Ten years ago this morning was the most uncertain point in the radio careers of Greg Dwyer and Bill Michaels.
They had left WXLP-FM 96.9, after a five-year stint at 97X that blossomed into the No. 1 morning show in the Quad-Cities.
With the promise of more creative control, more publicity and more money, they jumped to competitor KCQQ-106.5, which was changing its format to “classic hits” and hitching its future on the duo.
“I remember specifically looking at him and feeling real nervous, wondering if anybody was going to be listening,” Michaels recalled.
Their debut at Q106.5 came after a highly publicized court battle between the then-owners of each station over a non-compete clause in their contracts. Their Q106.5 debut, after six months of being off the air, included everything from live TV coverage to visits from local mayors to a parade.
“We had an awful lot of attention focused on what we were doing, and believe it or not, that made us uncomfortable,” Dwyer said. “Attention on us, for the sake of attention on us, is not what we’re after.”
“All that summer, I was thinking jeez, we have totally screwed up our career,” Michaels said. “And Dwyer was like, ‘Chill out, it’ll work.’”
By the time they played the Thin Lizzy record “The Boys Are Back in Town,” phones started lighting up and they knew it was the right decision. Dwyer & Michaels’ 5:30-10 a.m. show has continued its ratings dominance, constantly winning its time period and earning national awards in the process.
Last month, the show won three of the 10 awards presented by the Morning Show Boot Camp, a convention of radio personalities, in New Orleans. They competed against hundreds of entries from markets of all sizes.
Don Anthony, the Atlanta-based broadcasting executive that runs the boot camp, said that originality and a hard work ethic are the reasons the show receives awards and national recognition.
“They probably work harder in putting on great shows than anyone,” said Anthony, also editor of Morning Mouth magazine, a trade publication for drive-time hosts. “They do not take their show for granted, their success for granted or their market for granted.”
The pride plus self-degradation leads the hosts to call themselves “dorks” — their Web site is http://www.2dorks.com">www.2dorks.com — and refer to their weekly compilation show as “The Worst of Dwyer & Michaels.”
While plenty has happened to the two off-the-air — Dwyer is married with two children, Michaels is married with three — they say their show is essentially the same as it was when they first signed on a decade ago.
“If you’re talking about how our show has changed, essentially it really hasn’t,” Dwyer said. “We still come to the office every morning with the hope that by 10 o’clock we will have said or done something that has entertained the other person. We figure if we do that, then anyone who has been watching or listening to it happen will also be entertained.”
Both say the success of the show is not in talking to celebrities, but “real people,” like rubberband collectors, backwoods folks getting their first phone or criminals caught drunk while riding lawn mowers.
“The dumber it is, the more we seem to celebrate it,” Dwyer said.
They and their producers scour the news for offbeat stories locally and nationwide, try to reach the people involved and get them talking.
“There’s more to these people than this particular thing, and we try to dig it out of them,” Michaels said.
“We learned a long time ago that our show was not going to be about entertainment headlines. It was going to be about people. It was going to be about us, it was going to be about how we relate to people,” Dwyer said. “People ignore what’s going on in their back yard to focus on something bigger than they think they should focus on.”
That people-oriented focus has spun off into various signature events for the group, including Prom From Hell (which began as a discussion by female listeners about those bridesmaids dresses the bride swears they’d be able to wear again); the Granny Gran Prix, where older women race in golf carts; an annual flight to Joliet, Ill., to bring back a planeload of White Castle hamburgers; and an adult Easter egg hunt, which brings out thousands of listeners on Good Friday.
16 years together
The two met when they were broadcasting students at Illinois State University, when Michaels was program director to rebellious disc jockey Dwyer. The two later became friends — even roommates for a while — and worked overnight shifts at Bloomington-Normal and Peoria radio stations until getting a call to take over the morning shift at Peoria rock station WWCT-FM. A year later, they were hired by 97X.
Dwyer & Michaels have retained high ratings with peaks and valleys, but still as the top-ranked station in the market. They reached a personal goal last year, getting a 30 share — nearly one-third of the listeners — for adults age 25 to 54. That feat was matched only by Spike O’Dell, a Quad-City native who moved on to Chicago’s WGN-AM.
The duo prides itself in quickly turning a listener call that turns into heavy audience participation. Those were evident in two of the three awards they received for the national organization. One was for “best bit,” with call-ins from women about how their mother introduced them to womanhood.
Another award was for “best feature,” for “Ask Us Anything,” a Friday-morning segment where the duo tries to answer utilitarian, trivial or inane questions from its audience.
The third award was for “best recurring character,” where a Jack Nicholson impersonator called busy hotels and restaurants to secure a reservation.
Radio personalities trade ideas for bits in an online site that’s run by Anthony. Morning shows must contribute their own ideas as well as borrow from others, he said.
“Time and time again, Dwyer & Michaels are in a limited group of morning shows whose material is highly sought-after,” he said. “(Morning show hosts) all have a great deal of respect for what Dwyer & Michaels do.”
The duo say that while they get the credit for the success of the show, much of the heavy lifting is done by producers Davis, who is also the morning newscaster, and “Captain” Kirk Marske, who was with the team since it was at 97X.
“They’re like terriers,” Dwyer said. “They do not stop until they get the work done.”
All four of them share that work ethic, said Q106.5 program director Jim Hunter.
“They’re the hardest-working guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to deal with, honest to goodness. They care about the show,” he said. “The show doesn’t end at 10. The show goes on all day long.”
And it’s with Davis and Marske in mind that Dwyer & Michaels say they probably wouldn’t look to move to a larger market — uprooting several families for the sake of a radio risk. The only exception would be Chicago, where both grew up in the suburbs.
“There’s a handful of places where we would go, but not many,” he said. “There are real people who live in the Quad-Cities.”
They’ve also resisted the temptation to want to syndicate their show. That would mean they couldn’t talk about Davenport’s truck-eating bridge, Bettendorf’s garbage hauling or their beloved Quad-City Mallards hockey team.
“It would take away a big element of what our show is all about,” Michaels said.
The two are ready to contemplate the next 10 years, even though they may be close to AARP age at the end of their next decade.
“I told myself I was not going to be a 40-year-old, long-haired, DJ ne’er-do-well,” said Dwyer, who has shoulder-length hair and, yes, turns 40 later this week (Michaels turns 39 this fall). “Things changed. I also at the time never thought I would love it as much as I do.”
They became introspective about their longevity after a caller a few weeks ago said, “I listened to you guys since you got here and I listened to you ‘grow up.’ ”
That was the same day they had mothers call up to impersonate monster truck noises for tickets to races at The Mark of the Quad-Cities, Dwyer quickly points out, “if that is considered grown up.”
“We have the greatest job of all time,” he said.
David Burke can be contacted at (563) 383-2400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.