The caller’s life was falling apart and KLOS-FM deejays Mark and Brian seemed to be assisting in its disintegration.
The caller, who identified himself as Bill, had learned that his best friend and head engineer of his company was having an affair with his wife. He had hired a private detective to follow the two and his suspicions had been confirmed. To add insult to injury, the double-crossing friend had used the company expense account to pay for expensive dinners and gifts for Bill’s wife.
“Man! You must be going through a little personal hell here,” Brian told the caller.
“Heavy one, Bill,” Mark said. “A nasty circle here. No question about it.”
Bill’s plan to avenge himself in this nasty circle was to confront his buddy and his wife on Mark and Brian’s one-of-a-kind morning radio program. And so he did--with a surprising dose of reasoned calm.
When he got her on the phone through the KLOS switchboard, Bill’s wife asked the question that must have been on the minds of listeners, many of whom later called in to say they were riveted to their radios.
“Why aren’t you here face-to-face with me?” she asked. “Why are you doing this on the air? That really is kind of ridiculous, don’t you think?”
“No, I think it’s appropriate over the air,” Bill said. “I want all your friends to know what kind of woman you are.”
Broadcasting may well be the best revenge.
Indeed, more and more people seem to be baring their souls (and sometimes parts of their anatomy) on the wise-cracking duo’s popular and unpredictable morning show by allowing the radio audience to eavesdrop as they discuss personal matters with friends, mates and employers.
Mark Thompson, 33, and Brian Phelps, 30, KLOS’ masters of guerrilla comedy, have developed what might be called voyeur radio, daily exposing for an estimated 644,300 Southern California listeners, according to Arbitron, a wide range of human frailties and desires.
In the same week that Thompson and Phelps presided over the dissolution of a marriage, they also let listeners hear an on-air marriage proposal. Some of the other life events on which they have provided a window recently include people calling their bosses to ask for raises, couples making up after fights, people trying to get their ex-mates to take them back and a woman confronting her boyfriend of three years, whom she had found in bed with another man.
Their 6-10 a.m. program on KLOS (95.5) has evolved since its September, 1987 debut from two deejay pals who feed off each other’s ribald senses of humor to a hugely successful, though quirky and uneven David Letterman-type radio show. They ranked second in the fiercely competitive morning drive-time period in the latest Arbitron ratings, after powerhouse Rick Dees of KIIS-FM (102.7).
Listeners have heard the pair banned at Graceland (and in all of Memphis, for that matter), dipped in chocolate for Valentine’s Day, preside over a “mega-marriage” of some 200 couples and, most recently, tie the knot themselves at a Las Vegas chapel. (“It was our two-year anniversary, so we thought it was the thing to do,” Phelps said. “All right, we had to get married, OK?”). They regularly broadcast live from events such as hot-air balloon flights and motocross races and chat with a variety of stars ranging from Bob Hope to the Monkees. Last week, they even persuaded deep-voiced singer Barry White to suck some helium and talk like a Munchkin.
But their program has lately become best known for the listeners who call and expose their private lives for public inspection.
Rick Hanson, a 23-year-old computer operator from Riverside, popped the question to his 20-year-old girlfriend, Debbie Bryan, on Mark and Brian’s show a couple of weeks ago. She said yes, provided her parents approved. Mark and Brian seized on the remark and persuaded Hanson to call her parents and ask for their blessing. They couldn’t reach her father, but the girl’s mother gave the go-ahead.
“When they called her parents, I was scared,” Hanson said. “I was really, really scared.”
Looking back, Hanson is glad he proposed in an unorthodox fashion.
“What the heck, you only live once,” he said. “It was a blast and plus, I got Stones tickets and a limo ride to the Stones concert.”
What is it about these guys--besides the obvious lure of concert tickets--that attracts their listeners and inspires them to face humiliation before the masses?
“Honestly, I think everybody wants to look at a bright side to a bad situation, and Mark and Brian make the situation a little better,” Hanson said. “They try to make a bad situation funny and a funny situation funnier.”
They can also provide a sort of catharsis, according to the caller named Bill who fired his best buddy and prepared to divorce his philandering wife.
“It seemed like a vengeful kind of fun thing to do and it kind of felt good,” Bill later said in a phone interview, asking that his full name not be used. “It was a healthy way to release pressure. There’s a lot of other ways you could act it out that wouldn’t have been as healthy or as smart.”
“Even if they’re getting a lot out of it for ratings, they almost might be providing a service,” said Mindy Yuhas, a 28-year-old police officer and mother of two from Rancho Cucamonga who went on the show last March soliciting donations for a breast augmentation. After she made her on-air plea, enlisting the aid of Mark and Brian as her “financial backers,” listeners kicked in $2,000 in pledges. But their generosity was outshone by another fan of the show--a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who offered to do the job for free. She later came back on the program to model her newly acquired voluptuousness.
“They help you make light of your problems, or of your own stupidity,” Yuhas said.
Lots of morning deejays have prepared schticks where they call listeners or celebrities, but none encourage unrehearsed, impromptu calls as Mark and Brian do.
“We’re not there to get in their faces or to be jerks. We say we’re there to eavesdrop, if they can just have fun with us a few seconds and hear that we’re not harmful,” Phelps said. “The bottom line is we’re radio jocks calling somewhere we probably shouldn’t be.”
Sometimes the bits don’t pan out--someone refuses to go on the air or gets angry at the intrusion. Sometimes the duo makes the decision to pull the plug if things are getting too uncomfortable.
Such was the case recently when a woman called her husband pretending to be stuck in traffic and going into labor.
“She was just too good an actress,” Phelps said. “She was whimpering on the air. She sounded like she was giving birth. She would not let up.”
Some scenarios are so downright depressing that one wonders how anyone, let alone a pair of radio jocks, can make it any brighter.
That was the case with Bill.
“This guy was truly hurting, that’s what made the bit so human,” Phelps said. “He called a radio station to air all his dirty laundry and give this mass attention to all the pain he was feeling. If he was going to let this out, he wanted to do it on a mass scale.”
While Bill may have been drawn to the show out of revenge and a need for catharsis, both his friend and his wife were enticed on the air by the deejays’ offer of “cash and prizes.” Neither were told what the subject of the call would be.
After he fired his former buddy, Mark and Brian convinced Bill to confront his wife and inform her on the air of their impending divorce.
It was tense dialogue, during which the husband was grilling her on her whereabouts. Then Phelps interrupted, asking if the wife still denied having an affair with Bill’s best friend. Her response was: “I don’t think this is any matter to discuss with people on the air anyways. I’ll take care of this with Bill. I’d just like my money.”
To Bill, Phelps said, as he might have to a close friend: “We’re here for you if you need us. And let us know what happens. Come back on the air with us after everything’s done and we’ll get you a date and we’ll take care of you. We feel your pain, pal!”
Thompson finished off the thought: “We’ll help you out, Bill! Don’t forget us! And good luck with the proceedings over the next couple weeks.”
Moments later the duo began to sing Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.”
The guys still marvel over managing to pull off gripping drama on an essentially light-hearted show.
“Everybody had a comment about it,” Phelps said. “It touched everybody in some fashion. It was real-life and hard-core. What made that so good was that Bill was hurting inside. You could tell. But he was a strong person and he could handle it. He had everything planned. He was so human, I think everyone felt for him.”
Said Thompson: “That particular bit had no laughs.”
Phelps added: “Yet it was one of the most talked-about bits ever. Though there were no guffaws, it still worked in the show.”
“People call us shock jocks,” Thompson said. “We’re not into shock. We’ll do some gentle locker room humor. But we’re not into shock. We’ll get on the phone with a listener and we’ll badger them a little bit, but they’re laughing harder than we are.”
“We laugh at ourselves more than we laugh at anybody,” Phelps said. “Because we deserve to be laughed at. We are average, everyday kind of guys.”
“We’re not fancy dressers,” Thompson said. “We try to be just exactly what we are.”
“Human scum,” Phelps added.