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‘Mark & Brian’ show’s Mark Thompson ready to trade talk for play

Mark Thompson of the "Mark & Brian" show is retiring after 25 years.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Thompson started his radio career at 16, as a janitor at a station in his hometown, Florence, Ala. On Friday, in his white Mercedes convertible, he’ll pull away from KLOS-FM (95.5) on his own terms, having finished his final stint as co-host of the “Mark & Brian” show.”

“It’s just time,” said Thompson, now 56. “Guys my age, they’re dropping dead. There are other things I want to do.”

His departure will mark the end of what is the longest-running morning radio show in the Los Angeles-Orange County market — one that has consistently been among the most popular for more than two decades, a collection of comedy bits, banter and celebrity interviews.

INTERACTIVE: ‘Mark & Brian’ star on the Walk of Fame

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“Twenty-five years at one station, in one of the toughest competitive radio markets in the country? And getting to leave at a time and in a way of his own choosing? Mark Thompson is the envy of every talk show host in America,” says rival morning host Gene “Bean” Baxter of KROQ-FM (106.7).

Thompson has written and produced two feature films, and acted in movies and television. And for about the past decade, every three to five years when their contracts came up for renewal, he wondered how much longer he’d continue the 5-10 a.m. weekday show, syndicated to 30 stations nationwide.

“The almighty dollar would always step in and make it a little difficult,” Thompson said in an interview at the station this week, relaxed in shorts and flip-flops as he sat in the show’s lounge, surrounded by signed photos of music, movie and TV stars who’d been guests over the years. But his wife of 30 years, Lynda, beat breast cancer four years ago, and with their children — Matt, 25, Amy, 22, and Katie, 19 — all grown, the couple decided to stop merely talking about the things they wanted to do the rest of their lives. They bought a house on a lake north of Charlotte, N.C., where Thompson has done the show remotely from a home studio for much of the past three years. But now it’s time to let go entirely.

“We fantasize about waking up on a Tuesday morning: ‘Hey, let’s go to New York and see a couple of plays,’” Thompson said. “Since I was 14, I’ve worked every day. I look forward to working when I choose to.”

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His partner, Brian Phelps, has said he wants to continue at the station, but has declined interviews while he’s still negotiating with KLOS management. Recently, though, he told listeners he’d like to continue for a few more years, and has a specific new partner in mind — an “exciting, energetic, wonderful, fun, loving-coming-in-in-the-morning partner,” as he’s had for the past 25 years, he said.

The mystery partner, and the money involved, are what they’re hammering out with the station, he said.

“Three years ago, when we signed this last contract, I almost had to be talked into signing it because I was so unbelievably tired of getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning. But I did, and I’m glad I did,” Phelps said on the air.

He added that Thompson “is going to a wonderful life in North Carolina. We part as close as we’ve ever been.”

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The pair had teamed in 1986 in Birmingham, Ala., and moved to L.A. in fall 1987, with humor described by critics as loony and juvenile, including a Valentine’s Day stunt in which they were lowered by crane into a vat of chocolate, with listeners invited to throw nuts and toppings on them.

At the time, Rick Dees of KIIS-FM (102.7) was the undisputed king of morning radio; within 11/2 years, the minor-market upstarts had supplanted him at the top of the ratings.

“It was a big jump, to go from Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles. I knew the competition was the best in the country,” Thompson said. His goal: “Do enough to be able to stay. I never had any visions of being No. 1, or being on for 25 years.”

Radio historian Don Barrett, publisher of LARadio.com, said that when they arrived, Thompson and Phelps “were just down-home guys people really embraced.”

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“Radio was not that way. It was very slick, Top-40,” he said. “They let the audience know they were human. They got the listeners involved, and that really hadn’t been done to that degree.”

Thompson said that after they hit No. 1 in the morning, he remembered thinking, “It can’t be this easy, can it?”

“We were making up stuff as we went, and that was a wonderfully refreshing time for us, and for the people listening,” he said.

Come Monday, Kevin Ryder and “Bean” Baxter on KROQ-FM will have the longest-running morning show in the Southland, at 22 years, 7 months. Baxter joked in an email that next week they’ll steal “Mark & Brian’s” listeners by focusing on Elvis and Andy Griffith.

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“Mark & Brian” won an Emmy Award for hosting an Andy Griffith special in 1991, and were famously barred from Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis home, for surreptitiously recording a show from inside. They supposedly tried to make amends by traveling cross-country to Memphis with a huge Elvis head from a Tournament of Roses parade float — a stunt that further infuriated Graceland officials.

Baxter called Thompson “a genuinely decent guy, warm, sincere and very funny, and those qualities are what have drawn people to him on the air, too, for all these years.”

The response from KLOS listeners has also been appreciation and envy, rather than dismay. Their calls to the program have been more expressions of “Good for you” than “How can you do this to me?”

“I’ve been floored,” Thompson said.

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During a quarter-century, though, there were bound to be potholes along the way. As Thompson said, “A career is just like life. There’s going to be good and there’s going to be bad.”

In 1998, the station’s then-parent,Walt Disney Co., paid more than $3 million to resolve racial-discrimination lawsuits in the wake of a promotion called “The Black Hoe,” in which the hosts gave away black plastic gardening tools as gag gifts. Civil rights leaders called for the pair’s firing. Thompson said in retrospect, “We meant no harm,” and admitted the controversy made them gun-shy for awhile.

But their darkest time, Thompson said, was after Howard Stern syndicated his New York-based show to Los Angeles in 1991, his sights set on becoming No. 1. He continually derided “Mark & Brian” on air, and when he did supplant it atop the local ratings, he held a mock funeral in Hollywood, complete with effigies of the pair.

Shellshocked, Thompson said they even hesitated taking calls or making appearances, wondering if they’d be heckled by Stern supporters — many of whom Thompson figured used to be their listeners.

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“We were No. 1, and couldn’t have been hotter,” he said. “It’s a real shot, to go from being on top, to not. It took me a long while to get over that.”

Since then, other hosts and shows have come and gone with their reigns atop the ratings, each with their moment in the morning sun. “Mark & Brian” has remained steady, in or near the Top 10; in the most recent ratings, from July, it tied all-news station KNX-AM (1070) for 10th in the morning with 3% of all listeners age 6 and older.

Thompson said he made the decision to leave about a year ago, and told Phelps and station management in October.

“There hasn’t been one second where I’ll look back and think, ‘What have I done?’ I’ll never, ever, ever regret it,” he said of his departure, but added, “I will never top what I’ve been able to do with Brian here on KLOS for 25 years.

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“My goal from the moment I got into radio at 16 was to become a major-market disc jockey,” Thompson said. “If you listened to the show, you helped this guy achieve his dream.”

calendar@latimes.com


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