It was a first shot at the big time and, by most reckonings, a long shot too.
They had never done morning drive-time radio, which calls for a distinctive style of fast-paced, infectious and attention-getting chatter. They had never even worked together as a duo.
So when Kevin Ryder and Gene (Bean) Baxter hit the airwaves in January, 1990, loyal listeners of KROQ-FM (106.7) went ballistic, writing hate letters and dismissing the pair as a cheap knockoff of the hit morning team at KLOS-FM (95.5), Mark and Brian.
Then there was the much-publicized murder-confession skit a few months later that eventually blew up in their faces and compelled them to pay $12,170 in fines to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and to spend 149 hours doing community service.
Their ratings sagged, from a 2.5% share of the audience to 2%, or about 63,000 listeners per average quarter-hour. Bean began casting about for a new job.
And why not? Any one of those setbacks would have been enough to kill the career of most radio personalities.
But Kevin, 32, and Bean, 33, have not merely recovered, they are now enjoying the greatest popularity they have ever known. Their 5:30 a.m.-10 a.m. show ranked ninth in the latest Arbitron ratings, reaching an estimated 4% of the audience, or about 100,000 listeners per quarter hour.
“I think you get a lot of points in this town for just staying on the air,” Bean said.
To some extent, the pair--who worked for the same rock station in Phoenix before coming to KROQ--is benefiting from the success of the entire station, which overall ranked third in the most recent Arbitrons, thanks to the current wave of popularity surrounding alternative rock.
But Kevin and Bean have clearly caught on among listeners who like the mix of music and easy bantering. They also are the on-air announcers for Fox television network.
“They’re genuinely entertaining and though they do have their share of bizarre stunts, they’re not wacky morning deejays,” said 25-year-old USC student Matt Greenberg. “Their show isn’t filled with crazy sound effects and zany antics. I like the way they play off each other.”
On a recent morning, the pair, clad in trademark shorts and tennis shoes and resembling overgrown class clowns, launched into “show-biz news” comments, typical of their smart-alecky patter.
“You know, you see weirdos in the world of entertainment sometimes and you try to figure out how did that happen,” Bean said. “For instance, the guy who’s stalking Kathie Lee Gifford from jail. How do you pick Kathie Lee as someone to stalk?”
“Yeah, let’s say you want to stalk and you list a hundred people--how is her name on the list?” Kevin said.
Over the years, because of their low ratings, the two created a reputation for themselves as underdogs, carving out an anti-star image that fit with the station’s identity as a kind of cool club for people fed up with commercialized pop music and hyped-up, predictable radio.
“I think a big part of why they’re doing better now instead of trying to be like a Mark and Brian is because they’ve created a show that fits KROQ, that includes playing music,” said program director Kevin Weatherly. “They are two extremely funny and talented guys, but they were basically doing the wrong show.”
Much to their relief, the allusions to that other pair at KLOS have subsided.
“Four-and-a-half years down the road, they finally have their own identity, instead of being the clones of Mark and Brian,” said Trip Reeb, KROQ general manager. “Though, to be honest, when we hired them, we didn’t necessarily think it was a bad thing.”
“We used to hear a lot of comparisons in the beginning because we were two young white guys who were doing largely a talk show,” Ryder said. “When we first started, we used to have to throw out good ideas because Mark and Brian had already done them.”
Ironically, as Kevin and Bean’s ratings have climbed, Mark and Brian’s have dropped, so that the KROQ pair is just behind the KLOS duo, who once were No. 1 in the market. With their newfound success, it’s hard to believe there was a time a few years back when the pair thought their days on Los Angeles airwaves were numbered.
On a June, 1990, broadcast, during a segment Kevin and Bean concocted called “Confess Your Crime,” they secretly arranged for a friend of theirs--Doug (the Slug) Roberts, now a KROQ deejay--to call in and pretend to confess to having killed his girlfriend. So realistic was the bit that the news media started calling and the deejays kept up the facade. After NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries” did a segment on the mystery caller, about 400 tips were called in to sheriff’s investigators.
The following year the hoax was disclosed and an angry news media, feeling hoodwinked, repeatedly portrayed the duo as callous publicity-seekers who would do anything for ratings. The hoopla led to an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. To mollify the FCC, Ryder and Baxter made restitution to the sheriff’s department and agreed to perform community service.
Reeb temporarily suspended the pair and joined them in an on-air apology, but he maintained his belief in them and kept them on, to the surprise of many in the industry.
Kevin and Bean look back on that period painfully, refusing to discuss it at length with a reporter.
“Those weren’t the happiest days of our lives,” said Kevin. “We knew at the time that we were (in trouble). We knew we did a dumb thing. We screwed up and it got away from us.”
“It just happened to be the most public mistake of many mistakes that we’ve made at this job,” said Bean. “But that was 4 1/2 years ago. The fact that we haven’t gotten in that kind of trouble again shows that’s not the kind of thing we do.”
(The pair finished their community service--half of which was spent at a homeless shelter and the other half doing speaking engagements--about six months ago.)
Kevin and Bean met in Phoenix and were drawn to the idea of working together, but they figured they would start out in Tucson or, if they were really lucky, in Albuquerque. “And maybe someday we’d get to come to L.A., if it worked out,” Bean recalled.
But a friend who knew KROQ’s former program director talked them up and the station decided that bringing in a pair of unknowns would be in keeping with KROQ’s alternative, and slightly renegade, rock image.
The pair credit the success of the station--and the alternative rock music it plays--for much of their current popularity.
“The music is great, the listeners are great,” Kevin said. “There’s not a lot of ratings pressure. They pretty much leave us alone. Still, we’re not dumb enough to think this (popularity of alternative rock) will last forever. Pretty soon it’ll be Paula Abdul again. But the good thing is it’ll still be fun to do this.”
And fun remains the primary impetus for doing what they do.
“That’s why we wanted to do a show together,” said Kevin. “Because we crack each other up.”