Radio silence

The ‘Voice of Atlanta’ goes off the air,
but he’s not riding off into the sunset yet.

Ryan Cameron swears his decision to leave radio after 25 years was divine intervention.

On New Year’s Day, before he could announce his departure to the public, he had to tell his mother. He was already in the neighborhood, dining at Salt Factory Pub in Roswell, less than five miles away from her condo. Marolyn was channel-surfing when Cameron arrived; she left on the college football games when he talked.

Mom, I think I’m getting ready to leave this radio business, Cameron said.

Are you serious?

I’ve thought about it for a couple of years now. I just want to do something else, he said. Mom, you’re always looking for confirmation.

I know.

Let’s pray, Cameron said.

He will tell this story no less than three times in as many weeks, but he will later deny that last part.

Just then, his cellphone rang: a censored version of the reggae weed anthem “Come Around.”

Wanted to wish you a happy New Year, said the voice on the line. Cameron didn’t recognize Bishop Barbara Lewis King’s voice right away. He hadn’t attended her church, Hillside International Truth Center in Cascade Heights, in over a year. But her call wasn’t about his absence. No, for reasons that she cannot explain, King felt compelled to tell Cameron something she didn’t fully understand herself. Cameron kept popping up in her mind along with two words, as if some sort of prophecy.

Think global, she said.

It was all the confirmation he needed.

On Jan. 26, Cameron announced his departure during his morning show on V-103, where he has been a top-rated morning host for six years. True to his hip-hop roots, he closed his on-air statement with Jay Z’s “What More Could I Say,” which the arena rapper recorded when he announced his retirement in 2003.

As everyone knows, Jay Z returned from retirement. But the Emmy-winning, Georgia Hall of Famer could not stress this enough on air: He was finished with radio. But to be clear, he said, “I am not retiring — I am getting out of radio.”

Why would Cameron tell this story so many times? Because if you won’t take Cameron’s word that his next chapter has begun, he seemed to say, would you believe his pastor? What about God?

Cameron in his role as the Atlanta Hawks' public announcer in April 2015. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

As a teenager, Cameron experienced culture shock when his mother moved them from southwest Atlanta to the suburb of Smyrna. Contributed photo

Cameron was one of 14 black students in a class of 287 at Campbell High School in Smyrna. He graduated in 1983. Contributed photo

2

Personality perseveres

Cameron’s interest in radio began in the second grade. He had a speech impediment as a child, pronouncing his R’s as W’s, “rain” as “wayne,” so Marolyn enrolled him in a speech therapy program. Cameron did so well that once he graduated several weeks later, he was featured as a success story in a commercial for the program on Clark Atlanta’s jazz station WCLK 91.9. The initial satisfaction Ryan got from his radio debut was simply knowing that he could do it.

Cameron was born in Atlanta in 1965, the only child of Ronald Delanor and Marolyn. His parents were high school seniors at the time, so his paternal grandmother, Linnie Beatrice Cameron, took him into her Bankhead home and raised him during his early childhood. “Linnie B.” was a devout Baptist and consummate “spiritual healer.” She had Cameron doing volunteer work from the age of 7 when she brought him to soup kitchens.

“In the grocery store, I’d be the little kid trying to figure out how to sneak Cocoa Puffs into the car,” Cameron said. “Then I’d go looking for her, and she’d be over in the frozen food aisle, holding somebody’s hand, healing them.”

Now deceased, Ronald had dreams of being a chemical engineer. But Cameron’s memories of his father was seeing him wandering around drunk at the now-demolished Bowen Homes housing project and Checkers drive-in. Sometimes friends ran into him, too, telling Cameron, “Hey man, I gave your dad a dollar.”

“I don’t know what happened — I never got that story,” Cameron says. “But while I grew up, the only time I’d ever see him was when he was at his worst.”

The rest of Cameron’s family had very specific and sometimes dueling ideas for his future. His grandmother enrolled him in elementary school at Peyton Forest. His first day of school was a memorable one.

“I had a girlfriend on the first day. We were playing kickball and I got a home run.”

The very next day, Marolyn un-enrolled him and registered him at Harwell Elementary.

When Cameron got older, Marolyn thought he should join the U.S. Army like her father instead of going to college. He would join JROTC in high school, but after graduation he went to the University of West Georgia, thanks to an uncle who footed the bill.

But the single biggest factor that shaped Cameron’s youth was when Marolyn moved them both to Cobb County.

“I’m living in southwest Atlanta. We’re not engaging with any white people, at all,” he said. “Next thing you know, we up and move to freaking Smyrna.”

There, Cameron experienced racism for the first time. He got egged while walking along the street. At East Cobb Middle School, he saw a student wearing a T-shirt that said, “If God wanted (racial expletive) to ride Harley-Davidsons, he wouldn’t have made Hondas.”

“I go tell a teacher: ‘I don’t like his shirt.’ And she was like, ‘It’s just some T-shirt. Go sit down.’ For me to be able to remember it…” Cameron sighs. “That’s when I knew I was in the heart of it.”

Nevertheless, Cameron excelled at Campbell High, where he was one of 14 black students in a class of 300. He was elected the school’s first black senior class president, and it was just the beginning of firsts for him. Yet the month after he was elected, someone threw the Honda MB5 motorcycle his uncle gave him off a ravine after slashing its tires. Cameron still doesn’t know who did it. But he insists that whoever did tried to send him a message: “Don’t go thinking that you’re all that.”

Fortunately, Cameron figured out “personality perseveres.” Only he could pull off being both class president and class clown. As he grew older, he would understand how his personality could win folks over. How he could literally talk his way into a job and defy people’s expectations of him.

But first, he had to discover hip-hop. When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five arrived on the scene, it blew Cameron’s mind. He spent hours practicing the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” so he could rap it from memory at the school cafeteria. His first concert was Run-DMC at the Omni, and he wore cheap hollow chains in an effort to emulate Eric B with his solid gold Cuban links. He followed Ed Lover, the rapper and “Yo! MTV Raps” personality who rounded out hip-hop radio’s first morning drive team with Lisa G and Doctor Dré at New York’s Hot 97. That show’s party atmosphere, complete with live DJ mixes, had Cameron tuning in whenever he went to NYC.

“I’d never heard anything like that. It was just hip and fun.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but the seeds for his future were being planted.

Cameron works on his Ryan Cameron app at his Buckhead home, which is on the market for $1.3 million. Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Cameron works on his Ryan Cameron app at his Buckhead home, which is on the market for $1.3 million. Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

3

Saying goodbye

On his next to last day on air, “The Ryan Cameron Morning Show” visited K&K Soul Food in what V-103 called his farewell tour. Former co-host Rashan Ali stopped by. Universoul Circus dancers flanked the table. A listener gave him a black hoodie with his motto, “YACHT DREAMS,” on the front, which he pulled on immediately. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard awarded him a plaque that made him an honorary district attorney, to which Cameron said, “Is this good for one free felony?”

He wouldn’t tell listeners that K&K Soul Food is off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway.

“We’re still going to call [it] Bankhead,” he said.

That morning he reminisced on air about growing up on Atlanta’s west side and how much it had changed over the years. He talked about how Bankhead Highway was renamed Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in 1998 to rebrand the road’s blighted reputation as a high-crime area. He talked about the old K-Mart where he used to steal shoes. But he also talked about the Ryan Cameron Foundation, a nonprofit that helps empower youth and develop leadership skills. It had organized efforts to improve the area by planting vegetable gardens and cleaning a one-mile stretch north of K&K as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program.

Cameron gets a charge out of encouraging people to be their best and achieve their dreams. He should know. He started out majoring in broadcast, but dropped out of college after four-and-a-half years of partying.

“I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the grades,” he said.

But he didn’t let that stop him from achieving his goals. He got a job working at Blockbuster and was trying his hand at stand-up comedy. Mike Roberts, a prominent morning host at V-103, Atlanta’s top-rated station for decades, caught Cameron’s set one night at Fat Tuesday’s. He invited Cameron to come to the station to talk about a potential internship. Cameron showed up four hours late. Roberts hired him anyway. Cameron quit his job at Blockbuster to work in V-103’s mail room.

As an intern, Cameron also filled in on air nights and weekends for a year until he landed a temporary full-time night jock gig for $23,000. Things didn’t go so well at first.

“I don’t know who made the suggestion. I wish I could give them credit, but somebody said, ‘Talk to someone who is familiar in your life. Have a conversation with them on the radio.’ I had this picture of my grandmother, just a snapshot,” he said. “I put it up on the console and did my show every day.”

A week later he was given a permanent position.

In 1995, Cameron briefly left Atlanta when V-103 failed to renew his contract. After a stint with the District’s 93.9 WKYS-FM in Washington, he came back to Atlanta as the first morning host of Hot 97.5, Atlanta’s first hip-hop station. But he was more than that. He became the face of 97.5 when the station paid $25,000 to plaster his face on wrap-around advertisements for 60 MARTA buses. As part of his on-air team, he hired for his intern Chris Bridges, who would go on to host evenings and weekends under the moniker Chris Lova Lova before he became rapper, actor and restaurateur Ludacris.

Cameron’s distinctive on-air personality is rooted in his class clown/class president history. His silly side is apparent in his many theme songs. “It’s Ya Burfday” was inspired by a 2-year-old child and the way she wished him happy birthday one year. “The Chris Tucker Rap” is exactly that, the actor-comedian rapping, “I’m late for work, and get out my way / Lady, why you driving crazy?”

But Cameron was dead serious when it came to boosting Atlanta’s hip-hop scene to national prominence. He saw its potential, even though others hadn’t yet.

“There are people down in their basements every day coming up with new music, mixing and scratching like LL Cool J,” Cameron said in a 1993 interview. “But they don’t think people will take them seriously because they’re from here.”

Cameron helped introduce TLC and OutKast to the airwaves, along with predecessors Kilo Ali and Raheem the Dream. While other stations ignored Freaknik, the Atlanta University Center spring break celebration that became Atlanta’s most infamous street party, Cameron was reporting live, doing traffic reports from a helicopter hovering over the campuses and the Downtown Connector. In 2001, he collected 10,000 signatures supporting a frequency switch to 107.9, so that HOT could better reach the suburbs.

In 2005, V-103 lured Cameron back with an afternoon host gig with “morning show money,” said his agent. By 2012, Cameron was already thinking about leaving radio. But when V-103 morning show host Frank Ski left, V-103 offered Cameron the position. He couldn’t possibly say no. Not when the top-rated radio market like Atlanta was accustomed to flying in talent from elsewhere. Not when he would be the first Atlanta native to become morning host at V-103.

“I have done everything that I can do in this field,” he said when he announced his resignation in January. Radio used to be all he wanted to do. That changed when he realized that radio is all people have expected of him.

During his performance T.I., left, thanks Lil Jon, center, and Cameron, right, at Hot 107.9's Birthday Bash on June 19, 2004. Jenni Girtman/AJC file

Cameron at Hot 107.9 in 2004. Rodney Ho/AJC

Cameron with John Budenholzer, 9, the son of then Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer in April 2015. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Cameron with John Budenholzer, 9, the son of then Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer in April 2015. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Cameron greets former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins before tip off in 2015. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

4

Yacht dreams

Ryan Cameron first visited Fisher Island, Fla. a decade ago when he read about it in a travel brochure for Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an association of independent properties around the world. Located off the southern tip of Miami, Fisher Island has one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States. It also inspired one of Cameron’s favorite topics of conversation, his “yacht dreams.”

Cameron has returned to Fisher Island often. He has taken family there, and he has retreated there alone. He might sit at a cafe with a cappuccino to read The New York Times or sip a cocktail at the beach. His favorite view of the yachts that line the marina is from at La Trattoria pizzeria. Cameron rode a golf cart over to La Trattoria when he visited earlier this year. But as he often declares, one day he will arrive in his own yacht to grab a slice.

Cameron’s yacht dreams aren’t aspirations of wealth. Radio has already afforded him access to Fisher Island, just as it afforded him his $1.3 million house in Buckhead. Fisher Island can only be accessed by ferry from Miami Beach — unless visitors have a yacht, which means they can come and go as they please. To Cameron, “yacht dreams” means having even more control and autonomy than he already has.

“To anybody else working every day, they would say, ‘You’re crazy. This is the greatest living ever,” he says of his radio career. “But it’s not yacht living. It’s comfortable living. It’s a beautiful living. But it’s not yet living if you’re still an employee. To have a yacht dream is be able to go out there and realize your potential. Bet on yourself and then double down. You can’t do that as an employee.”

Cameron didn’t know it at the time, but meeting Peter Sorckoff in 2003 was the beginning of the end of his radio career. Sorckoff had produced games for Atlanta’s new hockey team, the Thrashers, for four years. Then his employer Turner Broadcasting asked him to oversee Hawks games instead.

The job had its challenges. The Hawks only ranked 16th in the Eastern Conference. Sorckoff’s first task was to boost morale. Sorckoff’s solution: Make Cameron the Hawks public announcer. Cameron was already hosting contests between plays. Sorckoff predicted Cameron could shift the tone of Hawks games in this more central role. His goofball humor lightened the mood immediately. His trademark “for three” chant has since been immortalized in the NBA 2K17 video game.

Cameron quickly became Sorckoff’s “cultural advisor.” When Sorckoff hired organist Sir Foster, Cameron suggested songs he should play — not hockey staples like “The Mexican Hat Dance,” but T.I.’s “Bring Em Out.” When Sorckoff wanted to feature acts like Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris as halftime performers, he relied on Cameron’s Rolodex. When former Hawks owner Bruce Levenson owned up to a 2012 email wondering whether “the black crowd scared away the whites,” Sorckoff conferred with Cameron.

“He was very generous with his time, in explaining to me why people were as hurt as they were,” Sorckoff says. “As a white guy from Canada, I hadn’t grown up with that. You can think you’re sympathizing or empathizing, but until someone takes you through the wayback machine, you can’t get what it really meant.”

For his part, Cameron says Sorckoff is a kindred spirit. One day he showed me a bar graph to prove it: the results of a moral foundations theory test, measuring how people prioritize morality. It shows whether someone values things like compassion over sanctity, or loyalty over liberty. No less than four times throughout the course of our conversations for this story, Cameron said that he and Sorckoff scored highly on all five of the test’s categories. Somehow, they are both the rare type who feels strongly that each of these values are of the utmost importance.

They also came to realize they were at similar career stages. In 2016 Sorckoff launched his branding firm Rakanter (pronounced “raconteur”). He had been itching to start something new. The month before Cameron’s V-103 contract expired, he began consulting Sorckoff for advice, but Sorckoff mistakenly thought Cameron wanted legal advice.

Dude, I don’t think you get it, Cameron said.

On New Year’s Day, they tried again. They met at Salt Factory in Roswell, and Cameron said he wanted to join Rakanter.

You know I don’t have a lot of money, right? Sorckoff said.

That’s not why I want to do it, Cameron said.

Cameron joined Sorckoff’s firm as a partner. Their clients include AT&T, Coca-Cola and the Australian rugby team.

Cameron’s average workday seems far less glamorous than hosting a morning show. He attends marketing conferences. He guides individual clients — athletes, media personalities — through media tours, where they knock out four to five TV interviews in a single day, and he orders coffee and Waffle House for them to refuel. Meetings also eat up his day.

“The very first day I went to work, we had a conference call with a company about to do a re-brand,” he said. “I used to be like, ‘Peter didn’t return my text, what the hell?’ But then I sat on a conference call for five hours. He was like, ‘You see?’” But the hours are better, considering his days in radio started at 3 a.m. Now, “the day don’t ever start until 10 a.m,” he said.

Marketing is an industry that still struggles with diversity, and that is something Cameron is eager to rectify.

When he decided to join Rakanter, he had a recent publicity crisis in mind. Clothing store H&M started an uproar when it posted a photograph on its website of a black child modeling a hoodie emblazoned with the words, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” As part of damage control, the corporation hired a diversity officer.

Working for Rakanter “is gonna be my way of making sure that H&M does not have the ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ shirts,” Camerson said on air.

Elton John (from left), Cameron and Atlanta entrepreneur and restaurateur Farshid Arshid at Jermaine Dupri's birthday party at the Woodruff Arts Center in 1998. AJC file

Elton John (from left), Cameron and Atlanta entrepreneur and restaurateur Farshid Arshid at Jermaine Dupri's birthday party at the Woodruff Arts Center in 1998. AJC file

5

‘I was being censored’

Each time Cameron explained his departure from radio, he listed the same reasons. He felt restless, he saw a new career opportunity and then he receive a call from his pastor as confirmation. He also complained on air about the current state of radio and how, in his opinion, it had devolved to “clickbait, gossip, rumors, innuendo.”

Cameron had one more gripe to air out. Given his stature within greater Atlanta, Cameron established a rapport with the city’s political elite. He regularly booked interviews with mayors Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed.

But as a radio personality, Cameron operates under an FCC rule requiring TV and radio stations give equal air time to political candidates. By 2017, he was chafing against that restriction and wanting to be vocal on air about the Atlanta mayoral election.

“The biggest regret that I have in my last year was during the mayoral race,” he said. “I said to people who were in very high positions that we have to stand behind Keisha Lance Bottoms because of what she means to this city and what it means to the people that she’s native. She looks like me. She’s from here, like Kasim was. ‘We have to take a stand because it’s going to be too close,’ I said. They said, ‘No. You have to remain neutral.’ Why are you remaining neutral on something this pivotal on this city? They wouldn’t budge. It was the one moment where I wish I said what I really felt.”

During the campaign, he moderated a mayoral forum co-hosted by V-103 and WAOK. Before it started, Bottoms approached him, asking for his support.

“I was like, ‘They won’t let me,’” he said. “The look on her face — I was like, oh no. I know that resonated.”

Cameron has seen his influence play out on the hip-hop airwaves, through the work done by his foundation and during Hawks games. He looks forward to being more politically outspoken during his next chapter.

“Luckily [Bottoms] won,” he said. “But I really owe that woman an apology. I feel like that I didn’t use my influence because I was being censored. At that point I was saying, ‘Do I still want to do this?’”

Cameron shares a laugh with his son Cayden, 14. Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

On his desk at Rakanter is a framed photo illustration of Cameron, with his children Ryan Megan Cameron (from left) , Kai Cameron and Cayden Cameron. Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

On his desk at Rakanter is a framed photo illustration of Cameron, with his children Ryan Megan Cameron (from left) , Kai Cameron and Cayden Cameron. Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Ryan Cameron speaks with a client during a meeting at Rakanter. Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

6

Moving forward

At Cameron’s Buckhead home, the black-and-white family portraits that used to hang in the foyer have been taken down. The main floor’s window treatments are also gone. The point, it seems, is to draw all attention to the 10-foot ceilings and the living room’s wall of windows — an unobscured view of the lush backyard. His house is on the market.

“The whole thing with the house is that there used to be four or five people in here,” he said. “It was a totally different house.”

Cameron’s career isn’t the only thing that’s changed for him this year. After 18 years of marriage, he’s newly single. He and his ex-wife, former radio sales executive Kysha Ferguson, met in 1995 when he worked at D.C.’s 93.9 WKYS. They married in 2000 and had two children, Cayden and Kai. He also has an older child, Ryan Megan, from a prior relationship.

Shortly after Cameron launched his titular foundation in 2002, Ferguson joined as CEO. The Legendary Awards, honoring Atlanta’s community leaders, recognized the couple’s efforts in 2015 with its Humanitarian Award. During his acceptance speech, Cameron said about Ferguson, “Even though she doesn’t get a lot of acclaim or accolades, her belief in kids and her belief in me is what sustains our family. It’s what sustains our organization. It’s what sustains me each and every day.”

Cameron doesn’t have that support now. He had avoided services at his church for the past year because of how uncomfortable he is with that fact. In part, he blames their work together on the foundation.

“I will always love Kysha,” Cameron says. “I just think that we gave it a real good effort and that we transformed from partners to roommates. A lot of that probably had to do with when we started working together, because she was running the foundation. And for a lot of people there is no way to separate the two. If you’re having a conversation about the organization, that is going to work into the home life as well, so you’re never off. That’s no fault of hers. But it was unfortunately avoidable. In whatever relationship that I go on to next, I have to not be distracted and be communicative. Because it’s hard to say that you listen for a living and then have someone accuse you of not listening.”

Meanwhile, Cameron is doubling down on his life’s missions. He has taken over Ferguson’s duties at the Foundation, with help from project manager Monique Rainey. The Ryan Cameron Foundation, he said, will be his greatest legacy. He still remembers what the University of West Georgia’s deferment window looks like, from the tight moments when he feared not being able to pay his college tuition. He wants to help like his uncle Larry helped him, with tuition but also gentle reminders that life, indeed, is a marathon.

Cameron is trademarking the phrase “The Voice of Atlanta,” a designation Atlanta magazine gave him back in 2003. Perhaps Cameron recognizes that his name invokes nostalgia for how Atlanta used to be, in the face of rapid change. Either way he doesn’t take the title lightly. Since his pastor’s call, charging him to “think global,” Cameron has thought about how he can inspire other Atlantans to do the same. He even has props that help illustrate his larger point.

Stowed away in the garage of Cameron’s Buckhead home is a door a friend built for him. It has his name emblazoned across the front, and it sits on a ramp that swivels around on wheels. The entryway is not even six feet tall, so he has to duck his head to walk through. But at least this way, it can fit inside his car.

Cameron brings out this prop during motivational speeches to prompt a moment of self-reflection for the audience. Say this door was all that stood between you and your dream opportunity, he says. What would you do? Would you swing that door wide open? Or would you turn around and leave, if someone didn’t open it for you? he asks. How would Cameron approach that door? He quickly demonstrates by pulling the door toward him so it is ajar. He pauses. He peers inside and then the Voice of Atlanta steps through.

Click above to read more of our Personal Journeys.


Don't miss our podcast interview with Ryan Cameron by the AJC's radio and TV blogger Rodney Ho.

ABOUT THE STORY

When I moved to Atlanta from Frederick, Md., in 2010, listening to local radio helped me find my bearings. Over time, I realized that just as Ryan Cameron helped pioneer hip-hop radio in Atlanta, his presence had become a constant to me in a rapidly changing city. I was surprised to hear Cameron was leaving the air, and I thought his farewell address presented more questions than answers, namely: How does someone who has been dubbed “The Voice of Atlanta” get to where that accolade is no longer enough? I wanted to find out for myself.

Christina Lee

Freelance writer


About the Writer

Christina Lee is an award-winning music journalist who has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone and other outlets. She often writes about hip-hop, with a focus on the American South if not Atlanta specifically, and its impact on pop culture at large.

Motivating others to pursue their “yacht dreams” is important to Cameron, pictured here with Clark Atlanta University senior Abria Perry during the “Take a Millionaire to Lunch” event. Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

Motivating others to pursue their “yacht dreams” is important to Cameron, pictured here with Clark Atlanta University senior Abria Perry during the “Take a Millionaire to Lunch” event. Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com