Straight From the Mouth

The Morning Mouth's September Interview with Spike O'Neill
(Reprinted by permission; Copyright © 2003 Talentmasters Inc.)

Okay, fill in the blank: With respect to Bob Rivers I am his ______.

Tail gunner. It's my job to punchline stuff. I call myself an illustrator because as we tell stories or do news stories or relay experiences I find myself jumping in and out of character and doing some impromptu skits to describe or illustrate whatever we are talking about and make it funny. Basically, I'm the joke teller.

In so many words, Bob Rivers has told me that you're a talent far bigger than the role suggests. In short, you could easily manage and succeed with your own show. Have you ever considered this option?

Of course, because there is this industry perception, and I am part of it as well, that you don't achieve greatness until it is your greatness. And I think that I have always wondered and dreamed of becoming my own guy, but I our show when he takes a day off. This has given me the insight that what I do is totally enjoyable and that's what makes it successful.

How long have you been with Bob Rivers?

14+ years. I met him 3 weeks before he was fired in Baltimore. Bob was at the end of a 2-year deal and the station offered him an insulting deal. He had taken them from worst to first and they offered him an insulting pay increase to renew. He went public with their insult and at that point they took him off the air for the rest of his term. He met me and invited me in as in intern. We he left, he thought enough of me to ask me to join him.

What were you doing before you met him?

I was a car salesman and a singing bartender. I was also pretty much his current partner and pusher. Or, for more of a PC term, I was a connection.

You mentioned you were a singing bartender. What kind of songs did you sing?

started because I was a big fan of the music they were doing. They were doing Springsteen, the (Grateful) Dead and Van Morrison and Sting and that kind of stuff and I was just such a fan of the music that I'd get up and sing. They heard me singing at the top of my lungs along with them, so they invited me to get up on stage and join them. I was totally doing it for the booty.

That's also how I met Bob. His old partner, Sean Donahue lived above the bar.

If you hadn't gone into radio, do you think you would still be singing in bars?

I'd be the saddest forty-something-year-old bartender still trying to hit on twenty-year-olds that you ever saw.

Was getting into radio an accident? I mean, prior to meeting Bob, had you considered being a jock?

I never thought about being in radio until I met Sean (Donahue) and it wasn't so much that I liked what he did, as much as I got sick of doing what I was doing. I was living hard, I was like 26 at the time, tending bar 5 nights a week, selling cars 6 days a week, single, way too social for my own good. I was drinking 5-6 days a week and I was burning out. I said to Sean one day, I would love to try doing what you do, I think it would be fun. To be honest I watched "Good Morning Vietnam" and I saw Robin Williams doing that character Adrian Cronauer, and I said I would love to do that. Bob has often referred to me as Robin Williamesk. Which for me, is way beyond flattering. He also says I rant like Dennis Miller and do voices like Williams.

So, you're entire radio career as been with Bob Rivers. Did you go to KISW in 1989?

Right, I've always thanked Bob and he always reminds me that he spared me from ever working in a twin, tri or quad city. Nothing against anyone that does, but my career has pretty much been in Baltimore and Seattle. Someday though, I may work in a "Quin" city. That would be pretty impressive.

How do evolve a sidekick role over such a long stretch?

A lot of trial and error. A lot of faith and trust from Bob. Just letting me try my stuff and developing my abilities over time. When I first started, I had never been on the radio and he said we'll have to get you more air time. He hired me because I could write and that's when he began the twisted tune parodies he's been doing now for 20 years.

You're quite a different show now, compared to then, right?

First off, back then we were doing 8 songs an hour so the show has gone from being a show that people tuned into for the music, to a show where people tuned in for us. We were at the whim of PD's or the record industry as to how well we did. So he (Bob) realized a long time ago that we were going to have to rise and fall on our own merits. Over time we went from 8 songs an hour to 6, to 4, to 2 all the way to an all talk show. We did this over the course of 2-3 years and in that we learned to give up more of ourselves and take down that 3rd wall people always talk about.

As your role and contributions to the show have grown, have you and Bob ever discussed a marquee change?

That was more important to me a few years ago when I was trying to figure out how my place in this industry would evolve. So you'll know, we use Bob, Spike and Joe (Bryant) as much as we use The Bob Rivers Show in our branding. Our own air persona is literally the three of us.

What about Arik?

Arik Korman is our director. He handles all the technical elements of the show, background music, intros and outros from breaks, etc.

Who picks what gets used on the show?

Ultimately, Bob. It's his boat and he navigates. Here's an analogy he uses a lot: You can't grab the wheel of a boat during the middle of a conversation, story or a bit because he has a clear path on where he wants the segment to go. You can grab an oar and start paddling, but don't grab the wheel. He's great about knowing what content we need, what the hot topics are and what direction to take a bit. He's blessed with that is a gift and we

What percentage of the show can you be heard?

I would venture to say about 40 percent.

How does your role on the show compare to Bob and Joe's?

Bob is the storyteller. I throw punch lines in to add some color to the stories, or will jump in and out of character voices like little comedic vignettes to illustrate or make a point. As I said before, I am more of a tail gunner, they throw these ideas out there and I shoot them down and make punchlines.

If you were to ever do your own thing, do you have a secret dream show in mind?

I think we're doing it now, I really do. We're doing a show that is comedy-driven, comedy-based, topically-driven with lifestyle news elements. We take the news and run with it. We give our opinions; make fun of it, take questions from the audience. That's the essence of our show.

Which part of your job do you enjoy most?

Jumping in and out of characters pretending that I'm Bill Clinton's Penis or O.J. Simpson's new roommate. Before they were killed, I pretended to be one of Saddam Hussein's sons trying to find a place to shack up for the night. Basically, I enjoy using characters to illustrate stories or to offer a funnier way of looking at people.

What about Joe, how long has he been with the show?

He came about 6 months after me.

So the three of you have been together for 15 years. What's been the glue that's kept this marriage together?

Marriage is the right word. It's a matter of genuinely enjoying each other and yes, there are days when I would like to kill Bob and there are days when Joe and I have thought up ways that we would kill Bob. But like any family, we get to beat the crap out of him, but no one else gets to go near him. You keep dirty laundry in the house, you don't' bitch about Bob to anyone except to him when he needs it. We totally care about each other.

Do you socialize beyond the station?

No, we try and do social crap at least twice a year, like take a trip together; spend a weekend at a lodge somewhere just hangin' out with our families and stuff.

As a sidekick with a large role on the show, does compensation ever become a touchy issue?

Of course, I wouldn't lie to you and tell you it isn't. It's always an issue. I have to make sure that I am taking care of my family, and yes, it comes up at the end of every contract. I mean, this will always be the Bob Rivers Show and he'll always pull down the lions share of the reward... and rightfully so. Although he made it clear to us when we came to Infinity that we came as a group and he made it real clear to them and to all of us that its going to take all of us to get this show to the promised land and that it will be worth our while in the end.

Of course in the last 14 years, you did have that one period where you sat out a non-compete. How weird was that for you?

(jokingly) You mean to be paid to sit at home, or to travel for 6 months?

I'll give you a quick recap: it was the first month and a half where it was like an extended vacation. Then it really became, I want to talk about. I want to act this out, I want to make fun of this. And our families got really sick of us doing our show at home and the people at the grocery store line got sick of me going into character. We were off the air for the Bush/Gore election, Can you imagine how frustrating that was? Now of course the great part was that I got to drive my kid to school and packed her lunch everyday, something I had missed out on for 14 years. Or not being around in the mornings with my family. That was great. Then they put us on in some markets outside of Seattle, like Juno, Portland and Vegas. And for 11 brief, shining days in LA. Some of these stations didn't have strong signals or audience, so there were hardly any calls, but Bob insisted that this was a good way to knock off the rust. To his credit, it made us stronger than ever because since some the stations didn't give us the phones to fall back on, we had to learn to talk more on our own and go deeper into stories and topics. We literally had to exercise muscles that were weak and when we came back on in Seattle we had a much bigger set of clubs in our bag.

In all the years you've been on the radio, what is one thing you've done that you'll never ever forget?

When President Bush, the first one, went to Japan and threw up on the Japanese, there was this brouhaha between the Japanese and American cultures. You know, about how Americans were lazy and not hard working and took too much time off. We wanted to know if that is how the Japanese people really felt, because sometimes it's like all foreign governments hate Americans. We wanted to find out if they really hated us, so we randomly called this convenience store in Okinawa, Japan, and found this kid who spoke English, named Kuji. And we ended up striking up a dialog with him and he became a regular feature on the show. We ended up flying him to America and wanted to show this kid this 23-year-old college student what America was really like. We wanted to find out about his culture too. He wanted to shoot a gun because he wanted to be Dirty Harry for a day. He wanted to date a blonde. He wanted biggest story in the news, we were able to light into peoples lives and give them a chance, give the people in our audience a chance to dispel some myths in America. And it gave him a chance to dispel some myths about his culture.

Are you now looking for a convenience store worker in Iraq?

That is a better example. Now that you remind me, when 9/11 happened we realized that we didn't know anything about the Muslim, Arab or Islam culture. So we invited a bunch of Muslim Americans to lunch, and we had this forum with an Iraqi and an Iranian and a Palestinian and we met these guys and found out what their lives were really about and why they were here and what they really thought about us and what we really thought about them. So we got a chance to kind of do that again. It was a pretty amazing thing to go through.

Outside your market, who in radio impresses you?

Kidd Kraddick. I'm in awe of Phil Hendrie. He does what I try to do. There's Lamont and Tonelli, Bert Weiss, Jimmy Baron, the kid who worked for Jimmy (Rich Shertenlieb) People who are doing something that nobody never thought of doing before. Those are people who impress me.

Many contend the farm system in our industry has vanished. Can a talented guy/lady -- singing bartender -- still find a gig in radio?

A great talent will always be able to find a job. There is a lot less trial and error available for people, though. Which means that the eventual superstars are going to make it anyway because you can't keep a good man down.

Localism has been in the news a lot lately. In the next few years, do you think we'll hear more of less of it on the air?

The world is shrinking so fast. Information is so available. I can read the Trib' or the NY times or every paper in the nation on my desktop. I watch Kevin and Bean do a show together and be 1000 miles apart and you would never know. Bean is closer to me than he is his partner, so what is local anymore?

What's your advice to someone who loves what they do, but struggles sometimes with being the second or third player on a show?

Hmmm, if it is making you unhappy, you've gotta make yourself happy. You can't do this job if you are not happy cause if you are not enjoying yourself no one out there listening to you is enjoying themselves either. If I am rewarded emotionally, financially and self-esteem wise; not to quote the army, but if I am being all that I can be on the show, then why should I or would need any more than that. Name a goal that evades you? I want to be national, I want to be recognized. Bob wants to be in the Radio Hall of Fame and I want to be right there with him.

You mentioned earlier that there are times when you would like to kill Bob, lovingly of course. What is it he does that prompts these thoughts?

Moods and tudes. We spend more time together than our own families and you are going to have your days. I was diagnosed with cancer in the spring and was cranky but... what causes us to have problems is Bob's drive to be better than we were yesterday, everyday of his life. Everything brings in different skills and stresses and if you are mixing it up five days a week, 12 months a year, you are going to have days when everybody's not clicking. But we work through them and we are going to be fine because we all genuinely care about each other and want what's best for each other.

In reference to your cancer, we were all pleased to learn that your surgery for testicular cancer was successful and, thank God, you're apparently doing great. Until you told me, I hadn't heard a word. Were you off the air very long?

I didn't miss a day's work. I'm sorry, I missed 2 days work, and we did it all on the air. I told everyone what happened and what I was diagnosed with on the air and that I would be gone for a couple of days because this is how and found it and this is what I found. I had literally thousands of e-mails with people wishing me well, with people saying you know my dad went through this, my husband, my brother, or myself went through this. Its going to be fine. I had people who said you know my husband hasn't seen a doctor in 10 years, and I am making him go. I had a couple of people who said you know what, because of you, we looked and found something... and thank you.

What's something you could tell us about Bob that would make him want to kill you? Lovingly, of course.

He didn't have a pube till he was seventeen. He's said that on the air many times, so while he would kill me if I told you, he's willing to share it. That is probably his most embarrassing thing.

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Quick Snaps
WXTL-FM/Syracuse: Little Steven, host of the Premiere Networks-syndicated ''Little Steven's Underground Garage,'' stopped by his Syracuse affiliate WXTL-FM (The Rebel 105.9) while he was in town for a speaking engagement at Syracuse University on March 18. In addition to visiting with the staff, Little Steven took over the mic for an hour to play some tracks. L-R: Little Steven with WXTL-FM Program Director Dave Frisina.