Straight From the Mouth
The Morning Mouth's May Interview with Jeff & Jer
(Reprinted by permission; Copyright © 2009 Talentmasters Inc.)
Quick background check?
Jerry: We met and starting doing "Cesak & Elliott" in Detroit in 1982. Went to Chicago in 1985. Came to San Diego in 1988.
Jeff: I started working on the radio on my 14th birthday. It's the only job I've ever had, other than mowing lawns. It wasn't because it was my childhood dream. It was because it was my brother's childhood dream. My brother Jon was one of those few people who knew what he wanted to do from the time he was a little boy. My parents tell us he made Tinkertoy microphones when he was three. So, Jon started working at our local radio station WWST in Wooster, Ohio. In the summer of 1969, I was mowing lawns, and was pretty sure that wasn't going to be my life's calling. I had worked for part time work. Well, I knew it paid more, my Chuck Taylors wouldn't turn green, and I wouldn't get stung by yellow jackets, so I left landscaping for showbiz. My brother Jon, who uses the professional name Jon Belmont, no longer uses tinkertoy mics. He anchors the morning news on Associated Press Radio from Washington D.C. I graduated high school on June 3rd, 1973. The next morning at 6:00 I started my first morning show, on WRFD in Columbus, Ohio. From there, I did a year or so at the station I grew up listening to. WHLO Akron. "Don't say Hello, say Hello HLO, and win!" I wanted to transfer colleges from Ohio State to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, so that I could do some bible study, so I started calling DJs in Tulsa asking them where they would work if they could work anywhere in the market. I always found that other radio people were willing to mentor me, or help out, even if I called them during their shows. They all said "FM 96." I sent a tape there and they hired me for mornings. After college it was back to Ohio to another station I admired as a kid, WWWE in Cleveland. It was cool to be heard in 38 state and half of Canada. One morning I got a call from a guy who was listening in Australia. After four years in Cleveland I did four months in Phoenix before I met Jerry and took off for Detroit to join him.We moved from Detroit to Chicago and then the last 20 years in San Diego.
you that's never been revealed. So let's start with you sharing a story about each other that you've never told until this moment.
Jeff: Are you kidding? I have told every story. Four hours of talk a day is a lot to fill. But here's my favorite radio story about Jerry. He was in High School and won a contest on WEAM in Washington DC. (Didn't a lot of us start out as contest pigs?) He told the best Chinese joke and won Chinese Dinner for six! So for a day Jerry was the stud of Bladensburg High. "Who gets to go out for Chinese dinner with The Man? I'll let you know." So, Mr. Big invited two guys and they all took dates. This was a big night out, so the guys wore suits and the girls dressed just short of prom. They got to the radio station and Jerry announced cockily, "Hello, I'm Jerry Cesak and I'm here for my prize!" The receptionist returned Š with six cans of Chung King Chow Mein, and six cans of Noodles. Chinese dinner for six with Mr. Big!
Jerry: In 1987, we were out of work. RKO had sold their Chicago station and didn't want us. So Jeff and I would sit in the living room of his rented house in Cary, Illinois and go through the SRDS (which was the encyclopedia of radio back then). We'd take turns cold-calling stations asking for work. After a couple months, we thought we'd have to split up. Jeff was going to work for a soft music station in Chicago and I was going back to Detroit to sell real estate. (A crafty career move, I think you'll agree.)
20 years. That's a long time. What's been the secret weapon? Chemistry? Content? Consistency? Cash?
There are several reasons:
Jeff: The secret is chemistry. We knew the minute we met that if we had been college roommates, we would have been friends for life. We're very, very different people, but there is a similarity in our cores, our values and how we were raised that makes us inseparably compatible. That said, I think the secret to the longevity of all of us as a team is a complete lack of ego on
carefully. We never ignored red flags and hired someone. In fact that goes all the way back to when we teamed up. Jerry didn't settle. He flew all around the country looking for a partnerŠflying from city to city, listening to morning shows, and meeting potential partners, until he found someone with whom he had natural, not forced, chemistry. It's just like when you don't ignore red flags just to take a job, which is a lesson most of us have learned the hard way.
Best and worst moment ever on the air?
Jerry: Worst: It was so awful I don't remember much of it. We had a guy on the crank-calling his mom about running over their dog. (See #3 above). God it was so dreadful, I might puke right now.
Best? I can think of 3: May 2, 1992 was Johnny Carson's last Tonight Show. Tommy called his home. I remember Tommy saying in my headphones. "Thanks Mr. Carson. Hang on a second". I almost wet myself. Then Tommy goes on the air and says, "I asked Johnny Carson if we could talk to him and he said, 'That sounds like fun, fellas. Let's do it." At that point I did wet myself. We did ten minutes with him.
Second: Tommy called Charles Schultz's home and spoke to his wife, saying we wanted to say hi and cheer him up. She put him on the phone. It was a singularly remarkable interview. Ten days later he died.
Third: Tommy got Jack Nicholson's home number. We figured he'd hang up on us, but could not resist a sexy woman. So Laura called. He was terrific! Loved the scam! Did fifteen minutes with us. As you can tell, I am easily amused.
Jeff: Best moment? I can't peg it to a particular show or bit, but it's been the shows where things were happening live or unplanned in rapid succession. Where we had to think the fastest and people are running up and down the halls getting stuff while Tommy checked on 17 lines at once. The adrenalin of those showsŠ.that's my favorite moment. It's not that often, but after one of those shows I don't feel like we "did" a show, but that we "rode" a show. We have to be taking chances and not just doing safe, comfortable radio to make those moments happen.
Your show has always been known for its incredible promotions, fundraisers, etc. Is there one that turned out bigger than your wildest dreams? How about behind the scenes station ga ga?
Jeff: The one that sticks in my mind is the first listener party we had in San Diego.We had only been on for five or six months and we had a Halloween party in a hotel ballroom. Well, we didn't know if we even had any listeners yet, and so many people came that the hotel brought in police and police dogs to get control of the overflow. I remember thinking, "Oh, maybe this is working!"
Jerry: Sorry to be boring, but the stations we've worked for have all been very supportive. I suppose the "bigger than our wildest" would have to be the "human flag" in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium after 9/11. We were hoping for 30,000 people. 110,000 showed up before they closed the gates. It was staggering.
Speaking of youth, did you always plan to get into radio? What do you suppose you'd be doing today had it not been for radio?
Jeff: Even though I started in radio when I was 14, I never thought it would be my career. I had always planned on being a school teacher or administrator because I love kids so much. Then, when I was 17, I got my first morning show, and was hooked. I now see it was God's hand on my life steering me into what is my calling. I've spoken at a lot of schools, and the kids just eat me alive. I have no control over them and there is no doubt that my calling was not teaching! I remember the day that I felt the first connection in my soul from doing morning radio. I was in High School and filled in doing the morning show. I'd made a comment about one of the local TV anchor's new glasses, and when I signed into school late, the secretary told me how much that made her laugh. I sure recall thinking, "Wow, I can make a difference in other people's lives with this." I think that feeling has been my driving force for the 39 years I've done this.
Jerry: I was planning on writing movies. Still am. If radio hadn't clicked, I'd undoubtedly be working full time for PETA.
Who gets props for putting you together as a team?
Jerry: Kip Guth, the program director at WMJC in Detroit. I'd been part of "St. James & Harper" for a few years, and Greater Media wanted to hire us. But Jim Harper wanted to stay with Nationwide and become their national PD. So, in another crafty career move, I went to WMJC myself. They told me they'd "find me a partner". Which is like saying "We'll find you a wife" in 90 days. They flew me all over America meeting people. I found no one I really liked. Not even close. About 3 months into this misery, Kip said, "I remember this guy I worked with in Tulsa. I think he's in Phoenix now. You want me to call him?" A week later Jeff came to Detroit. I went to his hotel, called his room, then waited for him at the elevators. His first words to me were "So, the topic today is morning shows, right?" We fell in love instantly. And I am not kidding.
Jeff: Kip is the kindest man I've ever worked for. He bought his own station in Boise, mainly because he wanted to create the kind of work environment he thought radio people deserved.
Did the show click from the get-go?
When we started in Detroit we were "St. James & Elliott." Today, we often say we only have 11 listeners. Back then, sadly, it was true. We were doing what Jeff calls a "suitcase show." It could work (supposedly) in any market. I did characters, we had goofy sound effects, and it wasn't even close to real. Then, somehow, we got hired in Chicago. Holy balls, what an education. Johnny Brandmeier was doing radio like no one we'd ever heard before. Astounding talent. We were in awe. Steve and Gary were doing afternoons. Jeff listened to them. He'd tell me about how incredible they were: "They just talk about their lives" Steve puts his wife on all the time". I was so jealous of all these madly talented people. One day we just quit, literally, doing our suitcase show and started from zero - feeling our way around, taking live calls, talking about life and trying to find "us". It was terrifying. We felt like Verne Troyer standing next to Ruben Studdard. We got a hell of an education those three years.
Jeff: Yes. We grew and learned over the years, but it worked from the start. They put us into a studio to practice working together, and after about 15 minutes, we stopped that and ordered pizza.
There's an old story floating in Detroit about your letter to the staff explaining why you were leaving. Rumor has it, you blamed someone in the building. Was that true, or just an urban legend?
Jerry: That was a joke. We wrote a good-bye note that we could no longer work with some dweeb on the sales staff, so we're leaving. But it was a joke. A joke, dammit. At that point we probably should have realized we had a slight humor-related problem.
As you look back over the past 20 years, who's opinion always mattered most to you? When things got weird, who would you call?
Jeff: I think for business questions we've used Don Anthony, Herb McCord and our three time GM, Bob Bollinger as sounding boards or mentors. For another ear on the show as far as content or direction Š we have trusted our former program director Tracy Johnson and also George Johns. Some of our best advice and direction has come at Bootcamp from others who do what we do. Sometimes another morning host will say something like, "Well, why don't you just do it this way?" And it will hit us over the head in the biggest "No, duh" moment! And in the end we have trusted ourselves. I have learned so much from Jerry, and we have had to learn together to trust ourselves. At times that we haven't done that it has cost us in setbacks. It's an interesting crusty's who say, "No punk 25-year-old PD is going to tell me how to run my show!"
Jerry: George Johns. He invented this kind of radio. He has the smartest and wisest entertainment mind in the world. He's simply brilliant. He's been our mentor for 20 years and still coaches us today. I also call Tommy if I'm really up or down about something. And my wife Pam, who hired us in San Diego and has a terrific sense of how and why radio works.
Are you still winning the same way now as you did 20 years ago? In other words, are the basic components of your show still the same?
Jerry: The methodology changes with time, but the core values of the show are the same: fun, kindness, gratitude and a sense of family on the air. Laura has been with us for 16 years. She's vastly talented and adds incalculably to the show. Randy has been with us for 15 years and he's a huge part of our success. We all love each other, and people know that. However, our show wouldn't be a tenth of what it is without Tommy Sablan. When we came to SD, we needed a producer. Tommy was a little production rat at the station. He was born in SD, we figured he could teach us about the town, and we liked him. He quickly became the best producer in American radio. I could write pages about him. He never accepts "no." He can get into and inside anywhere and anything. He works 19 hours a day. He has his hand on every single aspect of the show from where we get breakfast to web design. He's the reason we created "Becky's House" (homes for abused women and kids), one of the biggest things ever in San Diego radio. We are still astounded on a daily basis by Tommy. In 20 years, I've never heard him say "I can't do that." For a million reasons, I respect Tommy more than almost anyone I've ever known. Professionally and personally, I'd be lost without him.
Jeff: Yes, the basics, who we are and what we stand for, remain the same at the core of the show. Beyond that, everything has changed. I think we run on about a 2-year cycle where a lot of the approach and content changes. What was funny 20 years ago isn't today. What motivates, reaches, entertains people changes frequently.
When you're both old and gray, sitting in your underwear and reading AARP Monthly, which radio memory from your formative days will always make you put the apple sauce down, lean back and put a smile on your face?
Jeff: Well, what you describe in this question pretty much describes my life from 10:30 am to bedtime every day, so it's going to be easy to relate. I have no doubt that when I'm 90, I won't remember ratings, or money, or major events. My snapshots will be entirely made up of special moments. Things like laughs when things went wrong, or Jerry and me humming the Mission Impossible theme while running down 23 flights of stairs in the Prudential Tower in Chicago so that we wouldn't have to meet with our PD after the show. It always gets me that people in radio always say, "Man, my first job was my best. We had so much fun and didn't get all uptight over ratings and all the business stuff." Jerry and I have tried to make all of our jobs like that. We love it when things go wrong. When it seems small time again. We have probably 50 credos that guide what we do and why, and one of the biggest is "Care enough, but not too much." Or, as Scott Shannon puts it, "The secret to success in radio is, if you're in a small market, act like a big market and if you're in a big market, act like a small market." I have worked with Jerry for 26 years, and I look forward to seeing him every, every, every day. He, like I, appreciates the fun of each day Š making each other laugh, breaking each other up, doing non-professional stuff off mike to entertain the cast in the studio, turning on the mic during bad spots and coughing during the pauses Š we do all the unprofessional stuff you did on your first job and we love being on the radio. We absolutely love it.
Jerry: Maybe the day Jeff thought the delay was on and said, "I'll tell you how scary it is: it'll make you shit!" He was horrified when a saleswoman meekly opened the studio door and said, "Did you know we heard that?" No kidding, I couldn't stop laughing for maybe 3 days. I was almost physically sick. Or maybe the time Randy was introducing a segment. I'd put something in the copy that I knew he wouldn't read. And yet: "ŠI'm your announcer Randy Hoag. Blow me!" I swear I had to check into a hospital from laughing.
Let me turn you into talent coaches for a moment. You get a call from a young jock in Toledo who's gotten his first break to do a morning show. Problem is, his boss tells him he doesn't have time to gamble, so he's got 6 months to make it work. He ask you both for 5 or 6 things that will help him hit the ground running and engage his audience from the get-go. What would you tell him?
Jerry: Before you go on the radio, spend two full weeks getting to know Toledo better than anyone who's ever lived there. Talk to natives in stores and restaurants. Tell them you're new in town and get them to tell you everything. Ask them to lunch. Buy them drinks. Drive everywhere. Study maps. Learn every street. Watch every minute of local TV you can. Visit every local hot spot. Go to factories. Look inside big buildings. Hang out where people eat lunch. Ride the bus. Take 20 cab rides and talk to the drivers. When Jeff and I went on the air in SD, we sounded like our families had been here since the invention of rocks. Nothing beats being local. Absolutely nothing. Tip #2: Hire Tommy.
You're not only stars in San Diego, but you're immensely admired in the morning radio community as well. Just for fun, I sought questions and comments from some of your biggest radio fans. Here's an example from another in the 20+ in the same market club, Brother Wease He wrote: "Ask those 2 fucks how it feels to win the lottery? Morning radio for big bucks in of all places the city EVERYONE wants to live in? That's winning BIG. For 20 years no less. Congrats fellas!
Here are few questions from J&J's radio friends: (questions are in bold italics)
Are you happy? Will you guys adopt me? Steve Harmon - Salt Lake City
Jerry: We are very happy. Adopting you would put an immediate end to that.
Two questions: Ron and I have been on the air together going on 19 years. How come the two of you are so much wealthier and more beloved than us, and how much work does Little Tommy actually do? Congratulations, you're two of a kind. Paul Castronovo - Paul and Young Ron Show/Miami
Jerry: Honestly, I think the biggest difference is that Jeff and I are both strikingly handsome. You look like the guys who answer the meat buzzer at Safeway.
Jeff: I'll never forget the first time a station brought us in to negotiate and Jerry's first comment was "OK, let's start by doubling the base." He said that without flinching. God is my agent, but Jerry is my rep. I owe him so much, for so many reasons.
How much does Tommy do? As a percentage of the workload, I'd put it at 100%! We would screwed without him, his work ethic, his caring and guidance. He not only works each day to make the show happen, about midway through our years together he started guiding the show and really becoming the PD of the morning show.
1) For shows that have been on the air in their markets for a long time (15+ years)... What kinds of things can they do to keep things fresh? Dave Sposito - Spokane
Jeff: The best way I can suggest to keep it fresh is to always seek to be mentored, your entire career. Ask everybody at every convention to talk about what's working and why. To me, that's the best part of Bootcamp. Not the bits, but the big picture. Also, we continue to change what we do, and how we do it to keep it entertaining to US in the studio. If we're not having fun, they're not having fun.
2) (From Dave Sposito) So many of us (especially those of us that have been in the same market for a long time) end up giving out A LOT of info and it can really compromise your personal life. Can you tell us about some situation(s) where you gave up too much personal information on the air. Where do you draw the line on the personal stuff?
Jerry: Folks, I've known Dave Sposito for fifteen years. Here we have a perfect example of how he's the grabbiest son of a bitch I've ever met. Two questions? For free? I swear, the balls on this guy.
Jeff: Too much personal information? Never personally, but I have been very careful about what I gave up about my wife, or especially my kids once they became sensitive teen agers. I will even call them off the air and ask if it's ok to tell something. There is no success worth a personal cost to them. We are transparent on the air, but when in doubt, throw it out.
Biggest fight you ever had? Who had the best mullet on the show back in the late 80's? Have you ever seen each other naked? If so, who's bigger? Kevin Rolston - Wild 95.5 / West Palm
Jerry: This is one of our most-asked questions, and the honest answer is - in 25 years together, we have never had a fight. Not one. To us, nothing has been worth fighting about. The show and the 2 of us are what's important. Anything else? Toss a coin, Mr. Badim. I think I had the best mullet. Also had a ponytail for a while. We've seen each other naked a million times. Jeff is - how do I put this? Enormous.
Jeff: None. Never. We are very, very different people, but we don't let the differences be abrasive. We instead celebrate those differences and are thankful for what they bring to the show. If your partner says, does, feels differently than you do Š ask yourself, would you rather be right, or rich? Plus, Jerry truly makes me laugh, every day, and I find him to be the most interesting person. I could drive with him in a small car from San Diego to Portland, Maine and never run out of things to talk about.
"20 years is a long time to stay fresh and connected to your audience so who were the shows/people that you have networked with or borrowed from throughout your career that have really helped you grow as a show/radio person" Justice - Executive Producer Chio In the Morning-WRDW-Philadelphia
Jerry: We met Kidd Kraddick in 1989. He taught us so much about being real and connecting with listeners. He taught us how to make them cry. Dwyer and Michaels have been an inspiration since forever. Great friendship and mutual love that spills out of the radio. Ace and TJ were little snot-nosed brats when they asked us to breakfast at a Boot Camp years ago. It's been exciting to watch them grow into big snot-nosed brats. We learn from them all the time. Dave Sposito and Ken. Very grounded, confident and frankly, loveable. Brother Wease taught us that it's OK to have balls on the air. If you have a big heart, people will allow you almost anything. Wease's heart is bigger than Dallas. We're big fans of Mark and Mercedes. We can do an entire show just reading their Bitboard report. They are constantly new. Bert Weiss is a craftsman at making anything sound natural and significant. It's an education listening to him weave that show. Being yourself is the single-hardest thing to do in radio. No one does it better than John Jay and Rich. They are totally themselves and they are your best friends. Which is quite the art. There are many others, but I think that should get me massive free booze at Boot Camp this year.
Who inspires you? What about radio connects to you still? Rich Berra Johnjay & Rich Show / Clear Channel Tucson-Phoenix
Jeff: I have many shows I admire, steal off of, and love, but I have to go back to the guy who started Bitboard and who I think created a lot of the feeling and philosophy behind how all of us do this, Dave "Kidd" Kraddick. He has always gotten how to do this in a Yoda way. I am truly humbled by that. I am also inspired and challenged by Howard Stern. I learn so much about how to do this every minute I listen to him. I find it fascinating how he relates to his callers and coworkers with warmth while still keeping it real and honest without fail. He can find the moment of drama in the smallest things. I know he says he was "Born interesting." But, I hear him grow every year he does this. I agree with him that he's the best who's ever done this.
Jerry: I already answered the 1st question. The answer to the 2nd? Money. I just love it.
You obviously share a lot of interest and have a great friendship, but there have to be differences. How are you most different? And what do you have most in common? What's the one bit you still can't believe didn't work? --Ace & TJ/Charlotte NC
Jerry: We're different in many ways. I'm a Buddhist vegetarian. Jeff is a Christian carnivore. I don't have kids. Jeff has about thirty. I have great love and respect for Don Anthony.
What didn't work? I was sitting in on some lame-ass morning show down south. Charlotte, I think it was. I did some jokes about smoking. Nobody got it. Jeeze, what a bunch of snuggle-toothed mouth-breathers. And one final question from me: People most familiar with your show have always said they could listen to you forever. Let's turn this around: Name someone you never get tired of hearing?
Jerry: Jeff. No question. He is the most interesting person in my life. Which is one of the reasons we've been together forever. We've often said that we could drive a long-haul truck together for a living and never run out of stuff to talk about. He is also the single funniest person I've ever known. 25 years later, no one makes me laugh more or harder than him. He is brilliantly funny.