Radio Raunch

How do local stations boost ratings? Give Seattle what it wants. Sex in the morning

Andy Savage has pissed somebody off. Again.

This time it's a 17-year-old woman whose generally euphonious voice slowly contracts to a whine as she complains to Savage that he'd hung up on her earlier that morning, just because she wasn't "enthusiastic enough" when she rang in to his radio program, hoping to score some of the "free crap" (concert tickets, T-shirts, CDs, etc.) that he gleefully dispenses to callers every weekday. And if that wasn't insulting enough, this is apparently not the first time that Savage has given this woman the ol' dial tone. She'd phoned his KNDD-FM talk/music show a few days before, and Savage—sensing her shyness and mischievously capitalizing on it for any entertainment value—had pressured her to disclose her bra size on the air before he'd award her any prizes. When she'd equivocated, Savage cut her off.

"If it makes you feel any better," Savage tells her, "I hung up on five other people today because they weren't enthusiastic enough, either."

The woman isn't satisfied. She wants a prize. And by now she's ready to do just about anything to get one. "OK," she says finally, "what if I send you one of my bras?"

"No, no," Savage answers, a smile spreading beneath his mustache as he turns to share the coming comic moment with other folks crowded into his broadcasting booth, "how 'bout if you wait till you're 18. Like the other girls do."

Budda-bing.

Forget about Seattle morning radio as it used to be—soothing, civil, rarely controversial. Judging by the performance of two highly rated local drive-time hosts—Andy Savage on KNDD (107.7 FM) and especially Rob "the T-Man" Tepper on KUBE (93.3 FM)—the near future may not belong to radio shows on which the "A" topics are Seattle's suicide-provoking weather or the latest Frasier episode, but rather to those programs on which you're likely to hear from, say, a woman who is convinced that she can't remain faithful in marriage, or a young guy who was unexpectedly seduced by a pair of frisky grandmas in a rustic mountain cabin.

In these final mad months of the 20th century, when every other TV commercial seems to be about a new feminine hygiene product and the president's sex life is debated openly, almost any subject is considered fair game for daybreak deliberations on-air. The more lewd or ludicrous, the better. Now, not everyone wants an earful about blow jobs and lesbian sex videos before they've showered or downed their first cup of joe in the a.m. Somebody accustomed to waking up to National Public Radio or one of those time-warp "oldies" stations might react to the sarcasm, risqu頲epartee, and calculatedly over-the-top antics of Savage or the T-Man with the same enthusiasm they'd display at being whipped across the proboscis with a damp salmon. Parents, eavesdropping on their young children's radio choices, have been known to object strongly (and often in the form of angry letters) when they hear some of the topics discussed oh so casually by Tepper and Savage.

Yet the audience for this style of entertainment has been growing. The fall 1998 Arbitron ratings (radio's equivalent of television's exalted Nielsens) found that, for the first time, Tepper's T-Man in the Morning show had won its 6-10am time slot among all local listeners, ages 12 and up, pushing previously dominant all-news KIRO-AM down to second place. Tepper was also numero uno among listeners between the ages of 18 and 34—the choice demographic for so many of today's radio advertisers. In that latter age category, Andy Savage in the Morning pulled in at no. 3 (with KISW-FM's award-winning but less outrageous Bob Rivers in the Morning program occupying the no. 2 spot).

Why have such spicy, edgier morning talk shows proved so successful, not only in Seattle , but elsewhere around the country? "From a psychological standpoint," muses KNDD program director Phil Manning, "people like to be talked awake. I think the provocativeness of Andy's show and others has evolved, particularly during the late '90s. If hosts can get away with talking about sex and lesbian love letters on TV, we can get away with it on the radio."

Eric Powers, Manning's counterpart at KUBE, sounds a similar note. "This format is compelling. It's humorous, but it's also very real," he says. "Our legacy of programming in Seattle has been milquetoasty radio. But people don't want to be talked to like they're idiots. They want to be talked to realistically, but in a twisted and sort of crazy way. They want to hear someone's honest opinions about society and sex, and share the kind of gossip that people talk about behind closed doors or in their cars when they are going to work. That's what this format gives them."

And it isn't only these two stations that see the potential for drive-time "talk jocks" who (ࠬa David Letterman) are willing to make on-air crank calls to sports personalities and folks with weird jobs, or perhaps coax women into driving topless down city streets. On any given morning, you can now hear other Seattle radio hosts peppering their shows with playful salaciousness and comic stunts of the Tepper/Savage sort.

KISW's Bob Rivers insists he isn't interested in emulating his racier competition: "Our show's target audience is older, and currently we are no. 1 in [the ratings category of] 'time spent listening,' and tied for adults 25-54 with KIRO-AM in morning drive time. That's where we want to be."

But Mitch Levy, morning host at sports radio KJR-AM, certainly seems inclined to borrow a few moves from the Tepper/Savage playbook, if that's what Seattle wants. In addition to reporting sports news and interviewing legends such as basketball's Magic Johnson, Levy has branched out to gab on-air with models Claudia Schiffer and Kathy Ireland, and hold an annual "Queen of the Hardwood" competition to select the best celebrity pin-ups. In a move that must've sent any puritanical listeners into frothing convulsions, he even once sang an appreciative ditty about KOMO TV news anchor Kathi Goertzen. Based on "The 12 Days of Christmas," Levy's substitute lyrics imagined Goertzen in fishnet stockings, 3-inch stiletto heels, and (substituting for the familiar "five golden rings" refrain) "edible crotchless panties."

Rob Tepper concedes that "there are people who complain that we're all going too far, that we're saying things they don't want to hear—especially in the morning. But they forget that there's a dial on the radio; they don't have to listen if they don't like what they hear." He and Savage are just counting on the fact that, at this time in our history when it's hard to shock people anymore, outrageousness has become one of the most salable commodities around.

Of course, the limits of good taste can still be stretched too far. That's what happened when Tepper made his now-legendary "suggestive remarks" about the wife of Seattle Mariners player Ken Griffey Jr.

This story goes back to 1997. It seems that Melissa Griffey had left a voice-mail message for the T-Man, offering to be interviewed on his show. Sounds innocent enough. Except that by the time Tepper got around to telling his listeners of Mrs. Griffey's call, and especially her soft voice ( "She was almost purring at me," he remembers), he had morphed the message into something positively lascivious. "I was exaggerating it," he explains, "saying she wants to leave her husband; saying that she wants me, instead; saying that after the show we might have sex." Tepper thought the whole affair was a hoot. But Junior was not amused, and he called the T-Man at home later that same day to vent his anger. "He gave me both barrels," Tepper says. "It was a beautiful moment."

Somebody else might have dropped the matter there. Not Tepper, though. The next day, he announced to his listeners that, as a goodwill gesture after what he'd said about Melissa Griffey, he was prepared to let Ken Griffey Jr. sleep with his own girlfriend.

Soon, the T-Man and his station were hearing from Junior's lawyers, and he finally had to make an on-air apology to the Griffeys. Not among his proudest moments, perhaps, but memorable. So memorable, in fact, that Tepper has hung onto the tape of Mrs. Griffey's infamous voice-mail message. "I'll save that for life," he says roguishly.

The image of Rob Tepper macho-ing it out with a baseball star and sex symbol like Griffey might appear, well, astonishing to anybody who knew him growing up. Born in 1969 in the Jamaica-Queens section of New York City, by his own admission he was a "skinny and unattractive young guy" with curly blond hair, who spent a great deal of his boyhood planted in front of TV sets. ("Pretty much everything I've learned in life comes from TV," he says today.) After his family moved north to Rockland County, New York, Tepper seemed only to become more withdrawn and gangly. In high school, he shot up to 5 feet, 11 inches tall, but weighed only 119 pounds. "Girls didn't pay much attention to me," says Tepper, with a shrug. "I asked five girls to my high school prom—and they all turned me down."

Not until he entered the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, and began lifting weights did he start to fill out. (He's now 6-feet-1, 195 pounds.) But even then, since he was neither a star athlete nor a star pupil (his brother and sister went to Harvard, "but I rarely applied myself to studying"), women weren't exactly pitching themselves at his feet. "I didn't have sex till I was 21," Tepper admits. "I finally found a girl who would do it with me, and I've been making up for lost time ever since."

Along with the pleasures of sex, he discovered the possibilities of radio in college. "I'd listen to people on the university station," Tepper says, "and I thought, 'These guys are idiots. I'm an idiot, so I can do this.'" And sure enough, he did, first calling sports games for the student station, then moving on to an unpaid internship and a job after graduation at WFAN-AM, a prominent sports-talk station in New York.

Tepper did mostly phone-in reports and behind-the-scenes coverage for WFAN. He really wanted a turn at the mike, but his bosses didn't think he had enough experience. So, in 1994, Tepper decided to market himself beyond the Big Apple. He took a job at sports-talk station KVEG-AM in Las Vegas—only to be fired within three weeks, "because I wouldn't just parrot what the program director told me to say." Fortunately for him, the SportsFan Radio Network, with offices in Las Vegas, hired him to do an overnight broadcast. Turning his college nickname—"the T-Man"—into his on-air persona, he drew a healthy listenership with his resonant voice, his crisp wit, and his often self-effacing humor. (At its height, Tepper's syndicated program was aired by "about 50" stations across the country.) But that gig, too, was short-term: In the spring of 1995, after he'd spent only six months in Vegas, Seattle station KJR-AM hired him on at an annual salary of $50,000 (almost three times what he'd been making in Vegas) to do a late-night sports-talk show.

"I was working 9pm to midnight," says Tepper. "Yet I developed a cult following of people who would listen, even at that hour." He also impressed the programming honchos at KJR's sister station, Top 40formatted KUBE-FM, who took him on in September 1995 to replace a 14-year Seattle radio fixture: the morning team of Charlie Brown, Ty Flint, and Mary White.

Moving to a general-interest talk show was probably less jarring to Tepper (whose KJR program had been only nominally about sports, anyway) than it was to fans of the easygoing Charlie and Ty. The T-Man is definitely not easygoing.

Five days a week, he arrives at KUBE just minutes before he's set to begin broadcasting at 6am. And for the next four hours, he basically wings a show at full-throttle, sounding frustrated at those times when he cannot speak fast enough to get out everything that's on his mind. "Rob is completely on the edge" says Powers, his programming director. "You never know what he's going to do next. I could find him in my office one day, auctioning off my desk. He's constantly pushing the envelope. There's nothing he won't say or do."

Tepper is neither so crude as New York radio host Howard Stern nor as sexist as Los Angeles' Tom Leykis; and you're more likely to hear racist jokes or gay bashing on one of those politically conservative local talk shows than on either the T-Man's program or Andy Savage's. But Tepper does have a cocky streak, likely the result of his already having reached the top of his game in this town at age of 29. He sometimes comes off as disrespectful, as when he made fun of John Denver after the singer died in a 1997 plane crash. And he can be downright abrasive, as he was during an in-studio interview with TV fitness fanatic Richard Simmons, when the T-Man's not-so-oblique hints at his guest's homosexuality led the congenitally upbeat Simmons to storm out, shouting, "You're a terrible man!"

That' a bit strong. "Unpredictable" would better describe Rob Tepper. One morning he might launch into a lengthy discussion of whether someone retains his or her virginity by engaging only in oral sex. Another time he'll hash over the dubious merits of revealing one's complete sexual history to a new mate. Or (as he once did to Los Angeles Lakers player Rick Fox) he may dial up the hotel where a member of a visiting sports team is staying, and—impersonating a hotel security officer—confront the player with bogus accusations of his having solicited sex from a chambermaid. "If there's one overall theme to my show," Tepper concludes, "it's sex." He adds, "My greatest dream is to have sex on the air." Since that's illegal, he's had to settle for simulated coitus with his effervescent co-host Tari Free.

One thing you can't say about the T-Man is that he's boring. "And that's really the biggest concern with this sort of show, that it always be interesting," notes Jimmy Baron, producer and co-host of a highly rated morning program similar to Tepper's on WNNX-FM in Atlanta, Georgia. "You don't have to try to be controversial or dirty or funny—yet you have to be all of those, in a way. You do whatever you think will keep people tuned in to your show."

Another large part of holding listeners is for the host to establish an intimate rapport with his audience. That's why you'll so frequently hear Tepper and Savage sharing their own sex or dating experiences, hoping to elicit other stories from callers. "Listeners are more likely to open up about the odd or embarrassing aspects of their own lives if the host will do the same," Baron observes. In a sense, these shows act as electronic confessionals, with the host reassuring listeners (who can be as anonymous as they choose to be) that what's happening in their lives is not unusual or kinky or something to be embarrassed about.

Tepper's offbeat and spontaneous approach to entertainment-talk programming has certainly roped in listeners. It has also increased KUBE's advertising revenues. Doug Holman, the station's general sales manager, says that the average per-minute rate for ads on KUBE runs about $260. But the T-Man's recent climb to no. 1 in his time slot has driven the rates for his show above $300/minute—and they're expected to rise further this summer (especially if Tepper's ratings hold strong in the next Arbitron survey, due out in May). "He's a dominating talent for us," enthuses Holman.

Andy Savage wouldn't mind being a dominating talent, himself. He works hard enough for it, attending concerts to stay current with the "alternative rock" music that his station, KNDD ("The End"), specializes in playing; hosting events, such as a recent one on behalf of Special Olympics athletes; and generally making the sort of promotional appearances that Rob Tepper eschews. (The T-Man won't even allow media photographers to take his picture, insisting that "anonymity is one of the best things about radio. It's what I say that matters, not how I look.") In one of his more peculiar publicity gigs, Savage had himself ordained as a minister in order to perform a Valentine's Day wedding ceremony for 40 couples at Westlake Center.

Sitting in his studio during Savage's 5:30-9am show is rather like being trapped in a crowded birdcage. If you think the energy is intense when the microphones are on and the host is sharing his thoughts about political hate mongering or Courtney Love's latest film appearance, it's no less keen when talk is replaced by tunes. With the mikes are silenced, husky, 33-year-old Savage drapes his 5-foot-8 frame over his control board, beneath a silver disco ball, flipping through news and entertainment reports for any bizarro items worth repeating to his audience or splicing together taped segments with callers. (Though Tepper concentrates on live phone conversations, with a mere handful of songs and more commercials to fill out each hour, Savage takes—and records—many of his calls during musical interludes.) Meanwhile, the show's producer, Steve Migliore, darts back and forth, cuing up CDs, digging for sound bites to insert between cuts of Sugar Ray or Fatboy Slim, or preparing his daily feed of inside dope on noteworthy bands. And throughout the three and a half hours, guests or other folks from the station flit in, say a few words (either on the air or not), and then flutter away in a complex choreography.

The program combines the sexual with the silly. Savage shares bad-date stories, proffers marriage advice (drawing on his own three years' education in husbandhood once upon a time), and interviews celebrities (he's swapped gossip with actors Tracy Ullman and Nick Nolte, but would still like to talk with musician Eddie Vedder and software zillionaire Bill Gates). Not long ago, he got a couple of days' mileage out of a taped clip of some dude named Dallas having phone sex with his reluctant wife ("We can't do this . . . can we?"). For this St. Patrick's Day, he dared listeners to creatively—and publicly—display their underwear. ("Some wore them on their head or on the outside of their clothes," Savage says. "It wasn't as good as I'd hoped because the weather sucked, but the people who participated were totally into it and had a great time!") And Pope John Paul II's visit to the Midwest earlier this year provoked Savage to ring up a preacher in southern Georgia, one "Reverend Bob," who runs a church stocked with "robotic apostles"—three of them life-size, all of them "programmed to preach the gospel during services." Their interview ended abruptly when Andy began grilling the humorless Bob about his robots' anatomical correctness.

But after a year and a half on the Seattle airwaves, Savage may be best known for a pair of recurring gags. One has him offering event tickets to anybody who will venture naked into public places (such as the man who "streaked" a recent PGA tournament). "They volunteer," he says mock-innocently. "And what can I say?"

The second running bit involves men or women who believe their girlfriends or boyfriends are cheating on them. To settle the matter, Savage might dial up a fellow whose girlfriend is suspicious of his actions and offer to send a dozen roses to whomever that guy prefers. While the girlfriend is listening in, the boyfriend will hem and haw, and as a listener you just know that he's going to screw up big-time, then he'll finally say, "Yeah, send them to my wife"—and his duplicitous existence is revealed in every shade of pain. Like watching a car wreck, it's impossible to turn away from—or tune out—the carnage. You're just happy it's happening to somebody else.

Savage spent years fine-tuning his approach to entertainment-talk radio. Reared in Boston, he was attending the University of Massachusetts (majoring in political science and communications) when he realized his destiny was as a DJ. "It was kind of a surprise to some people," he recalls, firing up another cigarette in the day's endless chain. "My dad's a lawyer, his dad was a lawyer, he wanted me to be a lawyer. I probably wouldn't have minded going to court to argue cases—but I had no interest in all the paperwork of the job." So he quit school and took on a late-night radio position in backwoods Oklahoma. He eventually moved up from there to Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, before accepting a morning show at WDFX-FM in Detroit, and later switching to evenings at competing WLLZ-FM. Savage stayed in the Motor City for half a dozen years, building up both his radio skills and his bank account. ("This," he confides, "followed years of dieting mostly on macaroni-and-cheese and beer.") Then, he moved on to New Orleans, Minneapolis, and finally, Seattle.

The goal, not only for Savage and Tepper, but for even better-recognized morning entertainment-talk shows such as Kevin and Bean at KROQ-FM in Pasadena, California, is to strike a balance between thoughtfulness and titillating talk, a balance that appeals both to the nose-ring-wearing, dance-all-night crowd and people who prefer to be sacked out by 2am. The T-Man seems to have found that balance. Savage is still catching up. Despite his third-place ratings among local listeners 18-34 years old, he remains far back in the pack when it comes to other categories of listeners. (Savage is no. 11 among all local listeners 12 and up, and no. 10 among adults 18-49.) Yet his boss, Phil Manning, avers that Savage "has people talking about 'The End' in the morning. It's one thing to hear people say, 'Did you hear that cool song this morning?' It's another thing to get people saying, 'Did you hear what Andy had to say about that cool song this morning?' And that's the kind of word of mouth we want."

Whether such talk will help poise Savage for a stronger challenge against the T-Man or even the lower-key Bob Rivers is unpredictable right now. As is the question of whether more shows of the Tepper/Savage variety might find spots on our local airwaves. The odds of this happening could be increased by consolidation of radio station ownership: Big-selling ideas tend to spread through chains. So KJR-FM and KUBE-FM, both owned by New Century Media Inc., now have spicier talk shows. Will Philadelphia-based Entercom Communications Corp.—which owns not only KNDD-FM, but half a dozen other stations in Seattle (including KBSG-AM/FM, KISW-FM, and KIRO-AM/FM)—use Savage's success as a model for programming elsewhere?

The answer appears to be yes. Earlier this week, Entercom-owned 100.7 The Buzz fired morning host Pat Cashman and is replacing him with The Mark and Brian Radio Program, described as "two buds, havin' a great time together." Says the show's Mark Thompson, "We're not going to say 'penis' on the air to get ratings." But their press release promises they do talk about such subjects as Jimmy Carter's sex life and a man's confession that he was fired for flatulence.

How long can this in-your-face, no-subject-prohibited style of broadcasting continue to appeal to Seattle's morning audience?

"Radio is a transient business," says Don Pember, a veteran radio watcher and professor of communications at the University of Washington. "Really long-lived radio formats never last more than about six to eight years." He suspects that recent interest in juicier talk radio may be part of the fallout from last year's partisan investigation of President Clinton's private life.

Further affecting the future of provocative-talk radio in this city may be the departure of Rob Tepper from the scene. He's already been hinting that he'd like to leave Seattle for a larger market—maybe New York or LA—though he has two years remaining on his latest three-year contract with KUBE. His absence would surely alter the dynamics of morning talk shows here.

Who knows? As quickly as Seattle got used to hearing about sexual threesomes and Kathi Goertzen's panties, it might one day again prefer hosts who'd rather talk about our weather. Perhaps by then, that will seem the height of novelty.

J. Kingston Pierce is the author of San Francisco, You're History! and America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett. He is currently working on a collection of stories about Seattle's rich and sometimes ribald past.

 
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