When I last spoke to Alan Cox about two years ago, he had just been let go as the morning man at Q-101. He is back on the air again, although now he's in Cleveland. When I spoke to him the other day, I asked if he could get me caught up on what's happened since our last conversation.
I continued to do stand-up in clubs around Chicago, as well as commercial voiceover work for clients like AutoZone, Verizon, and Northwestern University, narrating a few documentaries that aired on the Big Ten Network. In December of 2009, famine became feast when my agent called me with two on-air offers, neither of which was in Chicago.
As much as I hated being off the air, I hadn't contemplated having to leave Chicago again after only two years, and economic circumstances being what they were, I had to go where the action was. In truth, despite being bummed about loading the UHaul again, it's really been a great development. I'm hosting a talk show (which I had wanted to do all along) at the legendary WMMS in Cleveland, my third go-round as a Clear Channel employee. (One thing I'll say about CC: unlike other radio companies, getting booted from one position never keeps you out of contention for another with them.)
In some ways, WMMS feels like a throwback to my formative years working with Johnny B at The Loop. WMMS is a rock station that has had great success with talk in drive-time, a rare bit of foresight that a market like Chicago would do well to emulate. I've definitely brought a different vibe to the station, with my mix of comedy, politics, and raw, unvarnished commentary. (9 months in, my show is #1 18-34 and #4 25-54)
In April of this year, I was also brought on to host middays at WSDD in St. Louis. It's a more music-intensive show, targeted at Gen-X women, but the management there were fans of my irreverence and the OM is an old friend of mine, so it all came together. I record the St. Louis show in the morning from my Cleveland studio, then go live on WMMS from 3-7p.
Fortunes in this biz turn on a dime, and I'm very happy to be back on the air. Now my goal is to get back to Chicago in a few years and inject some much-needed new blood into the talk radio landscape in my hometown. Also, a final shout-out to Jonathon Brandmeier and Robert Murphy. Both have been invaluable mentors to me, and both deserve to be back on the air at home, ASAP. In the meantime, until I return, anyone can hit me up and stream my show at www.alancoxshow.com.
The original interview follows...
Alan Cox was the host of the Morning Fix, which aired on Q-101 from 2006-2008.
1992-1994: WLUP FM/AM (intern, later ass't. producer-Jonathon Brandmeier Radio Showgram)
1993-1994: WZOK/ Rockford, IL (weekends)
1994-1995: WXRX/ Rockford, IL (weekends)
1995- 1998: WRKR/ Kalamazoo, MI (afternoons)
1999- 2006: WXDX/ Pittsburgh (afternoons, moved to mornings)
2006- 2008: WKQX/ Chicago (mornings)
Rick: How did they break the news to you that they were pulling the plug on your show at Q-101, and what reason did they give?
Alan: It was a pretty standard radio dismissal- After our August 1st show, management told me and my cohost, Jim Lynam, that they were "making some changes effective immediately" and moving the afternoon duo to our slot. They didn't give a reason, but my contract was up and they were paying me a lot of money, so I knew it was a possibility. Radio has fallen on hard times across the board. Despite assurances to the contrary, stations are simply knee-jerking over PPM- the exact wrong thing to do. PPM is just as screwy as the diaries were. Ironically, after our dismissal, our PPM numbers were the highest they'd ever been. A lot of smart people in our industry are making a lot of strange decisions.
Rick: When you started your career working as an intern for Johnny B, did you ever think that you'd be up against his show--right down the hall from him?
Alan: I definitely never thought I'd be on the air opposite him. Even though I'm not even in the same strata as Johnny, it was a complete thrill to be working down the hall from him. When I walked into his studio about a month after I had been back on the air here, his jaw dropped. He hadn't made the connection that the guy he sent to pick up hookers with a hidden microphone 15 years ago was the guy hosting mornings at Q101. My career goal was always to be doing drive time in Chicago and everything I know professionally, I learned from Johnny- drive, work ethic, creativity, stamina, perspective- everything. For a guy to still be at the top of his game and so creatively relevant, when so many others have flashed in the pan, is proof that he's unparalleled.
I was a stand-up comic before I got into radio and I crossed paths with Garry Shandling one time. He said that, other than his father, he had never wanted another man's approval more than Johnny Carson. That's how I feel about Brandmeier.
Rick: I really admire the idea of what you were trying to do with that show. It sounded like a bold experiment. Just about everyone I know in Chicago radio was tuning in to that first week to hear how it sounded. I know you rehearsed it a few times, and pre-recorded a stockpile of stuff, but in retrospect, do you wish you would have had a chance to roll it out in another time slot to get your sea legs before launching it in morning drive?
Alan: The original Morning Fix wasn't a victim of its timeslot; more a combination of a other things. We were replacing Mancow, which would have been a daunting task for any kind of show. Plus, I think there were too many moving parts and the audience couldn't get their arms around the sum total. Some listeners loved its frenetic pace and comedic tone; other people felt like it didn't give them time to breathe. Plus, radio is an interactive medium at its best. People want to call and be part of the fun. The original show was very self-contained. It's one thing to do a funny radio show; it's quite a dicey proposition to do a show that's working very hard to be funny in a specific way. The idea was sound, but it simply didn't resonate with enough listeners. The Q101 core audience is primarily into the music and wasn't really sure what to do with our show. I think it would have been more successful on a station that skewed a bit older.
Rick: I know I'm not the only one in radio who was rooting for it to succeed.
Alan: I'm proud to have been a part of it. It was (former PD) MIke Stern's baby and it brought me back home. For all of the times people say, "Give us something different on the radio!", we did. We had immensely talented people in that incarnation, and it was a LOT of work, but the bottom line is- it's still radio. It's very difficult to change people's habits. In a market like Chicago, where you have legendary personalities up and down the dial, being an upstart show of ANY stripe is very difficult. Even more so when it's an entirely new concept.
The audience it did garner really railed against station management when they pulled the plug on the ensemble show, but I have to credit Emmis for taking that chance on really giving it a shot. The old show got 14 months, which is longer than most other stations would have given a show like that. In the largely bland radio landscape, Emmis would have been hailed as heroes had it succeeded. Most radio companies wouldn't have put the time or the resources into a show like that in the first place.
Rick: I did catch quite a few inspired moments on the show when I tuned in. What are some of your favorites?
Alan: Some of the best bits from the old show were the ones that came completely by accident. We'd all be pitching ideas and someone would riff off someone else,and so on. We did a lot of NPR-on-acid humor, like the science reporter who invariably would jumble his facts and just devolve into bragging about sleeping w other professor's wives. We did a completely strange bit called "Backseat Goat", about a goat that sat in the backseat of your car and acted like a GPS, but only through a series of animal noises that the driver inexplicably understood. We tried to balance the higher-brow with the lowbrow. A suburban school put on a play that upset some Italian-Americans, so we did a grade-school production of The Sopranos, in which the kids clumsily mimicked all the vulgar language and stereotypes. All little bits of twisted humor that were unlike anything else on the dial.
Rick: When most of the show was let go, and you were asked to carry on, what was that like the last few months? Did you feel like they were giving you a legitimate shot?
Alan: At the very beginning, they just wanted us to babysit the music. Between Mancow (photo) and the old Morning Fix, they hadn't had music in morning drive for almost ten years and they wanted to regain that position with the Q101 audience. Understandable. But I walked into management and said, "if we're keeping the seat warm for a new show, tell me now." I'm a pro, I get it- but be upfront if we're just leftovers. They assured me that we had a shot, and I believe that they at least wanted to see what we could do. So we played more music and slowly introduced more personality pieces into the format. We had lots of callers, lots of sports, lots of good guests, lots of solid quirky comedy- we were gunning for that male 18-34 demo, and getting it. We had a fiercely loyal audience, with no marketing and no promotion. It was word- of- mouth. But the pressure to deliver overnight is so immense, albeit completely unrealistic. My regret is that our show only got seven months, and we were at the top of our demo. That's why I chalk it up to a financial decision.
Rick: With your background in radio, I'm sure there are lots of different paths your future career could take you. What are you most interested in pursuing at this time?
Alan: I'll be trying my hand at voiceovers to pay the bills, but I love the medium of radio. I reject, on principle, the notion that it's a dying ART form. Commerce dictates that music formats seemingly regard talent now as a necessary evil, but I've always felt particularly suited for talk radio. I think there is a big hole in that format for a younger, politically savvy, edgy, engaging personality like myself. I've also been a columnist and a PBS TV contributor during my radio career, so I've never been content to have a limited skill set. I grew up listening to Larry Lujack and Steve & Garry, Brandmeier and Bob Collins. I'm a big Roe Conn fan. And, though I disagree with them on many things, I admire guys like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck for successfully crossing over as talk hosts who understand it's still entertainment. I want talk radio to be my next thing.
Rick: Anything you'd like to say to the fans of your show?
Alan: None of us would be here without listeners, and I have had some of the best. Many of them have gone from being faceless to being great friends, and that's a rare thing. I'm grateful for anyone who listened, and I hope they'll return to me when I'm back on the air.