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Up and Down the FM Dial

Photo by Gary Payne
JEFF IS WEIGHING IN on the old rumors about Mike Piazza’s sexuality. Chris is talking about masturbation. Monique is confessing she values brawn over brains in men. Adam’s talking about bad breakups. Mikey’s talking about bad breath. Everybody’s talking about flatulence.

All this before most of us have had the day’s first cup of coffee. What’s not to love about morning radio?

People who start their day trolling the dial have it pretty good in San Diego. The region has a large cast of well-established talent— virtual friends whose chatter, potty humor, phone pranks, skits and bits chase away the sandman and make swimming in a sea of brake lights a little easier.

“We’re fortunate that here in San Diego, we have one of the best morning show lineups in the country,” says radio analyst Chris Carmichael of SDRadio.net. Morning shows are of supreme importance to radio stations, particularly in San Diego, where long car commutes make for a huge listener base.

The general rule is that “however the morning show goes, the rest of the station goes along with that,” says Tracy Johnson, Jack 100.7’s program director. “Stations are always vulnerable to competitive attacks—another station switching to the same format. But you can’t duplicate the on-air talent, and the morning personalities are the most closely associated with the station.”

Last summer, a wave of changes in morning radio started gathering momentum. By the start of the new year, it had crashed ashore, depositing some fresh talent and making the landscape more competitive.

The Jeff & Jer Showgram, which had spent the better part of a decade on 100.7, got scooped up for big bucks by Clear Channel’s Star 94.1 (at the time called My 94.1). Johnson, who hired the team twice—from Y95 in 1990, then in 1997 after they defected for a few years to Q106—says he didn’t want to see them go, but the station was outbid by more than a measly few hundred thousand dollars.” The decision to part ways was purely financial on both ends, Johnson says. “I love Jeff and Jer personally and professionally,” he says. “They’ve been good for us and good to us, but it got to where we couldn’t pay more for the show.”

It left a void on a station that has had a morning show in one of the top ratings slots since the B Morning Zoo days of the 1980s (when 100.7 was called B100). Management got creative in finding a replacement. Instead of swiping another local station’s talent or fishing in the national pond for new hosts, 100.7 held a talent contest with a prize of a five-year contract at $1 million per year—a steal compared to what the station was paying Showgram stars Jeff Detrow and Jerry Cesak, but enough to attract some decent talent.

Johnson says he got close to 550 entries, many of them people with little experience but plenty of talent. “Actually, there were some pretty compelling possibilities” among the neophyte contestants, he says.

In January, the station announced its winners: Stand-up comedian Monique Marvez, who had a radio show in Indianapolis, joined Greg Simms from the station’s afternoon show to form Monique and the Man, which debuted a few weeks later.

The gravel-voiced star is a woman your mom probably would have called “mouthy.” Opinionated, sharp-witted and not the least bitMonique Marvez demure, Marvez says she got into comedy because her sense of humor got her “smacked, divorced and fired”—so she decided to try to make some money from it. (For the record, the “smacked” was by her mother, as punishment for being mouthy.)

Marvez’s act leans toward the raunchy, and there’s an element of feminist rebellion, as if she’s spent her life being told to be ladylike and is determined never to obey. Her morning show is as similar as it can be to her stand-up comedy without garnering fines from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Marvez says her show is just about real people saying real things, and she prepares by listening to what people are talking about in the aisles of Target and in line at the grocery store.

“Real people are much more entertaining than anything you can make up,” she says. “I pay attention and take notes.”

Marvez is the only female lead for a morning show in San Diego, and she thinks it gives her an advantage over what she calls a bunch of “Howard Stern wanna-bes.”

“He should have shut the door behind him when he went through,” she says of Stern. “Radio’s been a male-dominated field for years, but most of the people in the car are women.”

It’s far too early to tell how the show will do in the ratings, but Johnson is optimistic.

He says he’s seen a more positive reaction to this show than any other in more than 25 years of programming.

“I don’t want to set them up for disappointment or put too much pressure on them, but the audience reaction and how they’re sounding together is really amazing for such a new show,” Johnson says. “Typically, when you put on a new show, you have to wait six months to see any kind of reaction.”

Meanwhile, the Jeff & Jer Showgram is settling into its new digs at Clear Channel.

“Little” Tommy Sablan, the show’s producer, says not much has changed on the show besides the call letters.

What has been exciting is being in the same building with Dave, Shelly & Chainsaw, the show that competes with Jeff & Jer for the number-one ratings slot, year after year.

(KOGO-AM 600’s Morning News is another player in this battle, typically tying for first place with the FM morning talk show favorite. And KyXy 96.5 FM, which mixes music with talk led by Sonny West and Susan DeVincent, also garners big morning ratings.)

“They have the men; we have the women,” Sablan says of his morning rivals. “It’s been us and them for a long time.

“I’ve been a fan of radio all my life, and I have to say being in the same [Clear Channel] halls is pretty cool,” Sablan says. “I get a kick out of seeing Chainsaw. And I’ll admit sometimes I stay in the bathroom a little longer when I know Dave Rickards is in there.”

WHILE JEFF AND JER were taking up residence at their new down-dial location, a drama was unfolding at 91X. Clear Channel, the oft-reviled Texas-based radio conglomerate that owned 11 stations here as of last July, was looking to offload a few properties in light of an FCC ruling in 2003 that said licensed Mexico-based stations did, in fact, count against ownership limits.

At the time, everyone knew 91X was on the block and that the likely buyer would be Mike Glickenhaus, who until a year earlier had been Clear Channel’s top local executive. Glickenhaus, who got his start as an ad salesman at 91X in the early 1980s, had visions of returning the station to its pre-corporate glory.

But knowing it was getting rid of the station, Clear Channel began to strip its assets, says morning show host Chris Cantore.

The company moved them into a smaller studio and began diverting personnel and financial resources to Rock 105.3’s The Mikey Show. Cantore says he was told to keep his talk breaks to less than 30 seconds and was given a tight playlist requiring him to play Bob Marley and Jack Johnson every hour.

“We were left to die on the vine,” Cantore says. “All resources were taken away from me.”

His take is that Clear Channel wanted to burn out Cantore’s candle to make Mikey’s appear brighter. If that was the strategy, it worked. The Mikey Show’s ratings rose, while Cantore’s sank to their lowest levels ever, along with the shrinking staff ’s morale.

Cantore says he was told by a programming executive that his talk breaks were being restricted because his star power was dim. “He told me, ‘You’re not a Tom Cruise; you’re more like a William H. Macy,’ ” he recalls.

Jim Richards, Clear Channel’s vice president of programming, says he doesn’t recall making the remark, but he notes that the ratings for Cantore’s Brand X Morning Radio had been suffering since rival alternative-rock station KBZT (FM 94.9) started up in late 2002, splitting the listeners.

KBZT, which made good on its motto “It’s about the music” with short talk and commercial breaks, was edging out 91X in the morning ratings contest.

“Long before Mikey came to town, KBZT came into town and split the audience and was proving more successful than 91X,” Richards says.

He says he gave Brand X time to respond and pull ahead of the new station in the ratings, but when it didn’t happen, he had to cut the program’s budget. “It was my duty to look at resources and ask if we’re getting revenue and ratings return that was at least equal to what we’re putting in.”

Besides, he says, Cantore is better suited to talking briefly about music than doing the morning-stunt thing. “Chris was passionate about music, and it made sense to have him talk about that rather than have him walking around in a diaper or something.”

As for the studio move, Richards said he traded 91X’s studio with Rock 105.3’s because The Mikey Show had a larger crew than Brand X. He also wanted to have 91X in a hallway with the other stations Clear Channel planned to sell—Magic 92.5 and Z90—so that when the sale closed, separating the companies would be a matter of putting locks on the hallway door.

In August, the purchase of 91X, Magic 92.5 and Jammin’ Z90 by Glickenhaus went through, and Cantore regained control of his show. He says that, in hindsight, the damage-control mode he was forced into by Clear Channel gave him a chance to step back and think more creatively about what he really wanted his morning show to be.

“Morning shows underestimate listeners for the most part,” he says. He wanted a show that didn’t follow the formula of what he calls “stunts and wacky stuff.”

Jennifer White, Ruggy Joesten and Chris CantoreHe began his search for a new cohost in August, with the only certainty being that he didn’t want the typical “sidekick chick” who laughs at his jokes and says dumb things. After an exhaustive search, he met his match in Jennifer White, a former Howard Stern intern who was working at alternative station 107.7 The End in Seattle. The station was started by Noble Broadcast Group, the same San Diego –based entity that had launched 91X in the 1980s.

“I knew she was the right one in my gut,” says Cantore. “It’s like finding a wife.

In some ways, radio partners are even closer than husband and wife.”

White is witty and wry, with a confidence and charm that Cantore aptly describes as “kind of like [comedian] Sarah Silverman, but without the potty mouth.”

As promised, she’s no giggle-box sidekick, and the music-heavy show is a departure from most a.m. fare. Glickenhaus says the show is striking the balance they were aiming for—fun without being dumb.

“Chris and Jennifer genuinely like each other,” Glickenhaus says. “I think the audience picks up on the fact that he respects her.”

OUR RADIO STIR-UP CULMINATED last fall, when Howard Stern announced he was being beamed up to satellite radio.

In a bid to garner new subscribers, Sirius Satellite Radio signed the exceedingly popular shock jock to a five-year, $500 million contract.

It seems to have worked. Sirius increased its subscribers from 1 million at the end of 2004 to 3 million-plus at year-end 2005. Bridge Ratings, an audience- measurement company, reported that nearly 60 percent of those who subscribed to Sirius late last year did so to get Stern.

Speculation went on for months over who would replace the shock jock on air—and who would benefit from the lost listeners’ dial-punching.

The Planet 103.7, Stern’s former San Diego home—and now sporting an all-talk format as 103.7 Free FM— brought on Adam Carolla in January.

Best known for his years giving latenight sex advice to callers with straightman Dr. Drew Pinsky on Loveline, Carolla has enormous shoes to fill.

Radio analyst Carmichael says Carolla shows signs of finding his morning voice, but no one should make any judgments about any of the shows until they’ve been on a few months. “You walk into a new situation, and it takes a while to find your groove,” he says. “Six to 12 months from now, that’s when station owners are going to start looking for a return on their investment.”

No matter what they think of the new shows, everyone agrees the shakeups and new additions are good for San Diego.

“It’s very competitive, and that’s how I like it,” says Jeff & Jer’s Sablan. “There was a time when it was a little too easy. When there’s someone to compete against, we all work harder.”

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