Eric & Kathy -- Buddies In The Morning


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Posted by Bud on January 09, 2010 at 20:25:05:

Buddies in the morning

Eric and Kathy's successful radio show thrives on relationship talk. Just not about theirs.

Steve Johnson
Tribune reporter
January 10, 2010


To say that Eric and Kathy don't pal around when they're off the air is an understatement.

"Kathy's never even been to my house," says Eric Ferguson, the proactive half of the morning team at WTMX-FM 101.9. "I've been to Kathy's house one time."

"It's not like I don't like him," says Kathy Hart, the team's reactive half. "But we just don't hang out."

Their distance is partly by temperament, partly by design. He grew up in Elburn, the far reaches of the Chicago suburbs, and moved in; Ferguson, 42, now lives in Lincoln Park with his family, attending sporting events around the city, going out to eat several times a week, but always returning to be in bed by 10:15 to be ready for the next day's show.

After growing up in Crystal Lake, Hart, 45, lives more in the country, in Long Grove, in a house that looks out on a "postcard-perfect backyard," she says. "It's my sanity."

But the by-design part of their off-air separation is what's really interesting, one of the things that have helped them become, in more than 13 years on the air here, one of the most successful pairings in Chicago radio. From when the station first matched them up, Ferguson insisted that the duo conduct their relationship in the only venue that would matter to their audience: on the air.

Both had done shows where the personalities all hung out together, and both had come away feeling as though listeners were excluded.

"I just think there's nothing worse than being an outsider in a group, like stumbling into a party where everybody knows everybody," Ferguson says.

Even as ratings and riches have come to them, as other members have joined the morning team and other big-name morning shows in the city have dropped away, as billboards have appeared along the expressways portraying them as chums of the first magnitude, Ferguson and Hart have held to the no-fraternizing rule. It's just one example of the focus and discipline they've applied to make their show work.

Their extraordinary success has been under-recognized in the city, though, in large measure because no part of Eric and Kathy is hip. There isn't the stab at psychic unraveling you get with a Howard Stern or a Steve Dahl. There's no attempt to take radio someplace it has never been (while wearing chunky-framed eyeglasses), as with Ira Glass and "This American Life."

Appearing on a "hot adult contemporary" (radio-speak for adult-skewing Top 40) station, targeting women in particular, the Eric and Kathy Show aims ? unapologetically ? to be middle of the road.

"Eric and Kathy = Mom jeans of the airwaves," sniffed one commenter in a discussion of the show on the Chicago edition of Yelp, the online, user-generated ratings and review site.

"They're the best-kept secret in radio," rebuts the station's program director, Mary Ellen Kachinske. "There's no other morning show in Hot AC in the country that has been ranked at least in the top 3 with adults 25 to 54 for almost 11 years straight."

These days, they're a steady No. 1, even with the upheaval in radio ratings wrought by the introduction of people meters in late 2008. Portable people meters record what people are actually listening to, replacing the old measurement method of diaries, where people would write down what they remembered listening to (or, in a more cynical interpretation, what they wanted to vote for).

"It's already one of the most remarkable runs in Chicago radio history," says Rick Kaempfer, a former producer for Steve Dahl and Garry Meier who covers the medium on his Chicago Radio Spotlight blog. "Some shows have been hotter for shorter periods of time, like Steve & Garry in the late '70s/ early '80s and (Jonathon) Brandmeier in the mid- to late '80s, but very few others have had this kind of success combined with longevity."

And while Eric and Kathy may seem under the radar to many, the heat their show brings is intense enough to have persuaded a star local TV news anchor to sign on as a daily part of the show, despite the very quick turnaround from a nighttime newscast.

Mark Suppelsa ? at WFLD-Ch. 32 when he joined as the Eric and Kathy newsman almost two years ago, at Tribune-owned WGN-Ch. 9 now ? was routinely getting more reaction from his radio guest appearances than he would from the TV news, he says.

"Their audience is so big I almost couldn't say no," says Suppelsa, who contributes not only news but also wry asides and even the occasional rant, a regular segment inspired by his criticism, one morning, of "Balloon Boy's" parents. "They kill TV in terms of ears vs. eyeballs."

Yet where Eric and Kathy might be tempted to start believing their own voodoo and get more personal or pedantic, they instead keep trying to focus the show on its 500,000 weekly listeners, almost to the point of hectoring.

"Every moment of the show is designed to be audience participation and make them the stars," Ferguson says. "If the audience has 100 percent of the content, that's the greatest show ever. Too many of the guys that have fallen by the wayside got lazy. They turn on the mike and talk about themselves."

So Ferguson asks the listeners questions: Should family members wear underwear beneath their PJs? What's the most disgusting thing you learned about your partner when you moved in with him? Guys, have you ever driven a "sissy car"? How far can you go, married ladies, with flirting? Men, does the wedding dress matter to you?

The call-in number ? 312-591-6800 ? goes out scores of times between 5:30 and 10 a.m. every weekday. Interspersed with the callers reacting to the series of questions are the bubble-gum pop hits that are the station's staple: Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga.

"Their execution is as close to seamless as it gets," says Dahl, who lost his Chicago radio morning gig in December 2008 after the PPM introduction adjusted his ratings downward. "I know they spend a lot of time preparing, and it sounds tight and well-planned, but not overly rehearsed. It sounds comfortable, like a radio version of the Snuggie."

"Crazy girlfriends," says Eric, on the air one morning. "Are you labeled for life? In the next 10 minutes, we find out."

Who's running the show

Despite the equal billing, there is inequity in the relationship. Ferguson's office is the big, inner half of a suite in WTMX's quarters in the Prudential Plaza. It's where show staffers congregate for the regular Tuesday morning meetings to map out upcoming promotions: Couples dating for Valentine's Day! John Mayer tickets!

Hart's office is the suite's outer half, the part that would be occupied, in a more conventional business, by the secretary. Stumble into the station shortly before the 5:30 airtime, and you'll find her sitting in the standard-issue company cafeteria, the day's newspapers spread out on a table before her. The light is better, she says.

When Ferguson came on board in September 1996, it was more like an arranged marriage than a careful courtship. WTMX thought Hart would do better with a co-host. Ferguson had been working in Denver and saw an opportunity to get to the market where he grew up listening to Brandmeier and Dahl.

"I met her briefly in passing in the hallway and that was it," he says. "I saw an opportunity to work in Chicago and I wasn't going to miss out on that opportunity."

The former Kathy Achenbach ? who became Kathy Hart for a DJ job in Milwaukee as "The Hart of Rock and Roll" ? had been running "the board," the cockpit-like center of the studio that is the nerve center of the show. She surrendered that to him. Ferguson runs the board now, with Hart directly opposite him, traffic person Melissa McGurren to his left, and Suppelsa in an adjacent studio through a window behind Hart.

And now, when you listen to the show, there is often a whole lot of Eric and only little bits of Kathy. He brings in the lists culled from newspapers and the Internet. He steers the conversations. He shuts them down and moves on when he thinks they've reached a peak. It's tight and snappy, but it can sound, many mornings, like the "ERIC (and Kathy) Show."

If Hart's contribution is too often to just add a "yeah" or a "really," it's because, she says, she doesn't always know where Ferguson wants to take a segment and doesn't want to get in the way.

Ceding control was hard at first, but she says Ferguson "runs the best board I've ever seen. ? I'm 100 percent OK with being the co-host. I'm real good at ? what's the volleyball term? ? at the set so that he can go for the kill."

To hear her describe the role, it's a little like the old line about Ginger Rogers having to do the same steps as Fred Astaire, but backward and in high heels.

"It's challenging," she says. "I struggle with at times sharing too much of my information or my personal opinion because Eric wants the listener to do that. He obviously knows where he's going. He knows what he's saying and has everything prepared ahead of time. I've got to think on the fly and figure out what he's doing."

"I totally get it," Ferguson says. "It would be hard to be on the other side of the chair from me." But forcing others to react spontaneously, he believes, keeps it fresh: "I said, 'When you go out to dinner with friends, do your friends send you a note the night before that says, "Here are our conversations for dinner tomorrow"?'"

But the balance works, says someone who watches them daily. "Eric drives the ship," Suppelsa says. "Kathy keeps it from tipping over. It's kind of like brother's acting out and big sister's saying, 'Hey. Hey. Hey!'"

For a time, too, Ferguson made a lot more money than Hart did, although the disparity has been diminished recently.

But the economic gulf between the marquee stars was, in essence, what broke up Steve & Garry. "I'm very aware of that," Hart says. And she's also, she admits, probably less concerned about money than she ought to be, in part because of a tough upbringing.

The kind of money they make now ? Ferguson will soon be the last million-dollar man in Chicago radio when Roe Conn's current contract at WLS-AM expires, say radio insiders, and Hart's salary is said to be close to that ? can seem like gravy to her on top of the mashed potatoes of a "dream job."

"I came from a family ? you know, boo-hoo ? we grew up on food stamps, single mom, four kids, she was a waitress, that whole story," she says.

"When that first contract came up that there was a huge disparity, I came to terms with it. ... We kind of made an agreement that, 'OK, I'm going to spend less time here. You're going to have to deal with all the client meetings, all the extra hours stuff, and I'm going have the freedom to be home with my family.'

"He does a tremendous amount more than I do for this show. So ? God, my agent will kill me if I say this ?? but it would be unfair for us to make the same amount of money and I know that. How can I be upset about that? He does more work and I have the luxury to be able to go home and be a mom."

Hart and husband Bert, owner of a karate studio, have three kids between 2 and 10 years old. Ferguson has four kids with his wife, Jen, a dentist: a 19-year-old stepdaughter, 8-year-old twins and a 6-year-old.

In the two-year contract Hart just signed, the salary gap was diminished. "They have new contracts in place to make them the two highest paid radio talents (in Chicago) going forward to the next few years," says Greg Solk, vice president of programming for Bonneville International, which owns WTMX and, also in Chicago, WDRV-FM 96.9 and WILV-FM 100.3.

Solk is happy to pay them well, in part because of what they bring in: WTMX pulled in about $34.8 million in 2008, third in the market behind news-talk stations WBBM-AM 780 and Tribune-owned WGN-AM 720, according to BIA/Kelsey, a firm that analyzes media revenues. Typically, a morning show will account for about 30 to 40 percent of a station's income.

But Solk was also at WLUP-FM 97.9 in its talk-personality heyday, a station that tried, and sometimes failed, to contain the egos of Brandmeier, Dahl, Meier and Kevin Matthews, among others. Working with Ferguson and Hart, he says, is a treat: "They are the easiest of the megapersonalities that I've worked with in town. They are more down to earth. They are more accessible. They don't take themselves as seriously.

"It's quite frankly boring a lot of days when there is not a lot of nonsense behind the scenes. They are total pros. They're just really pros."

The sweet spot

The people who like Eric and Kathy love Eric and Kathy. For an average successful morning show, about 40 percent of the audience is people who listen to that show primarily. With Eric and Kathy, says program director Kachinske, it's 84 percent.

But whether you like them or not depends, in large measure, on your tolerance for celebrity gossip, often rendered uncritically, and for stories about what men and women do to drive one another batty.

"They're incredibly consistent," says Kaempfer, the radio blogger. "Other shows have good days and bad days, and Eric and Kathy just don't seem to have bad days."

Kachinske compares them to "Seinfeld": "They kind of talk about nothing and everything at the same time. That's a timeless sort of show."

Steve Dahl (who writes a weekly column for the Tribune) has a different sitcom in mind. "Listening to Eric and Kathy is a lot like watching an episode of 'Friends,'" he says. "It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's witty, amusing and predictably safe. They seem to be doing something right (as) they're the only ones left. It's not my cup of tea, but I like to drink strong, dark coffee."

"Is it edgy enough?" asks Suppelsa. "It's funny stuff, and they're getting a huge mainstream audience."

And if you listen frequently, you'll start to find the show's a little edgier than it gets credit for. Trying to understand the mythology of the vampires in the "Twilight" series one morning, because a couple of the "New Moon" actors are coming in to the studio, Eric says, "So there's biting but no sucking ? or Saturday night, as it's known in Melissa's house."

His goal with such material, he says, is to amuse the parents in the front seat without being obviously risque to the kids in the back seat.

"I think it is a perfect success formula for radio: Go in there and hit one home run every day. Have that one moment, that one bit that resonates," he says. "If you do one in 41/2 hours, you'll be successful.

"For the first six months, eight months of the show we would announce when it happened. We'd turn off the mikes, go, 'There's your home run.' It built that camaraderie."

Now Ferguson is more confident, not so reliant on planning. "If I go in tomorrow and the phones were to blow up and Kathy were to drop dead from a fever and Melissa were to get hit by a car, I could still do the show," he says.

He's even starting to be secure about his place in Chicago radio. "My buddies will give me a hard time: 'You'll never be as big as Johnny (Brandmeier).' I'll say, 'Hey, man, you want me to put my numbers next to Johnny's, we can.' But that's ego talking. I know the success we've had.

"Trends come and go. We're a staple. Staples may not be the flashiest, the most exciting thing, but you always have it in your closet, and you always want to wear it. Men go, 'Oh, Eric and Kathy, that's just a chick thing.' You know what? Everybody loves to ride the moped, but nobody wants to admit it."



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