Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps had a pleasant, safe and lucrative little gig at a Birmingham, Ala., Top 40 station when a voice said to them: "Go west, young men . . . go west."
Actually, that voice belonged to then KLOS program director Kurt Kelly, who had heard of the pair's top-rated show through the radio grapevine and approached them regarding a move to Los Angeles to fill a morning void at 95.5 FM.
Kelly subsequently moved on to a different local frequency, but new program director Charlie West and station president and general manager Bill Sommers followed his lead and snagged Thompson and Phelps as their new morning guys last fall, even though the team was young and had only a few years under its belt as a drive-time act.
"Jumping to the No. 2 market in the world was frightening," Thompson said, "and the first week or two here were just that--definitely frightening."
And not too encouraging.
Much of the initial audience response to the "Mark & Brian Program" last September was, well, vicious. "I guess we came on like gang busters," said 28-year-old Phelps. "We were kind of negative, kind of cocky, maybe, but behind all that there's this underlying tongue-in-cheekness that we are not taking ourselves seriously."
The incensed listeners, most of whom loyally listened to KLOS to hear heavy-rock tunes without the gabbing, seem to have come around. The angry telephone calls diminished, and positive letters started to appear at the station.
Comedy is their stock in trade: Using a 50-50 balance of improvisational and scripted material, they relentlessly bash Elvis and enthusiastically taunt Heart's Ann Wilson about her dress size. Running back Eric Dickerson's salary dispute with the Los Angeles Rams provided a bounty of material for them, and they hover like vultures waiting for Jim and Tammy Bakker to make a false move.
Taking pumpkins carved with the Bakkers' smiling faces and smashing them with the KLOS van is one way they attempted to distinguish themselves from other morning fare.
"We tell our audience just to laugh and don't get carried away here because we're just joking," Phelps said.
Of the Southern California audience, the 32-year-old Thompson said: "They're a lot more creative here. Our show is a stage for the listener. They can call up anytime and do whatever they want--start a bit, make us laugh."
With the number of people here waiting to be discovered, he said, they're bound to come across some sharp wits. "That's also upsetting too because many times we'll have a listener call who's more creative than we are," he said.
Their path to Los Angeles was relatively obstacle-free.
Thompson, who was born in Florence, Ala., developed an interest in radio between his junior and senior years in college.
"I literally called every radio station in town requesting assistance," he said, "and out of 17 calls, one station told me to come over, so I went over and cleaned up!"
That's no joke. He was the station janitor for a year before he even got to touch a record, let alone play one.
Phelps, from Cambridge, Ill., started his own comedy improv group and toured colleges all over the Midwest. "When the comedy group broke up, I went back to school in broadcast advertising, then lied my way into an internship with a major Chicago station and worked hard there," he said. "That station in Chicago knew I was hungry (creatively) and had a connection down in Birmingham."
So Phelps was shipped south to join forces with his new partner.
Said Thompson: "They literally put us in a hotel room and said 'Like each other.' "
It's too early to tell whether the pair has made an impact on KLOS' ratings. They realize it may take a while for the audience to build because they are new to the market. And that's OK with them, because they're still working to improve the show.
"We expect the show to get much better," Thompson said. "Not that it's terrible now but it's just not quite what we want it to be."
They would like the freedom to grab a wireless mike and take leave of the studio to "mess with the switchboard girls, or go out and get some doughnuts." Sort of like the David Letterman show of morning drive time.
"We can't do half the stuff we want to because of technical problems," Phelps said, "because the station's not used to that sort of thing."
Not yet, anyway. But they said KLOS is in the process of providing technical equipment to enable them to take their show on the road.