At this year's Edgefest, the annual multi-act concert put on by KDGE/102.1 FM "The Edge," DJ Jessie Jessup showed up in a bunny suit. She had originally planned to dress up as a dancing cupcake (part of a pledge to Patrick Carney of Edgefest headliner the Black Keys), but when she went to buy the outfit, Jessup told AllAccess.com, she spotted a bunny suit just like the one in A Christmas Story and couldn't resist.
This is just one of the many off-the-wall things the afternoon DJ has done since coming to KDGE 12 years ago, when it was still at 94.5 FM. She has also had a number of art contests -- crayon art, taco art (of bands eating tacos or being the filling in them) and stickpeople art (including a recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter theme). She recently invited listeners to post pictures of themselves smashing their faces against glass for a shot at winning Vans Warped Tour tickets.
If this all sounds zany, there's a definite method to Jessup's madness, and it has helped her build a following that has been one of the keys to the Edge's revitalization.
Jessup worked in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia before coming to the Edge, and had done similar contests in other cities, but they never took off like they did in DFW. And it all began in 2001 with a U2 macaroni-art contest.
"A listener called and said she would do 'anything,' for tickets to their show at Reunion Arena," Jessup said in an e-mail interview. "I kidded with her by saying 'What? Like macaroni art?' And she screamed and shouted 'Yes!' A week later she showed up with an extraordinary 5-foot-by-10-foot portrait of the band made entirely out of shell pasta, with shards of light emanating from each head, made out of spaghetti."
That led, by popular demand, to a Depeche Mode macaroni-art contest, with one ambitious entrant constructing a 9-foot statue of lead singer Dave Gahan that was made out of elbow macaroni -- except for one key part.
"The highlight of this piece was the fully edible, detachable strawberry-shortcake penis," Jessup says. "That still makes me laugh. Ever since then, the creative and frequently artistic-themed contests have grown and evolved.... It has been a blast."
This isn't usually the stuff of afternoon DJs, who, unless they're talk-radio types, generally have about 30 seconds to talk between song sets and commercial breaks. But then-Edge program director Duane Doherty had put out an ad for a creative afternoon DJ around the time Jessup lost her job at a Los Angeles station because it flipped to a Spanish format, and Jessup responded and seemed to fit perfectly.
"Jessie Jessup is one of the most talented, passionate, wonderfully weird people I have ever had the pleasure and frustration to work with, and I mean that as a huge compliment," says Doherty, who is now owner of Effin Texas, a bar and grill based in New York State. "If you look up the definition of 'perfectionist,' when it comes to her craft, her picture is right there -- probably sporting a wild hat and funky shades ... and maybe a furry animal."
Jessup would probably appreciate that colorful description. A big believer in "Theater of the Mind" radio, she takes an almost visual approach to an audio medium.
"I have always been an intensely visual thinker and learner, and that lifelong trait has been a lot of fun to play with on my show," says Jessup, who is on air from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays on KDGE. "It is the ultimate way to make sure it is inclusive."
You can see many of the results of Jessup's contests -- and a whole lot more, such as off-color cartoons, unusual music videos, book recommendations and roller-derby fandom -- on Jessup's blog. All the Edge personalities have blogs and make use of social media, but Jessup has done it especially well, with a Twitter feed (@JessieJessup) that's a must-follow collection of the silly, the serious and the surreal. Her one-two punch of on-air and online antics has helped her stand out in an era when traditional radio has been assailed by iPods, Spotify, satellite radio and Internet streaming.
"You only have 30 to 45 seconds to say whatever it is, so it is imperative to make every word count," Jessup says. "I usually go zero to left field immediately. Non sequiturs, puns, severed heads. You name it, I will use it. Not because I am a spaz but because speaking visually galvanizes a listener to create their own mental picture, and now they are a part of what you are doing."
Although the station's playlist restrictions prevent her from playing much local music on her show, Jessup says she is a big supporter of the local scene. And that doesn't just go for music.
"There is roller derby, and burlesque, and Naked Girls Reading, and 'Tuesday Night Trash' at The Texas Theatre, and gas-station restaurants in Watauga," Jessup says. "There are astounding charitable organizations here, too, like Patriot Paws Service Dogs, Love Hope Strength and the Phoenix Project. There is so much extraordinary energy in DFW that it is tangible and thermopoetic. I do what I can to promote all of it because this is my home and I love it."
With automated formats on the rise and "voice-tracking" -- in which a DJ does shows in cities that he or she might not even live in -- on the rise, personality radio like Jessup's seems to be at risk. But Jessup has remained relevant by being zany, nimble and, most of all, original.
"Radio is not dying nor will it ever die (no matter what the silly cynics have to say on the subject) because the one thing radio has that no other medium can provide or even compete with is a connection to the local community," Jessup says. "And it is only the voice of a sentient human soul who can offer that. Technology is a super sexy mistress, but it will never be able to effectively reassure a listener of their humanity the way a fellow human being can. Ultimately, radio isn't about music or macaroni. It is about what those things represent, and that is ... comfort."