Saturday, January 17, 2009

Eric Ferguson

Eric Ferguson is the co-host of the very successful Eric & Kathy Show on the Mix, WTMX (101.9 FM).

Rick: You knocked around the radio dial in different markets around the country before landing here in your hometown. When you got here it must have felt like you made the big time—and yet it’s been even bigger than you ever imagined, hasn’t it?

Eric: No question. Not in my wildest dreams did I think we would ever have the success this show has had the past almost 13 years now. Everyone wants to believe it will turn out that way when they get a big shot like this, but to be honest, I was happy just to get here. Everything else has been like icing on the cake.

Rick: Your show has remained remarkably stable over your long run there. Same co-host (Kathy), same traffic reporter (Melissa), same producer (Swany). The only real change in personnel occurred last year when Mark Suppelsa replaced Barry Keefe as the newscaster on the show. How has that transition worked out?

Eric: I think it’s worked out really, really well. We had a unique opportunity, a chance to bring in someone with incredible name recognition, and we didn’t want to miss that chance. It was never my desire for Barry to leave. I always thought very highly of him and the company did too. They tried to create a management position for him that would have allowed him to stay, and he chose not to take it. I think that says a lot about how much we thought of him. Not many companies would have done that in this day and age.

As for Mark (photo), he had been filling in for a long time so he really hit the ground running. The biggest transition for him was building his body to the schedule, working nights and mornings. I told him when this first came up that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea for him physically, but he said he was prepared for it, and really wanted to give it a shot. He said he always got more response doing the morning show than he did all those years doing TV news, and it was his chance to build a brand. With so many outlets out there these days for people to get information, he’s really found a way to set himself apart.

Rick: I don’t think listeners understand how much work goes into doing a big-time personality show like yours. How do you divide up the roles amongst the six of you?

Eric: After 13 years we’ve all found our spots. I’ve always believed that you should find out what people are good at, and then get out of their way and allow them to do it. That’s how we approach the show. We’re actually, believe it or not, one of the least structured shows out there, in terms of everyone knowing what is coming up next. I do the lion’s share of the show prep, Swany has a lot of organizational duties, and Kathy does too—she’s got a good eye for it. But once the show starts, somebody has to be driving the bus, and that’s my role. I like it that I’m getting real reactions from people that way, and I think it’s one of the reasons the show sounds so authentic and unscripted.

It took awhile for everyone to buy into this approach because they’ve all been taught not to do it this way, but it’s the way I’ve always done it. Kathy (photo) had a hard time with it at first, but if you’re too prepared, you sound too prepared. I pointed out to her how great she was at reacting when she was just having a conversation. “Do you realize when you talk with your friends you don’t prep?” This is the same thing. We’re friends talking to each other on the radio.

Rick: What about your producer Swany? He must know what’s coming.

Eric: To tell you the truth, after 13 years Swany (photo) knows what I’m looking for before I even know I’m looking for it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be thinking to myself, you know, I really need to ask him for...and...poof, there it is. It’s uncanny. He does a lot of show prep too. I don’t read the papers at all in the morning—I only read what Swany gives me. I trust him to know what we’ll need.

Rick: Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems like you’re out at events at night quite often too, at promotions, station events, charity functions, etc. When in the world do you sleep? Do you take naps?

Eric: I’m not a nap guy. I intentionally avoid them because I feel worse instead of better when I wake up. I’m actually very structured about the time I go to bed and the time I get up. I just don’t schedule stuff that will conflict with the time I need to prep and rest. On the other hand, I know I need to be out there, and I make the effort. I describe it like this: Pepsi is a well known brand but that doesn’t mean they stop getting their name out there, or stop promoting their product. For something like a morning show, it’s even more important. You have to be out there, making a personal connection to people. A lot of shows lose sight of that over time, and it’s easy to do because it is difficult. But it’s important, and I keep reminding myself not to lose sight of the big picture.

Rick: I know you have a lot of male listeners, but your show is aimed predominantly to females. How have you recalibrated your brain to come up with topics that appeal to women?

Eric: (laughs). It’s not as hard as you would think. It’s important to be around women, but luckily I’m around them all the time-- Kathy, Melissa, my wife—I’m surrounded by women all day long. We’re not as different as we seem to be. There’s a lot of topics I bring up that I think will be right down Broadway with females, and then nothing but guys call. We each want to understand the way the other sex thinks. No question that’s one of our main topics of conversation. One of my other big rules is that it’s OK to talk about yourself, but it needs to finish with a way to include the listener. I know that sounds so simple, and it is, but too many people in this business get too consumed in their own egos and lose sight of that. It’s got to be a conversation, not a monologue.

Rick: Bonneville is known as a pretty conservative company (owned by the Mormon Church). Are there any topics that are off-limits?

Eric: In nearly 13 years, we’ve never had one single meeting about that. It’s a non issue totally. I’ve never thought about it, never worried about it. I’m pretty good at self-editing, and I have a pretty good idea of where that line is—but I’ve never crossed it. I’ve gotten close a few times. People will say that we’re the “safe show,” but listen to what we talk about and compare us to other shows. We’re talking about some of the same controversial topics, but we’re not doing it to shock, we’re doing it to entertain. It’s done in fun.

Rick: One of the most impressive things about your show is the incredible guest list. You consistently have bigger celebrities on your show than any other show in town. (I was listening on Wednesday and Meryl Streep was on the show). Who are some of the guests that have impressed you the most, and who has been disappointing?

Eric: I always have a hard time answering this question. I can never come up with the names because we have so many guests on and I really do think they’re all good. Uh, let’s see...

I will say that when Oprah called us unsolicited just to chime in, that was pretty cool. When Bon Jovi does that too, that’s awesome. I know a lot of people make fun of Tom Cruise, but he is such a nice and genuine guy. Travolta is the same way. As for the disappointing or negative stuff, that’s all handled off the air by Swany and their people before they come to me. I don’t have to deal with any of that.

I find that people are all generally happy to be there, and pretty easy to get along with. I’ll give you an example. We had Nick Lachey on the show and his people told us before the show that he didn’t want to talk about Jessica Simpson. They had just broken up and it was a painful situation for him. But that wasn’t exactly a topic we could avoid—it was the elephant in the room. So I didn’t directly bring it up, I asked him to name his favorite Simpson from a multiple choice list—Homer Simpson, OJ Simpson, etc. Jessica wasn’t one of the choices. He got it right away and laughed, and opened up to us. If you handle the situation respectfully, and don’t try to play a “gotcha” game, it works out nearly every time. Jack Black was a great guest. David Spade. You name ‘em.

Rick: Your billboards have been all over town for many years now. I know it’s great to have the advertising, but it must be a little weird to be driving around Chicago seeing pictures of yourself dressed up as Green Day or something.

Eric: I have to confess that I’m always the one who doesn’t like those billboards at first. I say “People are not going to get this. This is too inside. This is gimmicky.” The marketing guys and Greg Solk have to talk me into it. I always end up grudgingly telling them go for it, and every time I have to eat my words. They really know what they’re doing. The company has been incredibly supportive with the way they’ve aggressively marketed the show. It’s fun to see that, to see the kind of commitment they’re making, and to know that everyone on your team is behind you.

Rick: I’ll have to take your word on that.

Eric: (laughs) And, I know it drives our competitors crazy, which is a nice bonus.

Rick: I know you’re aware of the difficult times radio is going through right now, particularly big time personality shows. There have been a rash of firings lately...guys like Steve Dahl (photo), Eddie & Jobo, Tommy Edwards, Mike North, and just yesterday, Dan McNeil. Spike O’Dell retired too. What are your thoughts on the volatile personality show market?

Eric: It’s tough out there, no question. Every industry is feeling the effect of the bad economy. From a morning show perspective, I don’t see this as the demise of personality radio, it’s the natural cleaning out process, the bringing in of the new. The great products that are successful will survive. I firmly believe that. I look at it like Warren Buffet looks at the economy. There are lots of opportunities here too. This unrest has created a lot of available audience looking for a home. Let’s build up what we have, and make it even bigger. Look at the opportunities to build, instead of bemoaning the bad situation.

Rick: Has the PPM affected your show at all?

Eric: For us, we’ve been pretty fortunate with PPM, with the big picture, the morning show and the rest of the radio station. I think PPM rewards stability, and we’ve had that here. I’m proud that while others have slipped in the new system, we’ve maintained our rank.

Rick: How much longer do you see yourself doing the show?

Eric: Depends on the day you ask me.

Rick: How about today?

Eric: I still think this show has a lot of life in it. Drew Horowitz and I talk about this all the time. He wants to build an FM version of what WLS once was. Big talent on a great station with lots of longevity. That’s what we’re trying to do, and I could see doing this show for another 5, 6, or 7 years.