By Kevin Casey
CLEVELAND — There’s still not a lot of talk on FM radio. Yes, there is a lot of sports talk and more and more news/talk finding a home on the FM band lately, but talk – or as consultant Walter Sabo calls it – targeted talk is not prevalent on radio in America. Certainly there is WTKS-FM, Orlando; New Jersey 101.5; and Cox has just stripped the music away from WHTP-FM, Tampa with Bubba the Love Sponge in AM drive and Cowhead in PM drive and newly developed shows in the other dayparts. But apart from those examples and many morning drive shows on music stations (more on that later), few operators have been inclined to develop talk targeted to young people – often called “hot talk.” Except at Cleveland’s legendary rock station – WMMS-FM – where the Alan Cox show gets big numbers in afternoon drive.
A quick glance at Cox’s resume: He began his performance career doing stand-up comedy in college; produced Jonathon Brandmeier at WLUP-FM, Chicago in the early 1990s; hosted mornings at a classic rock station in Kalamazoo; hosted PM drive at WXDX-FM, Pittsburgh where he replaced Howard Stern in AM drive when CC dropped Stern (Cox proudly states it was “one of the only Stern stations that didn’t completely tank” after that); was part of the ensemble cast that replaced Mancow on Q101 in Chicago; and he’s been at WMMS-FM, Cleveland for the past two-and-a-half years.
Alan Cox isn’t the first talent to do talk in afternoons at WMMS-FM. His predecessor was doing talk only – a result of a gradual reduction of music in the daypart over the course of six years – prior to Cox’s arrival in December of 2009.
His target demo is men 18-34 and Cox tells TALKERS the show is number one in a number of demos, top five in the rest and he does pretty well with women, too. Contrary to the clichéd perception of what young men find entertaining, Cox is not the ringmaster of a T&A circus, nor is that what program director Bo Matthews was looking for when he hired him. “I’ve never done a real ‘dick & pussy’ show. I think there are people who do that really well; I’m just not one of them. ‘MMS wanted a different kind of show. When I first got here everybody hated me because I wasn’t the old guy but within about nine months we were closing in on #1.” Cox says he’s well read and pretty sharp – so much so that he was ribbed by the morning show (Rover’s Morning Glory) for having a diverse vocabulary. Still, making people laugh is the primary goal. “Radio for me was always more about doing comedy on the air in a shorter form.”
Cox has two co-hosts: 38-year-old Cleveland native Chad Zumock, a stand-up comic who wanted to get off the road and settle in Cleveland; and 24-year-old Erika Lauren, a Chicago native who appeared on MTV’s “Real World DC” and moved to Cleveland to be with her boyfriend. Neither of the two had done radio before. Cox says Bo Matthews wasn’t following a boilerplate by bringing Zumock and Lauren in as cast members – a male comic foil and a woman for the female perspective – but for a host who was used to doing a solo show suddenly paired up with two people who hadn’t done radio before it’s worked out pretty well.
TALKERS readers who are familiar with Sabo Media president Walter Sabo’s recent four-part piece on FM talk published here recently know Sabo wrote that good DJs make good targeted FM talk hosts because they understand forward momentum and relating to a specific demographic. Alan Cox considers himself more of a comedian than a jock but he is a radio guy and he echoes Sabo’s dictate about formatics. “To me it’s a combination of PPM and people’s naturally increasing short attention spans. It’s really borne out of my arrival here where I wanted to show people that I do a show. I don’t just open the mics and say, ‘So, what did you guys do last night?’ Chad and Erika get a rundown sheet from me every day. I have everything locked to what I want to talk about so that way I don’t have to go to phones if they’re particularly slow. I want to keep it moving. I don’t want to give people whiplash or anything but I’m not a fan of unorganic dead air.” Still, he says he’s not too limited in his topic selection. “I try to keep it pretty broad. I’m an opinionated guy politically. I don’t shy away from those things either and I understand that those things can be polarizing. But I’m aware that it’s going to be a real hard left turn (no pun intended) if I go into some political topic that’s not really resonating with people.”
As a veteran of stand-up comedy and a radio pro, Cox is aware of the difference between the two art forms. There are some successful ones but a lot of comics have failed on the radio. “Comics have to be funny for an hour a night. They don’t have to be funny organically for 20 hours a week. When I first started, I did a much more bit-heavy show because I’m still always writing, but when you’re doing music with bits in between you have a lot less content to create and more time to polish each bit. So I always keep two lists. When I think of something I ask, ‘Would this be better on the radio or would this work better on stage?’ And I believe that’s an important way to think because if you’re funny, you’ll be able to come up with stuff organically in conversation and if you’re trying to be funny in a specific way, then you’re writing bits or doing material. So, doing 20 hours a week, you have to have more than just your stand-up set of an hour or so. It’s a pretty daunting task.”
It’s important to point out that this article is not forgetting the many all-talk or talk-intensive morning shows on stations of varying music formats – including WMMS-FM’s Rover – but AM drive is a different mindset and many radio listeners expect a lot of talk, news and comedy in the morning. Afternoon drive is not traditionally programmed that way and Clear Channel’s Cleveland management is stepping outside the comfort zone of many station operators with this approach. Cox says, “’MMS, everybody knows, is a legendary station and management had the foresight to realize music on FM is kind of going away and to see if it can work with two talk products and it has worked amazingly well. The foresight that brought them to try this hybrid station also makes them realize that you have to honor the heritage the station has but everything has to move forward. I’m constantly amazed at how broad the audience of this station is. You’ve got people who’ve been listening to it for 40 years and Cleveland’s the kind of town where 19-year-old guys are listening to talk radio. There are a lot of people here who just need to be entertained.”
Cox says WMMS-FM has not really marketed the show and that’s fine with him. He believes a quality show catches on naturally. “It’s never really been a complaint of mine. I don’t really see how a billboard with my face on it will serve as a call to action. It might have some people checking you out but I think word of mouth – at least it’s been for me – a much more accurate predictor of your success and you’re probably going to generate more loyal people.”
Cleveland is often the butt of jokes and Clevelanders are used to it. Maybe that’s why he’s caught on at ‘MMS. “I think I do a good show but I believe that part of my success is that, man, people really need reasons to laugh around here. Cleveland is one of those cities…people still love radio here and it’s been very good to me. I also know that part of my success is that I’m on ‘MMS, for God’s sake. Who knows how successful this show would be if I were on 91.3 or whatever.”
Kevin Casey is vice president and managing editor of TALKERS. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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