Jim Shelton and I were talking about the rise of Glenn Beck on CNN Headline News (and national radio). Here's a story I did on him 15 years ago:
Mon, 16 Mar 1992
New profs of Radio Highjinks 101
The little voice calling on WKCI's radio contest line says hello and the deejay jumps right in.
"You have to be 18 years old for this," he says. "Are you 18?"
"Uh . . . yes."
"OK, what would you do for U2 tickets?"
"I . . . would eat a lighted match."
"Hmm. Great. Uh, when were you born?"
"Nineteen eighty-four," is the quick reply (making the caller 12).
So goes the sometimes-cute, sometimes nasty world of morning-drive radio - where the highest salaries are made and the biggest ad dollars are paid.
Top-rated WKCI-FM (known as KC101) just upped the ante again in New Haven's humble radio wars by bringing in a new team, Glenn and Pat, to do battle with the established bad-boy team in the market, Smith and Barber of WPLR-FM.
Like other morning teams joking and jiving across the nation on any given daybreak, Glenn Beck and Pat Gray are two wacky white guys who on the air seem to like each other a bit too much.
Glenn is 28, married and the father of two young children. Pat, 30, is married and the father of three. Their first and last job as a team was in Baltimore, where they recently spent six months unemployed after becoming disenchanted with the station.
Now they are back at it. Between Top 40 records, a few oldies and ads for Misubishi and Honda cars, they do stunts, they pull pranks on people and they roll out the rhythmic schtick, which includes saying things in unision (part of their signoff is "As men, WE WEPT! OPENLY!").
Part of the schtick is feigning sincerity. "Gov. Weicker had three teeth pulled the other day," says Glenn (the one with the pony tail). "I'd hate to see him in pain, really excruciating pain."
Part of the schtick is being brutally honest when things aren't going well, like last Tuesday when a contest to give away U2 concert tickets kept misfiring. For the tickets, hopeful callers offered to: wear a diaper and paint KC101 on his back; shave his head; shave her husband's head; shave chest hair; wear a wig and shave that off.
By the end of the show, Glenn is apologetic on the air, "The show was a tad off... the post-Big Show. I'm gonna come clean and say the show really sucked."
Producers Pat Spadaccino and Ed Hines and news guy Paul Pacelli laugh heartily as Pat Gray does a rim shot on a nearby snare drum.
The "Big Show" is a reference to that Monday's 6-10 a.m. program, when Glenn convinced a record-company friend to have singers Daryl Hall and John Oates visit the studio and play a few of their hits live (for about 40 minutes).
WKCI's appeal for a Hall and Oates is its 50,000-watt signal, which reaches, to quote a radio promo, "five states and the world's greatest cities from a dumpy little building in North Haven."
(That base may change, by the way. The WKCI compound on Quinnipiac Avenue, which was once a house, garage and chicken coop, could be history if the station's pending sale to Clear Channel Communications goes through. A Clear Channel official told the Register the station would likely be moved to the site of WELI-AM in Hamden, already owned by Clear Channel.) The humble North Haven setting belies the ratings power of this mass-appeal station.
"We're No. 1 in nearly every age group mornings," says Program Director John Scott. "There's only one void in our audience, 18-34, which belongs to WPLR."
At WPLR, Program Director John Griffin is at first cool about the new team at KC101. "We weren't even aware that they'd done anything." But then he says, "I say `Welcome to the market.' I actually sent them a fruit basket saying that."
Would he be pressing Brian Smith and Bruce Barber for new and better ratings stunts? "Nah. Then it just becomes stunt-o-rama."
The woman who hired Glenn and Pat to a multi-year contract is WKCI General Manager Faith Zila, who calls Smith and Barber "absolutely fabulous," but says her new team is very different.
Zila speaks in superlatives about the station's goals and is as driven to succeed as the beat of a Top 40 dance hit.
She was also key in hiring and eventually replacing the last big morning team, Chris Evans and Dale Reeves, who self-destructed in a blaze of clashing egos. Then there was comic Billy Winn and Reeves for a while. Other station personalities, such as midday's Susan Saks, were also replaced.
"In terms of the big picture now, I'm there," she said of the staff changes, the latest of which was OK'd by the prospective new owners.
Zila said the station already attracts more than 50 percent of all radio ad dollars spent in the area. How do you increase that? By being "passionate, having vision, being extremely aggressive."
Whoa. Who said the '80s are dead?
Zila said the station has been looking "a year or so" for a new morning team because the market was "void of real excitement." She thinks she has that in Glenn and Pat, who spend six to eight hours a day prepping for their shows, she says.
"I haven't seen anyone spend that kind of time," she says. "These guys would kill for a ratings win and I'm the same way."
Outside the station sit bookend Toyota sports cars from a sponsor: one for Glenn, one for Pat. Zila would not comment on details of their contract, except to say it involves "an extraordinary amount of money."
Pat Gray (the bearded one) was born and raised in Montana. He got into radio as a senior in high school, when he landed a part-time job at his local station. He has worked solo and with a partner at other stations.
Glenn Beck's story (and career) is something else again. He was raised in the Seattle area. At 12 years old he won a radio contest to "be on the air for an hour," he says. After his parents divorced and he moved to another town, he took a tape of that hour and bluffed his way into being hired at a radio station at age 13.
Beck was part of a Phoenix morning show that gave Jessica Hahn a job as a "weather bunny" soon after the Jim Bakker fiasco. Beck's biggest "Big Show" was in February 1989, when with a Houston station, he hosted a live program aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean (just after the bombing of Libya).
With taped messages from superstar entertainers and athletes, Beck and Co. made national news.
In Baltimore, Glenn and Pat caused a stir by promoting the grand opening of the world's first air-conditioned underground amusement park, Magicland.
There was a special jingle, promotional announcements about the park, vague directions to get there and a remote show done from the park. One catch: There was no such place. It was all a hoax. They had taped the sounds and people of a Cincinnati theme park. Some people, including a woman who canceled a cruise to attend the grand opening of the fictional park, were not amused.
"We're into stunt-type things," says Pat.
"It's like being paid to go to college here," says Glenn, "and do college-type pranks."
Last week's "Candid Phone" segment, which is also called "Burn Your Buns," featured a "friend" tipping the pair off to a guy who had taken early retirement from the state. They called the poor soul and informed him there was a problem with his paperwork and he'd have to come "back into the system." The man became angry, of course, until he was told it was just a joke.
"We always talk to the person who wants to burn their friend's buns. We always make sure the person is healthy, is going to be OK with it," says Pat. "No pacemakers," says Glenn.
Maybe the biggest risk is run by producer Spadaccino, who Thursday was sent into downtown New Haven to see if he would be mugged while posing as a tourist with money. He wasn't. That's the beauty of a morning show.