Mastering the airwaves

by Brian Clarey

Here’s the scene:

Downtown Greensboro, nightfall. The Carolina Theatre roils with a fan-based contingent of revelers — here for the show, here for the party, here to place faces on those distinctive voices they hear over the airwaves every morning during drive time. They’re selling beer in the lobby, and business is brisk in the moments before the lights go down — and, to be sure, long afterwards. But it is as much anticipation as it is lager that feeds the thrum of the room that galvanizes during a short opening film. And when these two guys — both named Chris, of all things — bound down the aisle, the room… well, it ejaculates into this spasmodic sort of frenzy that echoes off the walls and floods out onto Greene Street.

If I’ve learned anything from Chris Kelly and Chris Demm, it’s that when the opportunity to use the word “ejaculate” comes up, you go for it.

Kelly and Demm, along with Diedre James, Dave Aiken and Biggie, the on-air talent from Rock 92’s “The Two Guys Named Chris Show,” have been schooling me in the art and discipline of radio, the immense responsibility that custodianship of the public airwaves carries.

Since early spring I’ve been doing about 15 minutes of the show Thursday mornings around 9 a.m. — What, you haven’t been listening? — from what’s come to be known as the YES! Weekly Studio. At least that’s what they call it when I’m around.

And in these last few months, I’ve picked up a far sight more than the trick of using words loaded with suggestion and innuendo.

For one, I no longer move my head as much when I’m talking into the mic, and I haven’t jerked the mixer off the table yet, though I admit I’ve come close.

I’ve learned to tighten my patter and stop saying “you know” all the time — although, you know, I do regress sometimes.

I found out a few weeks ago, when I brought up Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, that talking about literature doesn’t exactly electrify the radio-listening public, even if it’s a book that is essentially about masturbation. But I learned that using the word “masturbation” on the air is always comedy gold.

I’ve learned to empty the coffee machine, buzz myself through the office door and put my headphones over the correct ears, though I have yet to know how Biggie wedges himself into his little sound booth each and every morning. Seriously, the guy is huge. Major appliance huge.

But he and everyone else connected to the show are such talented professionals that they can escalate a relative piker like me to the point where he is actually funny on the air.

Kelly and Demm have been at it for 10 years, the impetus for the big show at the Carolina Theatre Saturday night, and they have sat atop the ratings charts for most of their headlining careers.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that the guys get a rock star’s welcome when they make their entrance at the live show — even though it is apparently okay in radio to exaggerate a bit. The audience is dense with hundreds of their die-hard fans, all of whom waited in lines and worked their phones to get tickets, which were not available for purchase. Plus, you know, it’s a beer-drinking crowd.

It’s crazy, like if Richard Petty showed up at a Wal-Mart. I can tell all the hollering shakes the guys up a bit — at least it rattles Kelly, who begins a round of sweating so profuse it quickly soaks through the back of his Bea Arthur T-shirt in a visible stain. Big, sweaty guy tiny Bea Arthur T-shirt = funny, by the way. Even on the radio.

Afterward in the parking lot party, Kelly has switched to a Boston Red Sox jersey and works the crowd like he’s running for office. The self-professed yokel has the common-man’s touch, and people relate to him like he’s their big, goofy cousin made good. Demm posts up on the side of the stage and welcomes passers-by into his circle. Dee, who elicited the biggest response from the hometown crowd, basks in the love and Biggie mops his brow with a towel.

Ten years in, the show is still going strong. But some learning curves are steeper than others. Amidst all the celebration, the Walrus brings Kelly on stage and brings him into a jam of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Kelly, who you’ll remember is a DJ by trade, still cannot get the hang of syncopation as it pertains to the cowbell, no matter how hard he whacks it.

And he whacks it pretty hard, if you ask me.