Little Rouse On The Prairie

City Paper

These days the radio airwaves are jammed with commercial stations so cookie-cutter and corporate that it’s nearly impossible to tell one from another. Which is not surprising, considering that most are owned by media conglomerates that beam their inoffensive, focus-grouped playlists via satellite from headquarters. Wherever HQ may be. It’s sure not here.

Once upon a time, though, local stations vied to see who could produce the funniest, most current and hometown-flavored fare. In the late-’90s last-gasp, pre-iPod heyday of Baltimore radio, nobody did this better than Rouse and Company on WQSR. The popular radio morning show was known for the camaraderie of its crew, with ringleader Steve Rouse trading wisecracks with a rotisserie team of reporters such as Tom Davis, who covered sports, and fellow DJs including Kristie “Special K” McIntyre, Rouse’s female foil and partner in impersonations and patter. The show was famous for on-air stunts (like broadcasting live from a supposedly genuine “haunted house”) and frequent Rouse-written parody songs stuffed with Baltimore in-jokes. Ear worms included ‘Let Me In, Pope,’ commemorating John Paul’s 1995 visit to Baltimore, and ‘Camp Baltimore’ cataloging the city’s woes (“You remember/ Mayor Schaefer . . .” (cue cuckoo-clock noise) “. . . He’s now governor/ At least on paper.”). Baltimoreans tuned in and hilarity ensued.

“The Frog Song  in particular was a real ritual,” recalls Steve Rouse some two decades later. “It was actually ‘Aint’ Got No Home’ by Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, but we would play it every Friday morning at some point and we would all sing different parts. It was ever-changing, but always started with a hearty ‘It’s FRIDAY!!’”.  

“Rouse & Co.” ran for 17 years, from 1988 until 2005, when the powers behind the curtain at CBS Radio—one of the nation’s largest radio conglomerates, which had recently acquired WQSR—decided to make a format switch. The longtime oldies station was converting to “super radio,” i.e. nonstop, computer-generated blocks of top-of-the-pops tunes. No DJs, no caller requests, no surprises. Steve Rouse found himself out of a job with literally no warning: Just after finishing the show’s usual 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. broadcast on May 4, 2005, he and his crewmembers were summoned to a meeting—all the better to fire every on-air staffer at once. “It was a complete surprise,” Rouse recalls. “I never even had a chance to say goodbye to our listeners.”

After brief stints at a few other local radio stations, Rouse decided  to hang up the microphone and pick up a pitchfork. It wasn’t a pure “Green Acres” scenario; Rouse already lived on six acres in rural Harford County, where he grew vegetables and kept a few chickens. Listeners were familiar with Rouse’s fondness for farming, and he once even commuted to work on his tractor—trailed all the way by a WQSR van —driving it to the station as an on-air stunt. “I was done with radio, and I’d been interested in food and self-sufficiency for a long, long time,” Rouse says. “I had some money saved, and the time seemed right, the local food movement was really getting going. I decided to just go for it.” In 2009, Rousedale Farms opened for “serious, full-time” business.

These days, Rouse happily works from sunup to sundown seven days a week, tending 550 pasture-roaming chickens and growing tons (literally) of vegetables for an on-farm market and CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. The endless heavy labor seems to stimulate, rather than exhaust, the 60-something Rouse—“I save lots of money not needing that gym membership,” he quips. (He does get by with a little help, however, running the operation in partnership with his longtime girlfriend, Vicky Murdock, and a variety of part-time hired hands.) Although Rousedale Farm is not a state-certified organic operation, only sustainable, nontoxic, and environmentally responsible agricultural practices are used. The result is bodacious vegetal bounty. The man grows awesome okra, lush heirloom tomatoes in a spectrum of bejeweled colors, and beets so beautiful they’d make a Renaissance still-life painter weep for joy.

Still. Does he ever miss the relative fame, when his band—“Stevie & the Satellites,” featuring Rouse on lead vocals—opened for the various national acts that WQSR brought to Baltimore? His current life shoveling chicken manure would seem a far cry from warming up the crowd for the Doobie Brothers at Pier Six. (Certainly no one ever makes famous farmer bobbleheads. Rouse has a closet full of leftover commemorative wobbly figurines in his likeness, a WQSR giveaway back in the Rouse & Co. glory days.) Do the two worlds ever collide?

“Sometimes fans show up on purpose, the really deluded ones,” Rouse says, cackling. “I tell them I won’t talk to them unless they buy some beets.”

Mainly, though, he says that people come to Rousedale Farm looking for righteous local vegetables, and then end up recognizing the proprietor. “It’s a blast from the past, and it’s fun to chat over old times for a bit, but then I have to get back to hoeing the beans,” Rouse says.

When pressed, he admits to still dabbling in occasional radio work—some voiceovers here, a few advertisements there. But mainly he’s content to dig in the dirt, with no yen to return to on-air stardom (or at least the local version thereof). “I really feel like I did it. Built the radio show I’d always dreamed of ever since I was 5 years old. I loved it, and I achieved what I wanted, which in part was to be No. 1 in my market. I don’t have the drive or fire to go back and do that same thing over again.”

“Making farming work is a different kind of fire,” Rouse continues. “Now my game is to have the best chicken and eggs, the best produce. I’m still competitive, I still gotta win. It’s just in a very different arena.” 

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