By Amaris Encinas / El Inde
Ken Carr talks with his hands, often, drawing and punctuating the air for emphasis.
The 54-year-old oozes confidence and frequently speaks in sarcastic little quips like no one is in on the joke but him, and for the most part, he wants to keep it that way.
He rocks a shaved head, wears black-rimmed glasses with a square frame and has a gap in his smile. Carr considers himself a “below average looking dude,” but that does not stop him from selling merchandise with his face on it.
He sits in his makeshift home-office, photographs of family and friends hang under the light brown wood paneling that runs along the back wall. A chromatic spectrum of graffiti lettering fade into each other on his white t-shirt, over the logo of his Twitter account, What’s Up Tucson.
The 33-year-radio veteran’s celebrity status comes from his work for What’s Up Tucson since 2001, a hybrid radio-Twitter show that gives locals information, events and news about what’s happening in the city in real time.
What’s Up Tucson has a larger audience on Twitter than any local news outlets like KOLD, KGUN9, the Arizona Daily Star.
To some, Carr is a radio host on The Drive Tucson (101.7FM) where he has played 1960s, 70s, 80s pop-rock over the last 20 months. Others remember him from his work on 93.7 KRQ or at Z104.1 or Tucson’s Old School and R&B Mega 106.3 or as executive producer for KGUN9 TV’s The Morning Blend.
But he actively challenges the notion that he can be reduced to one role.
He describes himself as a creative overthinker, entertainer, media creator, minimal media consumer, Live PD and Ridiculousness aficionado, goofy, knowledgeable, highly focused, fiercely independent, Walmart potato salad eater, beginning triangle player, MTV guest star, and former corn detasseler.
After telling me he’s ingested his daily Lunchable (the ham-and-cheese container with vanilla cookies) he begins to talk about how he got here.
FROM BLARING SIRENS TO 140 CHARACTERS
The sound that started it all? Ambulance sirens blaring down the streets in his hometown of Kearney, Nebraska–home to less than 20,000 people.
“Hearing an ambulance was an event. My parents would be like, ‘Hey, turn on the radio so we can find out why,” Carr said.
Little did he know that he would end up creating and maintaining a platform that is “entirely based on being a kid and hearing a siren.”
What’s Up Tucson works in a very similar way, except car crashes, fires, crimes, weather reports, lost pets, community events are all tweeted by Carr as a way to report all local incidents as they are breaking.
The interesting thing is that followers have a chance to contribute to the conversation by mentioning What’s Up Tucson with crashes they might see around town or a found pet.
He ended up owning the show completely haphazardly back in 2008 when he got a direct message from former owner Leesa Munger over Twitter. She was moving to California and thought he might be interested.
He said yes, inheriting an account with pictures of sunsets over Gates Pass and 1,500 followers.
Carr got to work the only way he knew how, reproducing the information he was so used to providing on the airwaves in between songs essentially re-formatted it to work on Twitter.
But instead of hearing him speak, you saw him tweet.
He first mastered the art of condensing traffic reports around town into bite sized chunks, an emoji here and there all under 140 characters and then transitioned into tweeting information that provides “a one stop kind of experience” for the Tucson community.
He had a difficult time getting followers that first year even though he was tweeting every day.
He broke 10,000 followers at the five-year mark, the other 94,000-ish came over the last seven years, but he has been mind-blown every step of the way.
Over 4,000+ days of tweeting, 300 hours a month and 12 years later, his “side hustle-passion project” has 105,000+ followers and has been voted Best Local Twitter Feed by the Tucson Weekly in 2016, 2019 and 2020.
What’s Up Tucson, within the realm of local media, is an amalgamation of many different things, but Carr describes What’s Up Tucson as a “ headline and incident-based real-time news feed” at least 90% of the time.
The other 10% consists of Carr injecting personality into his news feed.
Carr incorporates his offbeat sense of humor tweeting traffic reports, indecent exposure calls, machete alerts, frogger alerts via the use of personalized emojis for the incident at hand or even incorporating a clever play on words for a car on fire, Car-b-cue! A fire and red car emoji adorn the tweet, or even incorporating the WUT Naked Alerts —for indecent exposure.
With four scanners in the room going off at any one time, the trick is to know if it’s the Tucson Fire Department, Tucson Police Department, Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Pima Community College police, or University of Arizona police.
That’s as fancy as the equipment gets. The rest of the low-budget operation consists of a laptop, an additional screen that sometimes hosts the game solitaire if it’s a long night.
He said he’s learned to live his life around running What’s Up Tucson, if nothing else is going on while he happens to be working, he will take the dog out or make some dinner. The nice part is that even if he is not sitting in front of his computer, he can just pull out his phone and update his feed that way.
Carr pieces together the incident sequence based on what he hears in real-time and categorizes them into corresponding buckets–the lost pets bucket, community bucket, or the traffic incident bucket, he said.
By allowing everyone to participate in the sharing of information, What’s Up Tucson creates the kind of environment that allows anyone to be a journalist or get their five minutes of fame, even if it’s only for a moment, similar to a community newspaper.
Carr would seldom call himself a journalist, at least not in the traditional sense, not until What’s Up Tucson came along, that is.
As of late, he considers himself more of a concerned citizen, a conduit for “eyewitness” reporting to occur. He can’t deny, however, that journalistic principles are at play in his work, particularly those of fairness and accuracy.
“[As a journalist] you have a responsibility to be fair about what you write, to look in both directions unless you are specifically tasked with representing one side of an issue,” Carr said.
He added: “The people who do good journalism tend to be pretty good at presenting the information and letting you, the reader, decide how you feel about it as opposed to representing one side or the other. That is what I have tried to do with What’s Up Tucson.”
Whether his audience thinks he is the funny guy or a good interviewer, he’s hellbent on making sure there’s only one Ken Carr.
“If I sold What’s Up Tucson tomorrow and let’s say you took it over, you probably are not going to be able to do it the same way I do, the user experience would become different. Could you do it better than I can? Probably. But for today, you know, while I’m sitting here not dead, I will continue to provide a unique experience as the driver of this bus,” he said.
THE FUNNY GUY
One of the more difficult moments WUT faced occurred last summer, in the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
How could he take a non-political entity like What’s Up Tucson, whose mission essentially is to deliver the news to make a statement, which would result in the alienation of one side over another?
“If you [put that kind of responsibility] on a platform like What’s Up Tucson where I have pretty much tweeted about car crashes or something on fire and I suddenly pivot, my concern was that I was going to lose part of the audience. That’s the gamble. But if you’re pursuing a journalistic effort, I think that making sure that you’re fair in most situations ends up being more paramount than asserting your own belief system into whatever you happen to be reporting,” he said.
Ultimately, his choice was simple. He would be patient and managed to position What’s Up Tucson as an “unbiased information source with the occasional funny tweet” without asking What’s Up Tucson to be something, he said. By October, no one was asking Carr to do that anymore, he said.
Carr hopes to one day turn a substantial profit enough to have What’s Up Tucson become his full-time venture. But right now, it’s only about 1,000 dollars a month or 4 dollars an hour on a good month.
Seventy-five percent of What’s Up Tucson is funded through user donations, and the other 25% comes from a combination of advertisement and merchandise that “may or may not have his stupid face on it.”
Though there aren’t any Pulitzers for Carr’s kind of work on Twitter, he has won best feed for the second year in a row by the Tucson Weekly.
The visible appreciation that an award like best Twitter feed merits that Tucson’s community stands behind him, he said.
It has never been lost on him that he has been able to “create something that people appreciate. I’ve never taken it for granted from day one, the same thing with my radio career, the fact that anybody would bother to listen to me at all. If I have ever done something for somebody, then it’s worth it,” he said.
Carr thinks he inherited his “funny” from his parents. The way to deal with challenging situations at home was to make them laughable, he said.
They may have never had a lot of money or a Mercedes Benz in the driveway, but he had a dad with a “ridiculous work ethic” and a house filled with laughter, he said.
“It’s easier to joke about something than it is to actually deal with the sad.”
Brandon Hall, a former radio DJ colleague, says Carr’s recipe for success is two-fold: workaholism coupled with an innate ability to figure out what the community needs.
Hall says WUT “ has provided Ken a creative outlet to be his most authentic self.”
If that means he is replaced by monkeys on the radio station tomorrow, he will offer to buy bananas for his hairy replacement.
That is just the kind of guy he is.
Carr’s interest in radio in high school seemed like a natural transition for his charismatic self.
The audio aficionado moved to Denver after high school, where he sold suits at a department store to make his way in the world.
He did go to college for one-semester and decided it wasn’t for him. He also knew he’d have to find a job that didn’t require a degree.
When he went back home to Nebraska for his brother’s high school graduation, he ran into a guy who worked at a station there, and he told him, “You have the easiest job in the world. You sit in a nice little air-conditioned room. You play music all the time. You say funny stuff on the radio. You take phone calls, you give away prizes, how hard of a job can that be?”
Armed with the program director’s name and contact information on a napkin, he called the next day and was hired on the spot.
That moment set his career in radio. Ken Carr’s first day on air was July 4, 1987.
Naturally, he was terrible initially, like anyone — until he got better.
In the beginning, he worked at the radio station part-time on the weekends while he learned the ropes like running the circuit board in addition to a full-time job to supplement his income.
He would come in whenever the radio station would ask him to fill in.
“It seems when you listen that it’s effortless, but there’s a skill set that’s involved.”
His well-known moniker, Carr, was created out of “personal preference” because he was DJing in his hometown.
His parents had not changed their phone number in 20 years. They were not about to when Carr started DJing.
One night over dinner, they pulled out the legal pad, and his parents helped come up with a name.
This moment occurred in the late 80s; therefore, they pulled out a phonebook to help create some name variations.
They sat in his parents’ dining room after his first few days learning how to run the radio board switches.
They finally settled with the standard spelling of his initials K-A-R.
Which ended up being the right choice after countless cities and radio stations, it’s easy for people to remember, and to this day, he still has friends greet him by his whole name, “Hi, Ken Carr.”
He has been Ken Carr the whole way, across Kearney, Olympia, Providence, Omaha, Colorado Springs, Stockton, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Modesto, and finally Tucson in 2001.
It’s become his brand, among other things.
Though he never had any interest in becoming famous per se, he did want to set himself apart from others in the field. Even now, Carr began to use his first name as an adjective, verb, or noun.
“How are you? Well, I am Ken-tastic!”
The funny thing is that if anyone scrolls through his Facebook page, people do it for him. But they remember who he is, and that’s the point.
He’s also quite the character at home, one he shares with long-time partner of 12 years, Anthony Ludovici.
Ludovici credits the radio for bringing them together; he heard him on the air in college back when Carr was working at KRQ.
“I heard through the grapevine that Ken would frequent the downtown area and was kind of a fixture in the gay community. One evening I was downtown and I actually ran into him just randomly at one of the nightclubs in town after sending him a “little message on MySpace” the previous weekend.
He didn’t even remember my message. But I used the message as a way to “sneak in and have the courage to talk to him,” he said.
Ludovici has been with Carr since the very beginning of What’s Up Tucson, only a few months into their relationship What’s Up Tucson began to take off and they have been together ever since.
They make it a point to “do a lot of laughing” in their house everyday.
“He [is a very kind individual, he knows how much all of this stuff matters to me and he supports me in these endeavors,” Carr said about his relationship with Ludovici.
Carr added, “When we first met, very early on he knew that I sort of walked to the beat of my own drum. Even with everything [life] going, I tend to stick to things that are dumb.”
For Ludovici, the best part of seeing the fruit of Carr’s labor is seeing members of the Tucson community interact with Carr whether that is at a Panda Express or a Mexican restaurant in town.
There is “not a shy bone in that man’s body,” Ludovici said.
If Carr has learned anything over the last three decades is that being yourself is the only true equalizer.
“The reason why I am over the top about What’s Up Tucson and my love for it is because it’s the one project that I’ve done in my career that is 100% owned by me. What’s Up Tucson is the first time in my whole life where it’s been my own project sink or swim and it’s exceeded every expectation I’ve ever had,” he said.
Carr does not plan on retiring any time soon, even though there might be a time in the not so distant future where might have dementia or bump into walls, As long as he is awake and can still tweet from his bed, there is no reason What’s Up Tucson has to be done until he is dead, he said.
If he had to pick a phrase to inscribe on his epitaph as a way to sum up three decades: “He tried.”
Carr believes that a two-word phrase speaks to who he is as a person– a little fun with a hard work ethic. There are risks, mistakes, and great successes you will encounter along the way to create something you can be genuinely proud of, something that comes from you, he said.
A close second would be, without a doubt is potato salad. Walmart’s brand, of course.
For the most part, though, he has lived a pretty largely satisfied life full of resilience and grit.
It’s okay to “blow it,” the veteran DJ says because success is all about perspective. Part of lying in wait for success includes being prepared for whatever comes next.
After all, Carr said, “you can’t win if you don’t play.”