Media: Radio Heads

Preston Elliot is very concerned about his dominatrix. She's scheduled to arrive within the hour, along with a slave affectionately dubbed Carpet Boy. Preston wants to make sure she's on the guest list and won't get held up at the door — though one would think that at Club Risqué, the strip joint on Columbus Boulevard, Miss Anjelika Steele and her liege would be considered royalty. Maybe on any ordinary night they would. But it's not quite 6 a.m. on Fat Tuesday, and Preston — one half of WMMR's newest morning zoo, The Preston & Steve Show — isn't taking any chances before today's four-hour remote broadcast. After all, fans lined up in the darkness before the club opened, and by the time they should be in class or a cubicle, hundreds of them will fill this neon temple of flesh, beer and beads to witness the antics of Preston, his partner Steve Morrison, and their supporting cast.

“We've got a guy who's going to get shot by 1,000 paintballs,” Preston explains, just before the bacchanal begins. “And that guy there is going to wear a tampon suit.” A kiddie pool filled with red-dyed water awaits Nick McIlwain, the show's associate producer and website guru, who's about to be christened the Human Tampon. And the paintball victim, Joe the intern? He's best known for “Fire in the Hole,” a stunt last year in which he became a human version of those water-gun games on the Boardwalk — you know, the ones where you shoot into the clown's mouth, pumping up his balloon until it explodes? Joe was the clown. The water gun was filled with hot sauce. And the target wasn't his face.

At six-foot-two, with a hulking frame and a voice that's like Jack Daniel's through a sandpaper funnel, Preston could be mistaken for a bouncer here. But on the air, and off, he's the affable Everyman, good cop to his partner's wicked one, like Fred Flintstone with a demented Barney Rubble. Steve looks like a bruiser, too — shaved head, thick double-wide shoulders. Unlike most radio yuk-yuk men, though, he's finger-snap quick and actually funny.

Just after 7 a.m., Preston introduces Midget Makeout, in which contestants suck face with a dwarf for a trip to Atlantic City. Steve puts his unique romantic spin on the event.

“Think of this, ladies,” he says. “You look across the room. A pair of eyes meets yours … under the table. It's the midget of your dreams.”

The crowd howls, but behind the scenes, there's a crisis brewing. Mo Rocca of The Daily Show suddenly cancels his appearance. Technical glitches lead to dead air. And perhaps the greatest blow — Anjelika Steele and Carpet Boy are MIA. Complicating everything, 'MMR's top brass have arrived to watch their thoroughbreds in action and decide if they should extend the show's current contract through 2010.

But as the wheels seem to fall off, producer and on-air whipping post “Casey Boy” Fosbenner is unshaken. He knows that uncertainty is where Preston and Steve thrive — that when the bottom falls out, they somehow end up on top. How else can you explain how a former Top 40 deejay from St. Louis and a stand-up comedian from Long Island are poised for coronation as the top morning show in the nation's sixth largest market? That would have been crazy talk just two years ago, when Howard Stern still ruled, Preston and Steve's contracts were nearly over, and their former station, Y100, was on its deathbed. Yet here they are. So when the bondage queens and B-list TV stars bail, when those best-laid plans fall to the ground like a stripper's bikini top, well, the show goes on.

And somehow, you suspect that Preston and Steve will be just fine.

THE WEEK AFTER Fat Tuesday, Preston is on a commercial break and back where he feels most comfortable — inside the modest WMMR studios off City Line Avenue, Preston & Steve's home since jumping over from Y100 last spring. He quarterbacks the program from behind a wall of monitors and knobs, while Steve stands opposite him, hands on a control panel with nearly 1,000 sound effects that he's mostly catalogued in his head. They're surrounded by Casey Boy, Nick, and Kathy Romano, the show's female voice of reason, described by Preston as “the first stuck-up snobby bitch that I ever really loved. She would have spit on me in high school.” These supporting players were handpicked — Casey was an intern, and Kathy was plucked from NBC 10 after the guys noticed the new “hot traffic girl” — and here at the station, it's more like old friends bullshitting at a barbecue than Spring Break-styled chaos. Later on tonight, they'll watch the Flyers together as guests of Comcast SportsNet, but there won't be rounds of Jägermeister or half-­naked babes in tow.

“I'd like to get home at a decent time today, since we're doing the hockey game,” Preston says, hoping to keep their post-show meeting short. “Spend time with the kids.”

He isn't joking. An essential part of the show's success is that Preston and Steve aren't cartoonish wildmen. In fact, most of their material — fart jokes and human tampons aside — centers on watercooler talk. Not the kind you pretend to discuss when your boss walks by or at cocktail parties, but what you really talk about with friends and co-workers — what happened on Lost last night, or the jerk who robbed you of a parking spot because he had to use two for his Lexus, or how you're obsessed with Ikea's Swedish meatballs — and don't those Burger King commercials freak you out?

It's a formula that seems to be exactly the right thing at the right time. As radio enters an era of rapid change and ­unpredictability — with shrinking audiences and the rise of digital media — FM stations are searching for a niche, and Preston and Steve have found theirs as the funny but still familiar guys next door. “Chemistry and locality are the two things that will win in terrestrial radio right now,” says Mike ­Bacon, of the industry trade magazine FMQB. That's where the watercooler approach succeeds: Kathy didn't just get into an accident, she hydroplaned on the Schuylkill, and when Steve saved an injured cat from certain death, he drove it from Manayunk to a vet in Plymouth Meeting. There's still a sense of community in local radio that satellite hasn't replicated, and especially in this parochial town, that goes a long way. Proving the point is Howard Stern's replacement on 'YSP, David Lee Roth, who is neither local nor, thus far, listenable.

Preston and Steve aren't exactly rewriting the rules of morning-drive radio with their Johnny Knoxville-meets-Seinfeld approach, accented with dashes of Conan O'Brien and, of course, a little Stern. But they've created a show that feels both like a party where everyone's invited — including high-­profile pals such as WPVI's Cecily Tynan and NBC 10's Vai Sikahema — and a private club where one-off jokes spiral into catchphrases. Steve once shouted “Gadzooks!” in his dead-on JFK voice while riffing on a news item about Marilyn Monroe; now fans yell it during calls and on the street, and even scrawl the word on their cleavage. Preston and Steve are also notorious for signing autographs and posing for snapshots until every request is satisfied, and during phone interviews with celebrities like a pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger or a mid-Tomkat Tom Cruise, they're fans themselves. Even when their humor turns blue or dips into the toilet, they're never quite as moronic as, say, “Matt & Huggy” on rival WYSP, who ask callers to decide the fate of new music with one of two responses: “Stay” or “Gay.”

Preston and Steve's radio alchemy is also revitalizing WMMR, which spent most of its post-John DeBella years getting its ass whipped by 'YSP. 'MMR's ratings have more than doubled since Preston and Steve's arrival, and in the final three months before Stern departed for satellite radio in January, Preston & Steve actually beat the champ among 18-to-34-year-old listeners. WMMR brass predict that by the end of this year, the station will be number one in the all-important “money demo” of 25-to-54-year-olds — a status it hasn't enjoyed since the fall of 1990. “They bring in energy that resonates throughout the day,” says WMMR vice president John Fullam. “They keep it real. Radio is changing, and audiences are looking for that. You're having breakfast with them instead of watching them onstage, putting on an act.”

Acting was never a career goal for Preston — or “Kenny Knight,” as he was known at Q104 in St. Louis in the mid-'90s. He was an afternoon-drive DJ at a pop music station, spinning a lot of Jodeci and TLC, but in his heart, the man born Preston Wilson was a rocker. He'd had a hair-metal cover band in the late '80s, called The Image, and he wielded a mean can of Aqua Net — a far cry from the clean-cut 38-year-old dad of today who wears his t-shirts tucked into his jeans and lives with his wife, Rachelle, and two young sons in a golf-club community near Skippack. (Steve mercilessly mocks Preston's idyllic suburban estate, quizzing his partner in a British accent about how he treats his serfs.)

One fateful night in 1994 — at a Meat Loaf listening party, no less — Preston ran into Jim McGuinn, an industry friend who was headed to an alternative rock station in Philly called WDRE. Preston was tired of his Top 40 posturing. McGuinn's advice to him was simple: “Make a demo tape where you sound less … schmucky.”

Preston de-schmucked his routine, McGuinn hired him, and Preston left his hometown, asking his brand-new girlfriend Rachelle to come with him. His personal gamble paid off when they married, but the professional one soon looked like a failure — WDRE was sold and switched to a hip-hop format. Suddenly, Preston had no job, and not many prospects. His future here seemed bleak until McGuinn came to the rescue again, taking Preston and a host of other 'DRE alums with him to the bigger, and at that point only, alt-rock outfit in town, Y100.

McGuinn saw potential in Preston's talents and discussed moving him to the mornings — a remedy for the sagging ratings of Philly radio veteran Paul Barsky. But it was an idea that required warming up to. “He was an afternoon jock,” says McGuinn. “Those guys party, they're out late drinking beer, and morning takes a lot of prep.” But Preston's ambition was larger than his appetite for Coors Light, which is saying something. “People revere Pierre Robert,” Preston told McGuinn. “Someday I want to be like that.” [It should be noted that Pierre Robert has never fired Tabasco at a co-worker's posterior, or pimped a midget for prizes.]

JIM McGUINN SUMS UP the nascent days of Preston's morning show, in which he was paired with former WDRE jock Marilyn Russell, thusly: “Not that funny.”

Enter Steve Morrison, who'd also worked at 'DRE. Steve grew up in New York, where he spent his school years as “the writer for the class clown,” and became a regular on the comedy circuit, opening for rising stars like Ray Romano and Adam Sandler. The three words that come up most when he's described are “weird,” “funny” and “smart,” possibly in that order. Try to make sense of this: He's a 46-year-old who can explain, in great detail, the plot of Resident Evil 4 for Nintendo GameCube; on a recent show, he discussed convincing his wife Clare to try the “reverse cowgirl” position; he's never touched drugs or booze, which makes him truly one-of-a-kind in the radio business; he regularly tosses out words like “machination” and “nomenclature” that Preston needs to look up; and when poor Intern Joe was sent to taunt a goose that was attacking customers outside the Cherry Hill Toys “R” Us, it was Steve who christened him “The Goose Whisperer.”

Yes, Steve was exactly what Preston needed, and when Marilyn left in 2001, The Preston & Steve Show was born. Despite little promotional support, the two men built a cult following that helped define Y100, which felt like a scrappy college radio outfit thanks to the passion of McGuinn, the station's listeners, and a close-knit staff. But after just three years, Preston and Steve sensed trouble ahead. Y100's corporate owner, Radio One, was aggressively adding to its roster of R&B and hip-hop stations across the country, and seemed to have no use for rock 'n' roll. Despite their popularity, Preston says, the duo was offered just one more year as their contract neared its end. “Steve and I looked at each other and said, ‘They're not serious about the radio station.'”

At the same time, a tectonic shift rumbled through the entire industry. In late 2004, Stern announced his switch to satellite, which at once placed FM radio's future in question and presented a huge opportunity for Preston and Steve. WYSP and WMMR both showed interest, but 'MMR mounted a full-court press. Fullam and his program director had interviewed talent from across the country, but still found themselves discussing what they'd heard on Y100 each day. Preston & Steve wouldn't need the standard three to four years to mature — it could just move across town and hopefully bring its listeners along. 'MMR signed the show — ­including the supporting cast, which Preston and Steve insisted on keeping — with its namesakes earning upwards of $300,000 each. (To head off any possibility of conflicts, they demand identical contracts.)

Just two months later, their prescience paid off as Radio One announced that Y100 would flip formats; within 24 hours, most of the staff was gone, 50 Cent had replaced Pearl Jam, and the morning show was handed over to “Monie & Pooch.” Some angry fans, and a few stunned co-workers, initially felt that Preston & Steve's departure killed Y100. McGuinn says it's not fair to blame them for the station's demise, but wistfully paints a different radio landscape in Philadelphia had Preston & Steve stayed. “We were bullish in 2004,” he says. “We could have waited for Stern to leave. 'YSP sucked, 'MMR was for old people, and we were going to push them into their graves. It's easier for [Radio One] to blow it up when one of your greatest assets is moving across the street. If Preston & Steve had stayed at Y100, the station would still be on the air.”

It's more probable that had Preston and Steve taken that one-year deal, they would only have given Y100 a stay of execution until the switch was finally thrown, at which point they'd have been out of work and out of town. Like Preston's move from St. Louis to Philly — a risky play that succeeded on every level — their leap to WMMR is a dice roll that's already paying off. Deep-pocketed owner Greater Media is marketing the show aggressively and, at Steve's urging, fully supporting Preston & Steve's own website, which is updated with photos and videos mid-show. For all the doomsaying about its future, terrestrial radio — like equally threatened network TV and newspapers — will survive if it adapts. Preston and Steve are proving that. Now, the “station for old people” has tripled its online traffic and regularly finds itself among the top 20 iTunes podcasts — all thanks to two hardworking guys who, but for a few fortuitous career moves and a healthy dose of luck, could be introducing the latest Mariah Carey single and hosting an open mike at the Laff Shack.

AND THERE'S NO SIGN that their luck is changing. In the middle of the Fat Tuesday show, for instance, things are looking bleak. There's no Mo Rocca. No Anjelika Steele. No Carpet Boy. Then the amateur strip contest starts with a whimper when it needs a bang. It seems the more comely ladies in the audience aren't interested in working the poles, and the competition appears to hit rock ­bottom as Casey Boy introduces Kitty Cat, a hefty blonde in a Catwoman mask whose black garters can barely contain her backside, her frontside, and everything in between.

“I'm not sure what we're seeing here,” says Preston.

Steve jumps right in. “I would be impressed if she shit in a little box.”

Crude? Sure. Offensive? Probably. But the place erupts in hysterics, and Kitty Cat doesn't seem to mind as she continues flail-dancing, her eye of the tiger unwavering. By the end, the three finalists earn lusty applause, and the clear winner is Lynne, a redhead with a sweetheart face and a wicked body.

Suddenly, no one's talking about the guests who didn't show up, the 'MMR honchos are beaming, and, as they've done so many times in their careers, Preston and Steve have stared into the jaws of defeat and shot it in the ass with hot sauce. With the show almost over, they steer toward a conclusion that's almost as unpredictable as the state of their industry, and their own unlikely rise to the top of it.

“Congratulations, Lynne,” says Preston, confirming that she's won $1,000. “You needed this?”

“Yes,” she says with a bright smile. “I'm a Catholic-school teacher!”

Couldn't have written a more perfect ending. Three days later, WMMR announces that it has extended its new stars' contracts, with a salary boost that will top off at nearly half a million dollars each. Once again, it seems, Preston and Steve will be just fine.