the Morning X for several years, had nothing but admiration for Demery’s creativity, intelligence and natural talent on the air. “His radio bits never felt forced,” she said, “no matter how ridiculous... like when he gave birth on the air. Behind the scenes he was kind and supportive, not only of me but everyone at 99X. There was pure love at that station of music and the listeners who enjoyed it with us. He was a big part of that.”
Yvonne Monet, who was hired by Demery after she pitched a weekend dance show to him in 1992 while working at Blockbuster, said in a Facebook post that his cleverness “always challenged me to be better. I was always so nervous in my air check meetings because he was so good and I wanted to impress him. My heart hurts for his wife [Jennifer] and family and friends. But it also smiles for all the people that he influenced through his music and spirit. Thank you, Sean Demery.”
99X lost its mojo in the 2000s and effectively died in 2008 despite various incarnations since. (It’s currently off the air on 98.9 due to a signal dispute.) But its legacy remains.
As Demery wrote in a blog in 2008, “playing new music, moving forward, building the new music culture for the moment, that was our mantra. The programming staff picked music and mindset for the station and the jocks cleanly rendered their version of the overall station philosophy. This was a dream job for any jock who wanted an open canvas to paint and not a ‘paint by numbers’ gig.”
Rob Jenners, who worked with Demery during his brief morning show stint at 99X in 2006 and 2007 that Demery himself admitted didn’t quite work, wrote on Facebook that “it’s no secret Sean Demery and I butted heads on the air. We had different ideas and different approaches to morning radio. But he remained the nicest and brightest guy in the room all the while. He laughed at our stupid jokes, knew everyone’s name, and genuinely cared about you and your family. He had a unique way of connecting with everyone. All said, he was just a great person. So sad to hear the news of his passing. The room is a little less bright today.”
After his brain-stem stroke January 20, Demery could not breathe on his own and was paralyzed. He could only communicate through a device using his eyes. A GoFundMe site raised nearly $80,000 to help defray medical expenses. The only good news was he was mentally okay. But despite hope that he’d improve physically, that didn’t happen.
Fram, part of the Morning X and a program director at the station, visited him earlier this year and in a Facebook reminiscence directed to Demery wrote that “your eyes communicated your sharp wit and humor - laughing over photos of our 90’s hair, Steve Craig’s long hair, our first time meeting Dave Grohl, your pranks with Brian Phillips, the Swinging Velveeta Lounge, the time you brought an 18-piece orchestra (Brian Setzer) into your small control room, how you always backed me up in the craziest of situations...”
“Here's a collective toast to the one person who changed my life for the better, changed radio, a true risk-taker, creative soul and loving friend, husband and believer in ALWAYS doing the right thing. I love you my friend,” wrote Fram, who is now senior vice president of music strategy for CMT.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.