In 1983, two morning radio guys moved from Petoskey, Michigan to a much bigger market: Indianapolis. Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold began a run on an Indy rock station — Q95 — that may be completely unrivaled in its longevity and success. That run will end for Bob as 2015 comes to a close.
On November 5, Bob and Tom — and the rest of the show, including Kristi Lee and Chick McGee — were inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. During his induction remarks, Bob announced his retirement:
"When I was a teenager, I was a real smart ass. I didn't get along with my Dad. And he said, 'If you continue this behavior, you'll amount to nothing. But you will make it to the Big Mouth Hall of Fame.' I made it, Dad. I always thought you had to die or be retired for five years to be considered for any hall of fame. Thank god I'm not dead, but I am going to retire at the end of this year and walk away from the mic. Thank you for this great honor." — Q95.com
In 1995, the Bob and Tom show transitioned from "local behemoth" to "syndicated juggernaut." Yours truly had a front row seat for the rapid expansion of the show — I worked down the hall from Bob and Tom as half of the Wank and O'Brien Show on X103 (now known as Alt1033) from 1996 to1999. As some voices came and went (Pat Carlini and Mark Patrick, just to name two), the nucleus of the show remained constant: Three dudes and a woman making fun of the news of the day, hosting touring comedians and sprinkling the drive-time slot with sketches (both pre-produced and live, "on-the-fly" bits).
The show — which will continue after Bob departs ("Do you know how many bits my voice is on?" he reminded me just after our interview) — is heard on over 150 radio stations, produced over 50 compilation CDs and DVDs and racked up 5 "Marconi Awards," radio's answer to the Emmys or Oscars. It's also spawned TV shows and comedy tours. The show's done a lot of charity work too, including a famous bet with former Colts center Jeff Saturday that Saturday would never score a touchdown. During the AFC championship game in 2007, Saturday fell on a fumble in the end zone — and cost Bob and Tom $5,000 donated to Saturday's charity of choice.
Kevoian — avid guitar player, radio Hall of Famer, sporting his signature 'stache and Dodgers ball cap — brought me in for a sit-down interview in the Bob and Tom studios right after a show on a recent Friday.
On hanging 'em up
NUVO: First of all, congratulations on the Hall of Fame induction.
BOB KEVOIAN: Thanks very much. [It was] a big surprise, y'know? Something you don't expect. ... We got into radio because it was fun, and when I met Tom it became even more fun, because we could actually joke around and laugh, and make others laugh.
NUVO: Why [are you retiring] right now?
BOB: Well, I'm also gonna be 65 this year. That's usually the age everyone shoots for. A friend of ours said, "Why did you decide this year?" I said, "Well, you know, they didn't pull 65 out of a hat." There's a reason people retire at 65 ... the body starts to change, things start to change. I find I have a tough time recalling certain things.
NUVO: What do they give you? A plaque, a yellow jacket, a tattoo of Marconi?
BOB: We got a glass thing that says "Hall of Fame."
NUVO: Tell me about getting the call that you're going to be in the Hall.
BOB: Believe it or not, I found out on Twitter from a follower that said we were nominated. I had no idea we were nominated. ... Then I got a phone call two days later: "Hey, you're in."
NUVO: Had you decided that you were going to retire before the Hall thing came?
BOB: I'd been kind of throwing it around ... it was, "Maybe this is the right time to do it." And it is.
NUVO: Tell me about the moment where you sit down with Tom and Kristi and Chick ... and say, "Hey guys, this is it."
BOB: Well, I did it with Tom. I didn't get the opportunity to do it with Chick and Kristi. They found out that evening.
NUVO: What was their reaction?
BOB: They were, I think, as surprised as everyone else.
Early Bob — and Tom
NUVO: Who did you listen to growing up?
BOB: Casey Kasem, Wink Martindale, Bob Eubanks — all the guys that were in radio in Los Angeles, where I grew up, they all became game show hosts. (LAUGHS) ... [Also] the boss jocks, Sam Riddle, Machine Gun Kelly, Robert W. Morgan — all those guys were who I listened to ... I never dreamed of being in radio.
NUVO: So how do you fall into radio?
BOB: By total accident. Total mistake. I was working sound for a group called The Young Americans. We were in Petoskey, Michigan, doing summer stock ... and I loved the area so much, I wanted to move there. In order to move there, I had to find work. I went to the radio station, which is right on 31 — as soon as you're driving in to Downtown Petoskey, you pass this radio station. I asked if they needed someone to spin records for their disc jockeys. [The station manager said,] "No, our disc jockeys do that themselves. Do you want to be a disc jockey?" I said, "Well, sure — what do I have to do?" And he gave me some AP copy, sent me into the production room, says, "Read this, gimme your tape and I'll let you know." I got hired the next day and I've been in radio ever since.
NUVO: What was Tom doing in Petoskey?
BOB: We were both at [W]JML — he worked there all day long. I did not. I worked there six-to-ten — then I got out and tended bar and played in a band and I did all these other things. When Tom first came to Petoskey — I guess he grew up going there with his family, and he would spend summers there. He worked in radio in Florida for a year and then I met Tom at a place called Bar Harbor.
I served him a drink — he went to a J. Geils concert and came there after the show ... and he heard me talking to a guy who was a jock in Boyne City, talking about how crappy his cart machines were, and [Tom] said, "Are you in radio?" I said, "Yeah, I do a shift," and he goes, "Can I come by and look at the trades?" He came by the next day, looked at the trades, my station manager came in, they chatted, he got hired that afternoon as my program director and we've been in radio ever since.
NUVO: To get you out of Petoskey, the competition marketed you guys to other stations around the country, is that correct?
BOB: They did. We had no idea it was going on. Tom and I were doing very well — we had a 44 share in the mornings of adults 12-plus.
NUVO: For the uninitiated, that's 44 percent of people who were listening to the radio were tuning to you guys in a single city. That's like Ed-Sullivan-with-The-Beatles numbers.
BOB: It was. For the most part on Sunday nights, everybody watched Ed Sullivan, Monday through Friday, everybody listened to us in Northern Michigan. [Our competitors] were making tapes of us and sending them out to these conventions. Our tape got heard at a convention in Miami with a bunch of program directors, and we started getting phone calls from all over the United States. "How the hell did you find out about us?" The closest was Indianapolis, so we made the trek. I said, "Well, we'll drive down and talk to the guys." We came down here, they were wonderful to us, and they made us an offer that shocked us — "Really?"
NUVO: You care to share what the original offer was?
BOB: Twenty-thousand dollars a year each.
NUVO: So ... that was an upgrade over Petoskey — and enough to live in Indy and be comfortable.
BOB: Yeah, I was making seven grand a year in radio!
Playin' the hits and talkin' dirty
NUVO: You have a really distinctive and infectious laugh. I know you hear that criticism sometimes: "Oh, those guys? All they do is laugh at their own material." Was there ever any criticism that bugged you?
BOB: There's been bad things said about us, and [the reaction's always]: "Apparently, he's not a fan." There's nothing you can do about it.
NUVO: What was the station like — and the market like — when you got here?
BOB: It was music-heavy.
NUVO: How many records [did you play] an hour?
BOB: When we got here, ten records an hour. (Editor's note: Rock song? Three to five minutes. Commercial breaks? Maybe ten to 12 minutes. Good luck saying anything if you're running heavy on the epic classic rock dinosaur-length tracks.) And they had a contest — "Q95 guarantees five in a row or you win $5,000."
NUVO: So that was an expensive mistake if somebody lost count.
BOB: That gave us hardly any time to show our personality.
NUVO: When do they start expanding your breaks?
BOB: After that contest ended ...
NUVO: "This is a bad idea! Didn't help us at all!"
BOB: Yeah, let's hire a personality-driven morning show who can't say anything because we're in the middle of this huge contest. After the first year, we were still getting to know Indy, and playing a lot of music and trying to be funny ...
NUVO: And I'm sure nobody in the market's taking you seriously.
BOB: At the time, no. People were still enjoying the rock and roll hits and we'd throw in a good joke here or there. ... Every year we'd start dropping one song an hour, next thing you know now you're playing eight, now you're playing seven and so on.
NUVO: You said you had a 44 in Petoskey. Do you remember the biggest number you ever hit here in Indy?
NUVO: That's still massive.
BOB: At one point, yeah, we had one of five listeners.
NUVO: In addition to the comics that are on the show, there's a lot of heavily produced stuff. I know when Dave O'Brien and I were doing the show down the hall from you guys [on X103] we'd spend a day producing a three-minute bit and then we'd go "Oh, great! Now what are we gonna do for the other three hours and 57 minutes that we're on the air?" Did you guys run into that?
BOB: You've gotta remember: You and Dave had two of you, we had four of us. (Editor's note: In fairness, the Wank and O'Brien show also included the hilarious and wildly underrated Don Stuck.) You can move around the room, you can start picking on Chick, or picking on Kristie — EVERYONE picks on Tom. There's always something to go to — plus just working off of the news and what's going on in the world? You can make fun of that every day.
NUVO: You've got guys like Dean Metcalf —
BOB: Deano! News story comes up, we get a phone call from them. Like I said at the Hall of Fame speech: Dean Metcalf, Steve Salge and Ron Sexton are the greatest character voices in radio and they came up with these great characters. These guys are hilarious, and they make us look wonderful.
NUVO: You started syndicating in '95. It was Frank Wood who was running the shop at that point. (Editor's note: Wood's company, Secret Communications, was purchased by the outfit that was eventually swallowed up by Clear Channel — now iHeart Media — for an amount of money rumored to be in the neighborhood of a "shitload.") Was it his idea?
BOB: We did those albums every year — two a year, for a while — and we were voted "The Most Stolen-From Show on Radio." More people were using stuff from our albums around the country ...
NUVO: And claiming it as their own, 'cause that's what jocks do.
BOB: Yeah. In fact, Elvis Duran, who's out of New York, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame ... at an after-party he goes, "Thank you! I've stolen more stuff from you guys than you could ever imagine. Thank you so much!" It's flattering, but it's also, like, "Let's syndicate!" We started, we got Evansville, we got Fort Wayne — they were our first two. It just blew up.
NUVO: Do you know what the first out-of-state station was?
BOB: Somewhere in Illinois, I think. Now, I may be cheating Ohio, 'cause it may have been Dayton. I don't remember.
NUVO: I started on a station in Pennsylvania — I got a chance to get my chops together in a place like Petoskey, in a dinky little market.
BOB: Small-market radio is the best.
NUVO: Your success, though, created a model for a lot of these small-market stations: they're using Bob and Tom, [or another syndicated rock morning show such as] Free Beer and Hot Wings — it's great for you guys, but it kind of damaged the bench a little bit.
BOB: I guess you could say "damage," but we're only on one station per city. We're not on all the stations. That gives other radio stations the chance to create young talent.
NUVO: They've got to raise their game — OK.
BOB: A lot of people are not grooming young talent — because they're afraid of consultants. "You know what? You've gotta do this music format to survive in this business!" It's sad.
NUVO: I'd imagine there was some concern about losing that Indy locality when you first started to syndicate.
BOB: No, not at all. What we did on a daily basis was exactly what we're doing now. On a windy day we'd say, "Oh, geez, I hope Don Hein doesn't go outside today." Everyone knew Don wore a toupee. You don't do a Don Hein joke, and you don't talk about the weather ... and Indy — this is a cosmopolitan city. Everybody in Indianapolis knows what's going on in the world, so we can talk about world and national events. And, if something interesting in Indy happened, boom, we could talk about it.
NUVO: Howard Stern came to Indy in '97 or '98 — was there a concern? Were you guys nervous at all?
BOB: No, 'cause what makes Stern popular is he'll attack a local station and what makes him famous is the station reacts, bites at it. And we just ignored him. And you know what? He was here for a year or so and he disappeared.
NUVO: He did. You had a pretty good flanking station down the hall, though, if I do say so myself.
BOB (LAUGHING): Yeah, that's true.
NUVO: I did ask O'Brien to kick in a couple of questions — he was here, after all. [He asked:] "After you first got here, how long did you think you'd stay in Indy?"
BOB: Two years. We actually thought we'd come down here, fail horribly and go back to Michigan.
NUVO: Parenthetically, Dave noted, "I thought I'd be here two years and now I'm going on 20." (Editor's note: Dave O'Brien is now an acclaimed country-music host on 97.1 HANK-FM in Indy.)
BOB (LAUGHING): That's funny.
NUVO: "I guess Indiana feels like home to you now, even though you've never given up the Dodgers hat?"
BOB: It's a tribute to my Dad.He worked for the Dodgers for 25 years and it's just a way of saying, "Hey, Dad." I'm a big Cincinnati Reds fan and in fact, I was talking to [Reds' play-by-play announcer] Marty Brennaman, who's a great man — we were watching the Dodgers/Reds play; he was calling the game, I was watching the game, and all of a sudden I said, "I don't know if you felt that — that breeze of cool air come whipping through the broadcast booth in the seventh inning — but that was my dad spinning in his grave when I was rooting for the Reds to beat the Dodgers."
NUVO: I want to talk about a couple of events that happened that affected radio ... I was on the air, so I couldn't hear how you guys handled September 11.
BOB: I remember someone — in fact, it was [staffer] Mark Allison — saying "Hey, we think a small commuter plane hit one of the towers." All of us immediately thought the same thing: "Wow, can they get fire equipment up that high?" ... We did not realize it was a planned attack. So we continued broadcasting, and we flipped on the TV, and all of a sudden — as soon as we flipped it on — we saw the other plane fly into the second tower. We went into news mode. The jokes were gone.
I've run into a couple folks who were in their car and didn't know anything about it, but we were the ones who informed them of what was taking place. We continued on for probably two to three weeks after the attacks, and Heywood Banks — great comedian — his nephew was in one of the towers. We interviewed him the next day. Then we brought in Doctor Will, and talked about the psychological effects of people in America, how to deal with this, how to move on to the next thing ... I thought we did very, very great, informative radio during that time.
NUVO: The other thing that affected broadcasters all over the country — and this is a much lighter topic — was when Janet Jackson's breast got exposed —
BOB: Man, oh, man.
NUVO: And the FCC decided that radio had actually caused that (Editor's note: SARCASM) because they came after everybody who was involved in either pop or rock and "zero tolerance" was the name of the game. Did you guys have to adjust at all?
BOB: Hell, yes! So did you!
BOB: It was total panic. [But] time heals everything. Slowly — you can't do this sexy joke — oh, wait, you can now — it's weird how people react, how our government reacts to a lot of things.
NUVO: Got a favorite bit that you guys ever did?
BOB: Well, "Shirtless Girl" is one of my favorites.
NUVO: Favorite character?
BOB: I like Jumbo the Elephant a lot, and I love Donnie Baker.
NUVO: Favorite guest ever?
BOB: I got to do a one-on-one with Paul McCartney at the Fieldhouse, that was pretty cool. Someone called and said, "Hey, McCartney's not doing a press conference — he's doing an interview. Do you want to do it?" Uh, YEAH. So many great comedians have come through our doors. Entertainers getting started — many of them went on to become huge stars.
NUVO: Your tribute to [late comedian] Tim Wilson was very nice.
BOB: That was tough.
NUVO: Worst moment of the show, besides September 11?
BOB: I think in our 30-plus years we've had five bad shows, and I don't remember any of 'em.
NUVO: That's a damn good run. The vasectomy — great idea or awful idea? (Editor's note: Bob had a vasectomy during the show — and broadcast the entire event. Live.)
BOB: Great! I think it opened eyes for a lot of folks who were afraid of it. I just wish my partner had paid attention!
NUVO: That's the line of the interview right there, brother. How many guitars do you own, total?
BOB: Not as many as you'd think. I don't know, maybe 10. For me, I'm a lefty, so when I find a good left-handed guitar, I'll try it out, I'll buy it.
NUVO: Have you got a favorite?
BOB: I have one that was built by Ronnie Volbrecht down in Nashville, Indiana, that's just a beautiful dreadnought that he did. I've become more of a ukele player of late.
NUVO: Hawaiian Bob! Favorite guitar player?
BOB: When it comes to great guitar players, I guess Harrison was the best. Clapton, obviously.
NUVO: Is there a tally on the charity work you've done? Has anyone figured out how much money you guys raised?
BOB: I think right about the time of syndication we'd already raised four-and-a-half million dollars. I have no idea after that.
NUVO: Did you ever think Jeff Saturday was gonna score a friggin' touchdown?
BOB: No. Why do ya think we made the bet? [The Super Bowl season] was probably one of the highlights of living in Indiana.
NUVO: You know, the relationship you guys have had with the Colts over the years has been really impressive — and now McAfee, he's killing it. Here's a guy who's clearly going to have a career in broadcasting.
BOB: I told him — he should be a game show host. He'd be the ideal game show host.
NUVO: So what now, man? RV trip?
BOB: Yeah, we're going to do some traveling! The missus and I bought an Airstream. We're gonna live riveted all over the country. My wife said, "Tell Ed to mention this in the article;" she has a travel blog called Junebug Journeys ... if you want to follow us — we photograph stuff and she writes a little blog, and for the most part you can ride along with us. (Editor's note: Becky Kevoian's blog is junebugjourneys.com)
NUVO: Are you going to listen to the show?
BOB: If I'm in the area, but I hope to actually wake up once the show's over! Isn't that the goal in life?