For weeks now, I have been haunted by FM morning radio.
It all started at the end of 2015, with a fake letter to One Direction that was written by “Joey Fatone.” Do you remember that letter? It was posted on Above Average, a site whose tagline reads “The Internet’s Last Hope for Comedy.” It featured lines like this:
The rest of you are fucked. I mean fucked. I am the second most-successful former member of NSync and I am Joey Fatone. Say that outloud to yourself: “Besides Justin Timberlake, Joey Fatone is the most successful member of NSync.”
It was a joke. You knew it was a joke, I knew it was a joke, we all knew it was a joke. But when that article came out, I happened to have switched off 1989 at the precise time the cast of the morning radio show Eric & Kathy discovered it. And for two days, I listened in horror as they discussed the hilarity of the fake letter as if it were completely real.
There’s a certain subset of morning radio that feels like the equivalent of an out-of-touch aunt talking to you about something she saw on Facebook. Its peculiarities are hard to define, but I feel compelled to try. So, for a week, I spent a chunk of time each day getting intimate with three Chicago radio stations with similar formats: the aforementioned Eric & Kathy, as well as The J Show and Fred & Angi to figure out exactly what it is that draws people to listen.
Starring: Eric Ferguson, Kathy Hart, Melissa McGurren and Brian “Whip” Paruch
Known For: MIX Morning Mind-Benders, such as “1 in 5 guys admit to this” (manscaping); referring to their listeners as “The Mixicans”
I’m starting with the radio show that pushed me into this experiment, and it is a wild ride. First there’s sports talk, featuring comments like, “That is so New England” re: death threats to a football player. Next is “The Mommy Bucket List,” which tells me all the things I should do in life before becoming a mother. Number one is “Have a lot of sex.” The crew feels weird about the s-word, and so cites scientific research on fertility with the phrase “doing it.”
Then, Eric and Kathy discuss the satirical romance book Trump Temptation: The Billionaire and the Bellboy, which is misunderstood by the group to be straight-faced and completely real. Eric is astounded by the five-star ratings for the Donald Trump-centered erotica, but fails to notice its category of “humor” or the biography of its author, Elijah Daniel, which reads:
“I’m a comedian and very bad author, of very awful things. You shouldn’t read anything I write. 22 years old, and still disappointing my parents.”
Somehow—miraculously—they move onto a new subject which again takes an internet joke as something done seriously. Eric explains that, recently, a man’s boudoir photos (#dudeoir, if you must, and they must) were taken down from Facebook for being “creepy.” Eric, intoning: “I can’t believe he’s not joking. He is dead serious.”
Tuesday has Eric discussing with the hosts how he’s very glad he’ll never get pregnant after learning about a woman who had hiccups for eight years after giving birth. (Slightly fearful, I choose not to fact check this one.) They move on quickly, taking calls from women who say what weird things happened to them when they got pregnant. One caller says her straight hair turned curly when she got pregnant, to which Eric replies, “It wasn’t just you who was kinky—it’s your hair now, too.”
Because this radio show is obsessed with women’s bodies, in the same day they discuss the merits of a hot nanny. The logic behind this is that if someone is more attractive they are more happy and therefore have fewer inhibitions, but apparently they haven’t met ME. “Would you hire a hot nanny?” they ask, and in return I ask, “What?”
Eric is by far the most vocal in the group. He leads most of the discussions, whereas the other three normally just react to what he tells them. Kathy says “Whoa!” a lot, Melissa gets relentlessly mocked (to be fair, she did once say “My outfit is #goals”), and Whip is often praised for being down to earth (sure). There are a lot of clips from movies and Family Guy, neither of which add anything to the show and both of which you can hear Eric whispering along to.
Starring: J Niice, Showbiz Shelly, Gabe, and Perez Hilton (sort of)
Known For: Carmen’s 7 a.m. Crank Calls, where a mysterious figure ruins people’s lives
The J Show is much more attuned to the internet than Eric and Kathy, which means they are up to date with celebrity gossip, courtesy of America’s Sweetheart Perez Hilton. Although largely underwhelming, The J Show was, at the very least, as accurate as gossip will be.
Speaking of gossip, the crew of The J Show loves Kanye, and continues to support him through his trials with Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa. Gabe says what’s happening with Kanye is his worst nightmare and that he just would rather pretend his girlfriend is a virgin so he doesn’t have to worry about the men from her past. My worst nightmare, in contrast, is that all my teeth turn into liquid and seep out of my mouth.
Next up: Battle of the burbs!!! “There are no ties in this game, baby!” Gabe yells, and his sentiment is echoed by J Niice. The fight is between Crystal Lake and Mokena, and I have to ask, at what point on the map do Chicago suburbs become Illinois towns? Crystal Lake is by Six Flags—that gains them a point—but Mokena ultimately wins because they pick a random caller to break the tie. Honestly, this decision seems reckless considering what’s at stake here.
Despite having a segment on Tuesday called “Fattie or Flattie”—a contest comparing women’s intelligence based on the size of their butts (it was an Oxford Study, excuse you!) (also the flattie won), The J Show doesn’t bother me. The hosts seem like good company. They don’t make any all-encompassing claims, and they’re relaxed enough that listening to them doesn’t feel like work. I could listen to The J Show without needing to take a handful of ibuprofen.
Well, almost. I would rather listen to a tape of my mom crying on repeat for the rest of my life if it meant that no one ever had to listen to another Carmen Crank Call ever again.
Carmen’s goal is to get to the person on the other line frustrated enough that they’ll no longer talk to her (a fun tagline: “harassing the world one phone call at a time”). She genuinely frightens me enough that I become even more confident in my rule to never pick up a call from a number I don’t recognize.
During one of her standout performances of the week, Carmen calls a place of business pretending to want to donate linens from her work, the “adult lounge” Big Al’s. When the employee answers the phone, she immediately mocks his long-winded greeting, then talks over him to explain that the donated linens had scabies on them but the truck holding them got into a crash with a bleach truck, which I guess (?) is a joke (?). The Big Al’s employee hangs up after a few moments, but Carmen calls twice more, and her harassment chips at this boy’s psyche until he yells back, “At least I make more money than you!”
Carmen cackles at the scabies and the bleach and the money so hard, even after the click of the phone on the receiver, that it takes me a minute to realize my hands are bleeding because my nails dug so far into them.
Starring: “Brotha” Fred and Angi Taylor
Known For: Waiting by the Phone, where someone calls to listen in as Fred and Angi grill their date on why they never called them back
Fred & Angi is the last show I listen to before I go to bed, and compared to horrible Eric & Kathy, I find their show a relief. They talk more about actual news, refrain from sharing their opinions (a miracle), and I look them up on Twitter, and I find out that Angi now has really cool hair and posts frequently about powerful women. I follow her. I’m into it.
Like most radio hosts, Fred and Angi don’t seem to fully grasp the internet, but they admit to and embrace this fact. “Real or Fake” (which includes a jingle that pretty much just says those two words over and over again) explores this concept by asking callers if these ALLEGED headlines are real or fake. Each headline seems so painfully obvious that I feel I should use this opportunity to say: a pop culture class for radio hosts everywhere would be a decent moneymaker.
I’m trying to understand this weird sort of flirtation with black culture that’s strung throughout each episode, the most omnipresent of which is the very white Fred’s moniker of “Brotha.” What is that? Fred even starts off one morning show with an apt impression of Oprah Winfrey in her Weight Watchers commercial, complete with an awkward moan of the phrase “Honey child.”
On Wednesday, there’s a segment called Drunk Jeopardy, where the hosts send someone into Chicago bars to have drunk people answer easy questions. The first girl’s speech is so slurred, and Angi makes a joke about her being at Bill Cosby’s house. I hang my head in shame and unfollow Angi on Twitter.
Like The J Show, Fred & Angi have a bit that they’re most famous for, this one called “Waiting by the Phone.” This special nightmare comes on Fridays, and it’s like that three-way call scene in Mean Girls. Someone calls in and tells Fred and Angi about a date they enjoyed, after which the person they dated never called them back. Fred and Angi then call that person and bombard them with questions about what went wrong while the other person listens.
Erica, who was ghosted by Jonathan, calls Fred & Angi explaining the two had made plans for a date but she never heard back and she can’t figure out why. Fred calls Jonathan, who explains that Erica told him she was a) still married and b) her husband is in prison for an unidentified crime for 20 years. Erica says he’s being “ridiculous” for caring; Angi warns Jonathan about the husband’s “friends on the outside”; then Fred poses a question to the audience: “Would you mess with somebody whose significant other is locked up?”
I looked up what people go to prison for 20 years for, and the internet tells me everything from sexual assault to running lottery scams. A caller known by Fred and Angi as “Truck Driver Brad” says, in so many words, that the mysterious crime is inconsequential. “Everybody needs some lovin’,” Truck Driver Brad says before offering to “smoosh” either Erica or—if she’s interested—Mrs. Blagojevich, wife of Rod.
Certain topics tend to repeat themselves on morning radio all over the country: relationships, pop culture, and the city where the show is hosted. There’s a certain, studious lack of depth to the medium: every time a new topic was mentioned, the hosts would throw out some really light discussion about it, a quick one-liner before they moved on. If they did happen to linger on something—say, a reaction to an article—they only did so if they could make fun of it, especially with the help of listeners. But if a listener called in to any program and didn’t make them laugh, they were quickly shuffled away.
The behavior patterns felt both extremely foreign and disturbingly familiar. Despite a strong six months of dieting, I started stress-eating birthday cake ice cream. I emailed my brother-in-law to find out what he liked so much about Eric & Kathy, because I know he listens to the show every day. “They make you feel as if you know them,” he wrote me. “They make you feel like you’re in on the inside jokes.”
But the jokes are nearly always at the expense of someone else’s misfortune, and they never made me laugh. (Then again, I can’t even stomach an episode of Friends because, well, they’re not very good friends to each other, and I’m guilty of dropping $30 for the HD version of Are You the One? just because I like watching those beautiful idiots fall in and out of love.) The easiest way to get through a Chicago commute may very well be with an hour of schadenfreude, but as for me, I’m back to 1989.
Hale Goetz is a 20-something Chicago suburbanite and D&D enthusiast. As a newbie freelancer and blogger, she writes about feminism, identity, and guilty pleasures.
Images via 101.9FM/103.5FM/WBBM-FM/