Staying True to the Mix
Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps are on the air, trying to figure out just what to have listeners of their weekday morning “Mark & Brian” program on KLOS-FM (95.5) do to win front-row seats for Fleetwood Mac’s reunion concert.
A few suggestions are tossed up for consideration, each with a rhyming description: “Throw out your back for Fleetwood Mac” . . . “Have a heart attack for the Mac.” Nothing sticks.
Then Rita Wilde, who stands at the control board from which she operates the show’s music, effects and commercials while serving as a sidekick to the two stars, comes up with an idea.
“Show your crack for Fleetwood Mac,” she says.
Thompson and Phelps, sitting on stools on opposite sides of a table attached to the controls, make grunts of acceptance of this too-obvious stunt.
“This is morning radio and you need to have some exposed butts every now and then,” quips Phelps.
He and his partner should know. As of Monday, they will have been doing morning radio on this rock music station for 10 years.
They’ll mark the anniversary with a Sept. 20 free concert headlined by ZZ Top at the Glen Helen Pavilion in Devore and a Sept. 25 ceremony honoring them with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Then, on Nov. 11, they’ll release a two-CD set featuring one disc of highlights of the show’s comedic moments, the other with musical performances taped on the show by artists ranging from Mel Torme to Joan Osborne, with proceeds benefiting the Make a Wish Foundation and the Mark & Brian Scholarship Fund.
“Yeah, that’s morning radio,” Phelps says of bared bottoms a few days later, sitting with Thompson in their “office"--a patio table and chairs outside KLOS’ studios on La Cienega just south of the Santa Monica Freeway, where they evaluate each day’s show and plan for the next.
“It’s an element,” Thompson says. “It’s like mixing a cake.”
For Thompson and Phelps, the mix isn’t very complicated--just an admittedly juvenile brand of goofy pranks, leering gags and listener participation. Witness their choice for perhaps the best moment ever on the show:
“We took a Bob’s Big Boy statue, dressed it up like Elvis, and then we went to Las Vegas and did stunts that Evel Knievel did, catapulting it over the fountains at Caesars Palace,” Thompson says. “It was successful in the sense that it cleared the fountain, and Tom Jones sang. It was pure stupidity.”
Adds Phelps, “I’ll give you the reason it just makes us glow when we pull off stuff like that: The 6,000 or so people that were there all came for a very stupid reason, and celebrated the fact that they took off work, made a four-hour drive for a ridiculously stupid thing, and we all sort of celebrated stupidity.”
It’s not exactly curing AIDS or negotiating peace in the Middle East, but it got them ratings.
But in those 10 years, the recipe for morning radio in L.A. has changed a lot up and down the dial. When they arrived here fresh from Birmingham, Ala.--where the teaming of comedy club performer Phelps, who has a knack for character voices, and radio veteran and natural straight man Thompson ruled the market--there was no other rock station that had a morning team doing comedy rather than music. Rick Dees at Top 40 station KIIS-FM (102.7) was the only real non-music presence on a music station.
In that relative vacuum, “Mark & Brian"--with a mix of juvenile humor, public stunts and listener pranks--rocketed to the top of the heap, becoming the No. 1 morning radio show in town in just three years, pulling KLOS up to the No. 2 slot overall in L.A. ratings. That was parlayed into a shot at their own prime-time TV series (the ill-fated attempt to capture the vibe of their radio show on NBC’s “The Adventures of Mark and Brian”) and a radio syndication deal that has their program currently heard in 21 markets.
But that roll started before KROQ-FM (106.7) in 1990 hired its own morning team, Kevin & Bean, who after starting as M&B; clones developed their own distinctive style and rode the rise of the station’s alternative rock to stand as legitimate competition. And it was before Howard Stern in 1991 steam-rolled into town with his media machine on KLSX-FM (97.1), taking over the No. 1 morning rating (and gloating about it with a mock funeral for Mark & Brian).
Almost overnight, it seemed, what once was revolutionary and ribald in radio, at least in this market, was old hat and even quaint--and apparently of less interest to the public. Their sex-obsessed patter was mere schoolyard stuff; Stern’s was borderline porn. They’d be willing, even eager to let listeners humiliate themselves; Stern pushed it to debasement. In comparison, they were now “Leave It to Beaver” while Stern was, well, Stern.
In the process, ratings for M&B; dropped as they relinquished the top spot to Stern and eventually were overtaken by Kevin & Bean as well. At its peak, M&B; pulled in a huge 9% of the L.A. morning audience. Last year that had sunk to just 3.6%--which, even accounting for the growing fragmentation of the radio audience and the rise of the Spanish-language market, was a disheartening turn.
How did they respond to counter the slide? They didn’t.
“We’re holding true to what we are--and what we aren’t,” says the tall, blond Phelps, 38, noting Stern’s successful tactics. “What we aren’t are a vile, mean-spirited radio show that tried to get ratings by cutting down other morning shows.”
Says Thompson, 41, shrugging off the ratings dip, “When you’ve been somewhere for the length of time we have, people are going to come and go. We just try to put the best radio program on that we can on a daily basis and hope that whoever is listening is liking what they hear.”
Ron Rodrigues, editor in chief of the trade weekly Radio & Records, says that’s the right approach.
“Some people say you have to up the ante to stay competitive,” he says. “But they’ve cut out a niche as being energetic guys without being terribly risque, and there’s something to be said for that. If they were to go ahead and do what Stern and Kevin & Bean do, all they would be is poor Stern and K&B; imitators. But they can stand on their own foundation, which doesn’t include as much of that, and have a clear identity to their audience. They’re doing right by not trying to follow a particular trend.”