The Suburbans are lined up bumper to bumper like elephants on parade. The line moves slowly toward the curb in front of the middle school. Cars stop, doors slam, cars start up again. Outside theair is filled with the sounds and shrieks of socializing teens. But inside each SUV, whether the mom behind the wheel is wearing sweats or a power suit, one man’s voice is heard: Kidd Kraddick. Today he’s pondering the philosophical question: is it okay for Big Al to call Kidd’s assistant, Peptern Lindsay, “Bubble Butt”?
Kidd Kraddick rules the morning airwaves. In Dallas-Fort Worth, his drive-time show on KHKS 106.1 KISS FM “Kidd Kraddick in the Morning” is number one with kids ages 12 and up. It’s number one with women ages 18 to 49. It’s number one with women ages 25-54. Not only that, in June it was picked up by Premiere Radio, the same company that manages Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh, and went national. Now “Kidd Kraddick in the Morning” is syndicated in dozens of markets. The rest of the day, KISS FM relies on a teen dance music format, but on Kidd’s show, the music/talk ratio started out small and finally disappeared altogether last January. The morning show is now just a chat party. “We’re not a teenage station,” claims Kidd. “We’re number one with teens and parents.” In fact, one of the few things Dallas teens and their parents seem to agree on is when they’re in the car together in the morning, Kidd Kraddick is on the radio.
This morning, Kidd’s been looking through his cohort Big Al’s Palm Pilot. That’s how the “Bubble Butt” question came up. Kellie Rasberry, the outspoken feminist member of the morning team, speaks right up, as usual. “I can’t believe you still call her that,” Kellie scolds, “when she’s told you how much she doesn’t like it.”
“Lindsay knows I don’t mean anything bad,” Al retorts. “Don’t you, Lindsay?” The morning show characters often refer to the support team of tekkies and telephone workers on the other side of the glass studio wall.
Here comes the first caller of the day, telling Al to “shut up.” “Lindsay,” she says, “you don’t have to listen to that.” But the next caller suggests that Kellie “lighten up.” “It’s no big deal,” he says. “It’s not what you say. It’s how you mean it.”
A heated discussion ensues about whether it’s okay to call someone a nickname about her butt. Or anything else.
“Okay, okay,” Kidd says. “People have nicknames for people in their office that other people don’t even know about. In fact, we’re going to take calls about that right now. Call and tell us about it.”
The phones start buzzing. “Al, what if they started calling you Bucktooth?” asks one caller. “Wouldn’t bother me at all,” Al replies.
It sounds like a non-topic, a frivolous talk show question, nowhere near as vital as whether to allow stem-cell research or if it’s a good idea for Alan Greenspan to lower interest rates another half percent. Actually, of course, it’s completely relevant, not only to moms headed to the possibly backbiting social structure of their office, but also to teenagers and kids headed for a certainly savage high school hierarchy.
This universal appeal is the magic of Kidd Kraddick. But how does it work? Who is Kidd, the eternal kid? Why does everyone like him so much? The answer is that Kidd has broken some longtime rules of radio to become king of the demographics.
Part of Kidd’s recipe for success is finding “good friends who can hang out” and create the right chemistry. He went through several co-hosts before finding the perfect sidekicks:
1. Al Mack (“Big Al”),
the former limo driver (above); and
2. Scott Robb, the show’s producer (below) and
3. Kellie Raspberry, the outspoken Southern feminist.
Raised in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, Kidd says he recognized his life’s ambition when he was in the 10th grade. He was class president and ended up playing deejay at an underfunded (read: couldn’t afford a pro) class dance. From that night on, he was hooked on the airwaves. He went on to do the nighttime shows in Miami, Salt Lake City, LA, and Tampa. Then, in 1984, Kidd took his show to Dallas. Three years later, he moved from nighttime to morning drive time, the golden hours of radio.
“In radio, the morning is the only time to be on,” says Kidd. “Morning used to be the only time for personality radio. It’s changing, but not much.” He wakes up at 4 every morning to get to the studio in Preston Center by 5 or 5:30. He leaves work just before noon and heads for the gym before going home to Arlington for a nap. “After my nap, I get up at 4 in the afternoon,” he says. “Then I’m home, just like a conventional dad.” Nevertheless, “There’s no good way to do this,” he says. “The body was not meant to sleep in shifts. No matter how successful I get, no matter how good things are, my life is still going to be hell because I get up at 4 every morning.” And, typically, he stays up till 11 p.m.—writing, surfing the Web for ideas, watching tapes of TV talk shows, seeing what was on Oprah. That’s the simple version of the story. The determination that drives the schedule is harder to explain. Kidd’s a devoted family man—he mentions his daughter Caroline and wife Carol at some point in every show, and he often calls them while he’s on the air. Combining the killer morning schedule with the demands of family life requires a determination that amounts to obsession.
“I’ve watched Kidd develop as a talent over a period of time,” says Scott Shannon, program director and morning person for WPLJ FM in New York City. He is one of the most respected radio programmers in America and a longtime friend of Kidd’s. They met 20 years ago between seminars at a radio convention and discovered more than a gift for gab in common. The two talkmeisters vacation and play golf together. “He’s not a guy who just came by it naturally,” says Scott. “He might be the hardest working person I know in radio. His success is directly attributable to his work ethic. If he can’t beat you on talent, he’ll just outwork you. For his competitors, like me, he’s turned into one of the most dangerous guys in the country.”
A three-time winner of The Billboard Magazine’s “Air Personality of the Year,” 1992 and 1997 recipient of the AWRT “Air Personality of the Year,” winner of the distinguished Marconi Award for “Radio Personality of the Year,” and winner of the first annual 1999 WB Radio Music Awards as the best “Radio Personality in the Country,” Kidd has dedicated himself not only to a successful radio career, but also to the community. Ten years ago he founded a nonprofit organization, Kidd’s Kids, that sends local chronically and terminally ill children and their families to Walt Disney World in Florida. In 1990, United States Junior Chamber Selection named Kidd Kraddick one of the Top 10 Outstanding Young Americans, an award based on community service. The first radio personality to receive the award, Kidd joins the ranks of previous recipients such as George Bush, Neil Armstrong, John F. Kennedy, Joe Montana, and Jesse Jackson.
Those are the words that got her the job. Well, Kidd Kraddick had said he wanted someone “irreverent” to work with him, and Kellie Rasberry’s blunt, if accurate, assessment of her prospective boss’ vertical challenge certainly caught his attention. When Kellie arrived at DFW for her interview, she was expecting the program director, a fellow South Carolina native who had described himself as more than 6 feet tall. Unfortunately, the program director had been fired that day, so Kidd, all 5-feet-5 of him, was playing chauffeur.
What Kidd liked about Kellie and why she’s been on the air with him for seven years is part of his recipe for success, part of the reason why “Kidd Kraddick in the Morning” is now the number one show in its time slot: Kidd’s looking for “good friends who can hang out and do nothing.” One of his talents is the ability to attract and keep a talented cast. The show revolves around Kidd, but it’s really an ensemble effort. The early hours are onerous, but like Tom Sawyer and the fence, Kidd makes the morning show something fun, a job everyone wants to do.
“Kidd Kraddick in the Morning” was a music show that evolved into a talk show. “Playing 50 percent music means that another station can always steal 50 percent of your material,” Kidd explains. The radio business is a lot like junior high school—each station is trying desperately to differentiate itself from the others while staying the same in its appeal to the golden demographics that appeal to advertisers. Music can narrow your audience; it’s almost impossible to please a broad audience with music. (Think back to those moms and teens in the SUVs.) Everyone likes something different. “We protect our audience share by being unique,” says Kidd. “No one else can be Kidd Kraddick. On the other hand, the show chews up material. If something’s not working, I have to just throw it out and go to something else.”
A cast of characters is helpful to pick up dropped conversational balls and make the talk fresh enough to keep the audience loyal morning after morning. “To entertain people for four hours a day is impossible without great chemistry,” says Kidd. “I figured out one day that in order for this to be bearable, I needed great people on the show. I have a mantra about diversity. I think creativity comes from conflict. Conflict comes from diversity, so I thought if I can get people with different backgrounds and they’re naturally funny and we disagree on stuff, then our disagreements will be funny.” Kidd ran through a series of sidekicks before his current co-hosts Kellie and Big Al came along. (Jocelyn White used to be part of the show, as was Burt Weiss.) Kellie came from South Carolina (where they were always trying to persuade her to get rid of her accent). Big Al was running a limo company—he was the show’s official limo service and would come in to the studio and do his commercials live. He played off the others so well that finally Kidd asked him to join the cast permanently.
The resulting team—Kidd the sensitive man, Kellie the Southern feminist, and Al the regular guy—has evolved into a family dynamic, with comments balanced between bland and bludgeoning. Discussions range from the crucial, such as how to talk to kids about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, to the comically trivial, such as the big argument one day about the size of Kellie’s head. Instead of studying demographics and aiming for the ideal audience, the characters on Kidd’s show get to know each other and form an airwave friendship with each other and the listeners. It seems to work.
In fact, Kidd divides people into three different categories: friends, friends who listen, and listeners who consider themselves friends. “I was in the grocery store last week and a woman stopped me and started talking,” he says. “Her face looked familiar and she asked about my family, so I asked about hers and we had talked 10 minutes before she said, ’Oh, you
“I like to think we don’t learn about the audience on our show, we learn about ourselves,” adds Kidd, laying out one of the cardinal broken rules of his radio style. “We’re real. A comment about our work is a comment about us. You can say, ’I hated Matt Damon in that movie’ and still like Matt Damon. But my only role is as Kidd Kraddick. If you don’t like the show, you don’t like me.”
Basically, Kidd tries to make his show a party everyone wants to attend. “I think it’s a mistake to try to guess who your audience is and then tailor your talk to that,” he says. “I can tell you who’s attracted to the show, but it’s not because we try to target people. The best thing to do is talk to the people in the room and let the audience find you. I just try to entertain the people in the room with me—Al, Kellie, Scott, and Gail, the people in production. It’s a party.”
That’s one way morning radio has changed. Shows used to be more scripted and structured. Some shows do still have rehearsals. But mostly the pretense is gone and radio 2001 is more response than performance. Radio is an interactive medium now. Kidd starts off each show with a prep book full of ideas—news items, standup comic material, hot topics, factoids, etc.—that he throws out, trying to find one that takes hold and ignites the chemistry of good conversation. “All I have to do is light the fuse,” he says. But he relies on the spontaneity and serendipity that grow from friendly conversation. If a bit doesn’t work, he cuts it short and then makes fun of its failure the rest of the show. “Mistakes are part of the show—we just turn them into comedy,” he says. “In the old days, you didn’t make mistakes. Now there aren’t any.” Self-deprecation has become a big part of Kidd’s routine, a corollary of his one big rule: never fake it.
And the sensitivity and intuitive self-knowledge that allows him to ridicule his failures is what appeals to Kidd’s mostly female audience. Self-criticism is, after all, a female activity. He knows it. During a recent show, Kidd mentioned a weight-reducing drug (don’t call—it’s Pyruvate) that he got at his gym. “We were overwhelmed with calls,” says Lindsay, the peppy intern. “Now you can’t find that pill on store shelves.”
Sensitivity is Kidd’s long suit. And it’s genuine, according to those who know him. “The weird thing is he really cares,” says Scott. Kidd keeps in touch with the children from Kidd’s Kids and it’s not unusual to hear them on the show. Does it raise ratings? Of course. But it’s genuine and appealing to women.
“We’re a whole new deal,” says Kidd. “Morning talk for women has not been tried before. I think the medium and the women are ready for it now.” Men, say the stats, are more likely to listen to talk radio, but it’s mostly sex, politics, and sports. Women like topics, not comedy. And mostly, they like topics that relate to their life. “We use Oprah as our motorboat and stay in her wake,” he adds. “She has lots of resources; we don’t. And chances are if it worked on Oprah, then it will work for us.”
t’s still nighttime when Kidd and his team show up at the studio. Kidd’s wearing an orange t-shirt under an open, short-sleeved black shirt and khaki pants. He stands behind the console as he talks, gesturing, pacing back and forth, making eye contact with everyone in the studio. He’s a good host. As a warm-up topic, he launches into a tirade about a celebrity golf tournament he lost thoroughly the day before (hence the sunburn). Interns Lindsay and Shannon work the phones. As soon as Kidd starts talking, calls start coming. “Don’t worry, Kidd, just keep practicing,” consoles one caller. Lindsay and Shannon keep one ear on Kidd, another on the phone. After Kellie complains that he has spent “17 minutes already whining about his golf game,” Kidd changes the subject.
Outside, the sky pales. The moon fades. Kidd and company continue with the age-bending blend, including sophomoric jokes—replaying a sequence called Burned Your Buns Reheated, which is essentially a prank phone call—and talking to a group of mothers who are sending their kids to school this year for the first time.
Both get listener response. The first is a call from a woman who remembers being late to high school drivers’ education because she was listening to the routine when it was on the first time. Today she’s on the road on her way to a new job and listening to the old joke was “just what [she] needed.” Then Kidd takes a call from a teary mom whose son and daughter went to school for first time that day. Kidd commiserates with the growing pains of parents and recounts how his daughter has stopped saying “Mommy” and only calls his wife “Mom” now. Minutes later, he’s playing Bill Clinton in a bit about the president’s memoirs deal. But he does it so nicely. “Kidd knows how to walk the line between innuendo and taste,” Scott points out. “He’s not going to offend his soccer moms.”
He’s not going to alienate his teens, either. The next event is a ticket giveaway—the ninth caller wins Backstreet Boys tickets, and the words aren’t out of his mouth before the lights are flashing on Lindsay and Shannon’s call boards and the sticky notes are flying. Then it’s time for Shannon—known affectionately as “Psycho Shannon” in Kidd land—to share her life on the air. Kidd doesn’t use many set routines, or “benchmarks” as they are called in the radio business, but he does have recurring themes or “bits.” For example, a portion of Kellie’s diary is read and discussed every day; Big Al, who took French in college, presents a French phrase to be translated; and there’s always Psycho Shannon who writes and sings an original song about her life on the air. This week’s offering is about her sick Pekingese called “Eye Out of Socket.” It’s a kind of amateur punk shocker ditty about the damage done to her Pekingese when he got into an ill-advised fight with her Golden Retriever. Al and Kidd comment sympathetically. Callers’ reactions range from “disgusting” to “funniest thing I ever heard.” Kellie says politely she “didn’t like the subject matter.”
“’Kidd Kraddick in the Morning,’” says Lindsay into the phone. “No, they’re not high on anything. They just talk about things that happen on the air.”
Kidd transcends age groups and musical tastes. He’s the ultimate crossover talker, with listeners who later tune in to country, alternative, AM talk, even public radio shows. But his core audience is women and he addresses them often. So next it’s time for the “Mommy Wars.” Six live guests are scheduled to arrive at 8:30 a.m.—three working and three stay-at-home moms. One (working) mom doesn’t show and one only works part time, so, in fact, the debate is pretty pedestrian. What is interesting is the level of engagement. The moms are emphatic, and Kidd argues both sides of the question equally well, playing devil’s advocate as necessary to provoke conversation. The studio is crowded now with Shannon, an engineer, Kidd, Al, and five fresh-faced mothers. During the commercial break, Kidd moves around, shakes hands, and continues the discussion off the air. The phones light up. Lindsay and Shannon coach and encourage the callers to “be opinionated and really defend your side. We need more from you than just ’hi.’ As soon as Kidd picks up, get right into it.”
Sometimes, Kidd uses panels to kick off talk—he’s got a “chick” panel, a “dude” panel, a teen panel, and a mom panel. “We give ’em the truth serum before they go on,” says Kidd. “I don’t want to hear wishy-washy. We’re looking for people with passion who will say what they think.”
Big Al throws out how much he appreciated his mother working, and as the discussion heats up, Kidd steps back grinning. A good talk show host’s job is to get other people to talk—again, a Tom Sawyer kind of job whose success depends on how well he can get others to help him do it.
That day, “Kidd Kraddick in the Morning” ran until nearly noon. “We can stay on as long as we like,” Kidd explains. “If things are going well, I just keep rolling.”
Former executive editor Mary Malouf is a regular contributor to D Magazine.