Mark Thompson of the "Mark & Brian" show is retiring after… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Mark Thompson started his radio career at 16, as a janitor at a station in his hometown, Florence, Ala. On Friday, in his white Mercedes convertible, he'll pull away from KLOS-FM (95.5) on his own terms, having finished his final stint as co-host of the "Mark & Brian" show."
"It's just time," said Thompson, now 56. "Guys my age, they're dropping dead. There are other things I want to do."
His departure will mark the end of what is the longest-running morning radio show in the Los Angeles-Orange County market — one that has consistently been among the most popular for more than two decades, a collection of comedy bits, banter and celebrity interviews.
INTERACTIVE: 'Mark & Brian' star on the Walk of Fame
"Twenty-five years at one station, in one of the toughest competitive radio markets in the country? And getting to leave at a time and in a way of his own choosing? Mark Thompson is the envy of every talk show host in America," says rival morning host Gene "Bean" Baxter of KROQ-FM (106.7).
Thompson has written and produced two feature films, and acted in movies and television. And for about the past decade, every three to five years when their contracts came up for renewal, he wondered how much longer he'd continue the 5-10 a.m. weekday show, syndicated to 30 stations nationwide.
"The almighty dollar would always step in and make it a little difficult," Thompson said in an interview at the station this week, relaxed in shorts and flip-flops as he sat in the show's lounge, surrounded by signed photos of music, movie and TV stars who'd been guests over the years. But his wife of 30 years, Lynda, beat breast cancer four years ago, and with their children — Matt, 25, Amy, 22, and Katie, 19 — all grown, the couple decided to stop merely talking about the things they wanted to do the rest of their lives. They bought a house on a lake north of Charlotte, N.C., where Thompson has done the show remotely from a home studio for much of the past three years. But now it's time to let go entirely.
"We fantasize about waking up on a Tuesday morning: 'Hey, let's go to New York and see a couple of plays,'" Thompson said. "Since I was 14, I've worked every day. I look forward to working when I choose to."
His partner, Brian Phelps, has said he wants to continue at the station, but has declined interviews while he's still negotiating with KLOS management. Recently, though, he told listeners he'd like to continue for a few more years, and has a specific new partner in mind — an "exciting, energetic, wonderful, fun, loving-coming-in-in-the-morning partner," as he's had for the past 25 years, he said.
The mystery partner, and the money involved, are what they're hammering out with the station, he said.
"Three years ago, when we signed this last contract, I almost had to be talked into signing it because I was so unbelievably tired of getting up at 3 o'clock in the morning. But I did, and I'm glad I did," Phelps said on the air.
He added that Thompson "is going to a wonderful life in North Carolina. We part as close as we've ever been."
The pair had teamed in 1986 in Birmingham, Ala., and moved to L.A. in fall 1987, with humor described by critics as loony and juvenile, including a Valentine's Day stunt in which they were lowered by crane into a vat of chocolate, with listeners invited to throw nuts and toppings on them.
At the time, Rick Dees of KIIS-FM (102.7) was the undisputed king of morning radio; within 11/2 years, the minor-market upstarts had supplanted him at the top of the ratings.
"It was a big jump, to go from Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles. I knew the competition was the best in the country," Thompson said. His goal: "Do enough to be able to stay. I never had any visions of being No. 1, or being on for 25 years."
Radio historian Don Barrett, publisher of LARadio.com, said that when they arrived, Thompson and Phelps "were just down-home guys people really embraced."
"Radio was not that way. It was very slick, Top-40," he said. "They let the audience know they were human. They got the listeners involved, and that really hadn't been done to that degree."
Thompson said that after they hit No. 1 in the morning, he remembered thinking, "It can't be this easy, can it?"
"We were making up stuff as we went, and that was a wonderfully refreshing time for us, and for the people listening," he said.
Come Monday, Kevin Ryder and "Bean" Baxter on KROQ-FM will have the longest-running morning show in the Southland, at 22 years, 7 months. Baxter joked in an email that next week they'll steal "Mark & Brian's" listeners by focusing on Elvis and Andy Griffith.