10 Questions with ... Brian Jones and Mike Noonan
April 5, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Brian: WLS/Chicago producer, WBBM-FM (B96)/Chicago promotions intern, WGN producer/host
Mike: WBBM/Chicago newswriter, WLLI/Joliet host, WKKD/Aurora PD/host, WUSN (US99)/Chicago Assistant Production Director, WLUP/Chicago host, Broadcast Barter Radio Networks, Revolutionary Media Group, Artech/Google.
1. Okay, first, you were in radio for several years before launching "Jones and Mike." How did you get into radio in the first place? Why radio as a career?
BRIAN: Like most anyone that gets into radio, I got sucked in as a kid when that voice, or voices, knifed their way through the air and brought me to someplace I would rather be: a party, a ballgame, etc. The voices always sounded so happy and energetic, buzzing in the background while I was in the middle of an activity or as I sat stuck in my bedroom. I was always a huge fan of Jonathon Brandmeier as a kid: his show, the people that he worked with and also the characters that appeared on his show always seemed to be having such a good time. I would spend hours listening to him and I would dream about what it would be like to create my own environment like that, and do it for a living.
So those dreams manifested themselves when I started my radio career in 1997 as a promotions coordinator at B96 in Chicago. After several months of handing out beer soaked promotional t-shirts at various nightclubs throughout the city, I eventually worked my way into programming roles at other stations in Chicago. Throughout the years my goal has remained unchanged as I still strive to find and create those moments and conversations that can bring people to the party conversation that they want to be a part of. I feel the key to the journey is content. Be it radio, internet, satellite, or terrestrial, the final test will always be creating something that gets people to stop and want to spend time with you.
MIKE: I longed to be on the radio even as a wee red-headed child, so much so that I created an LPFM out of my bedroom using a Mr. Microphone to broadcast to a two square block radius in the mean streets of suburban Chicago (which, incidentally, could have been the artistically devoid milquetoast setting decried in Rush’s song “Subdivisions“). That was it. From there I wouldn’t rest until I worked on 97.9 The Loop, and Greg Solk kindly relented and granted that life wish in 2001. Since 2004, I have stopped viewing my role and quest as that of “being on the radio” and, instead, I’ve tried to find ways of crafting content that has helped, informed, and entertained people. Wherever and however that mission can be accomplished by doing that on the radio, through people’s phone, via satellite, etc., then, great!
2. How did "Jones and Mike" come into being -- how did the show start, and how did it evolve from the start?
B: The start of Jones and Mike was a lesson in “don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today.” Originally Mike and I started recording a podcast called “Phone Calls from Jones," the idea being that great radio/talk content should sound like a conversation, first and foremost. Mike and I have very similar tastes when it comes to talk content. Genuine camaraderie among hosts and show participants as opposed to formulaic, manufactured conflict - is critical for us as listeners. It’s one thing to rip and read news stories from the day and have a studio full of assistants providing a live laugh track to your witty repartee, but to us the litmus test for a show or host is this: “Can we create content that would cause someone listening in to our conversation to stop what they are doing so they can feel more intimately involved in what we have to say?” Mike and I felt at the time that there was no better way to do that then through a show that came from the framework of a phone conversation. The idea worked and from there it grew into the studio show that is now, Jones and Mike.
M: The reality from where I sit is that, outside of Adam Carolla, Joe Rogan, and some others, and, obviously, Howard Stern, the distribution platform that matters most is still radio. So since day one of “Jones and Mike,” it’s been packaged as a PG - or maybe PG-13 - offering that stands on its own, can certainly fit on a talk station, and could even be packaged for music formatted day parts without very much effort whatsoever. But the form doesn't trump the function for us: If more shows focused on me, and about what matters to me, instead of staging some preconceived notion of what a “show” should contain I’d listen to a lot more terrestrial radio than I do and others I know would as well. I hear lots of hosts talking about topics that matter to producers and hosts rather than talking with real people about what matters to us normal people inching down the highway in desperate need of sweet relief and distraction. Instead of real talk I hear lots of “phone starters” and cavalcades of authors and politicians and guests that I, as a listener, couldn’t care less about. I just don't hear very many hosts breaking free from what they perceive is their role as “talk host” and, instead, simply talk the way normal people talk. I think our current Presidential election cycle, for better or for worse, is proving that people crave real talk, even when sometimes it's goofy. Better to take risks and fall short than to play it safe and be phony. Our version of “real, plain-speak” is resonating with more people every day, and I am grateful for that.
3. You're doing a show that is not a typical talk show -- it's not political bloviating, it's not all Sports, it's more of a throwback to the heyday of personality talk in the days of the old Loop AM or WCKG. Is that by design? What IS Gen X Talk, anyway? What's the core of the show?
B: I absolutely agree with you and appreciate that you have picked up that the show is more of a throwback to FM talk. Back in the day there used to be content that had a sense of edge and realness to it. Whether it was on the AM or FM band, ten years ago there were plenty of shows that had an FM talk feel to them. To me that presentation felt very personal. Hosts were not all that concerned with impressing their audience with their political acumen or ability to predict outcomes to sporting events, but they were concerned that you knew who they were as people. The core of the show is our relationship. Mike and I have been friends since high school, and though we have traveled down different paths - Mike is a forty-something suburban dwelling husband and father of four, and I am a forty-something urban dwelling, single gent with no children - we have a connection that allows these two separate worlds to come together without any canned, pre-conceived, fabricated conflict or confluence. Simply put: we are two friends from different backgrounds that get along until it is time to throw the BS flag.
4. What in your mind, does your partner bring to the show? How do you define your roles?
B: I’ll answer the second question first: I don’t think Mike and I make a massive effort to define our roles, after 28 years of friendship things just are what they are. Whether we are in front of a microphone or not, I’m the single city guy that is “Uncle” Brian to Mike’s kids, and Mike is the suburban Dad in cargo shorts that has to remember to turn down his blaring Blink 182 as he pulls up to his kids' school to pick them up. I hope those differences come across the air, I believe that they do.
M: Cargo shorts? Damn you, Jones. Why do you have to cut so deep?
B: In terms of what Mike brings to the table... He is the suburban father that is able to step back and look around at his world and ask the question, “What is really going on here?” For as long as I have known him Mike has never been a conformer. He is, at times painfully so, a contrarian that likes to challenge the norm. For me, and the show, it's great because the differences in our lifestyles don’t seem that far apart when you hear a father of four bitching about the absurdities of suburban life, i.e. the keeping up with the Joneses mentality that pervades so much of that existence and the subsequent unfulfilled ennui that, many times, accompanies it. Mike is very much the 40-something that is going on 27, but not in a way that suggests an unwillingness to grow up. Like me, Mike still has a strong enthusiasm for life and the human experience, and I have to say that many 40-somethings I have met, particularly men, seem to have this sense of surrender. For whatever reason, Mike and I have refused to give into that.
M: Jones’s criticism of my pathetic suburban “mom jeans” look notwithstanding, I’ll say that Jones is this naturally eclectic, very interesting and kinda weird cat who was quite possibly grown in a lab. There are not many 40-somethings out there with his unique combination of comedic storytelling abilities, boyish looks and charm, and free-form lifestyle that enables him to experience things that most people his age can’t and won’t. Many 40-somethings I know and come into contact with clutch their beer or wine glass and talk about the weather, sports, and “what they do” and that’s about it. He’s like the anti-40-something dude. While others are clamming up and coasting from this point on, he’s got a lot to say and it’s usually worth hearing. Jones has a pretty diverse experience and interest set, is well-read, thinks well on his feet, and is inquisitive. He’s like the best kind of party guest you would want cloned and at every BBQ.
5. You do some fill-in on WGN proper -- do you find the audience there gets what you're doing, or is there a substantial difference between your online audience and the AM listeners?
M: You’ll have to ask WGN management if their cume gets us. Jimmy de Castro, Todd Manley, and Stephanie Menendez’s in-boxes may get some interesting love notes about us for all we know. Let us know what they say, would ya?
B: I don’t really know if there is a difference in our audiences but I know that we never change our approach. I love terrestrial radio and the idea that your voice is going out into the air and could reach anyone, and I know that a lot of people think that the audience in the podcasting world is more “captured” and therefore more instantly on-board with what you are doing. But the reality is you have to assume that every one of your listeners is engaged in both terrestrial content and podcast content and you have to compete with a plethora of choices. We really don’t change anything in our presentation to fit any specific channel, and, in fact, Mike and I produce it with the mindset that our shows will be packaged as terrestrial content, be it as an afternoon drive talk show, or packaged around musical content. The mediums of communication are becoming more interchangeable every day, though terrestrial is still clearly king, I really don’t sense a difference between the broadcasts, or the audience’s response from WGN to our online content.
6. Business question: As a radio veteran who's done a lot on the digital side, including the online Q101.com station, as well as the "Jones and Mike" podcast, how long do you see it taking before podcasts or streaming become a serious revenue generator on the order of broadcast radio? Is it getting closer, is it a viable business yet, or will broadcast always be the primary driver of revenue for this kind of audio entertainment regardless of the growth of digital?
M: If there is revenue in podcasting and streaming, that’s news to me :)
I love radio but, to be honest, when I get in the car in the morning I pop in my earbuds and put on Howard Stern and a traffic app on my phone and don’t even turn my radio on anymore. Good content matters to me as a consumer, not whether it emanates from my console or my phone. But, we’re clear on our mission: radio is still the platform to be on in most cases to scale and monetize, and that's why our show is made for radio in both form and function even when it isn’t always aired on a station. Howard famously bashed podcasting and he wasn’t wrong: Most podcasts do suck. When I hear podcasters use F@$k within the first minute of their show, I shudder. We structure our show the way we do so that it’s radio-ready. We do that so our evergreen content can be plugged in when the right scenarios align, but also because we feel it’s more challenging to create content for adults in a PG way. Most of all, we wouldn’t want to limit our reach and options and allow anyone to be able to put us in the “podcasting” box just because we didn’t take the time and effort to package it for other platforms.
Our goal is to make compelling content that’s able to play in Peoria, literally and figuratively, and in order for the widest audience possible to be able to consume it, gaining wider radio distribution is our overarching mission. Meanwhile it appears radio's 20 years of scorched-earth consolidation and homogenization has left it with a very sparse bench and, frankly, an aging talent pool from where we sit. Outside of sports and political talkers we don’t hear a lot of lifestyle talk like this out there. The radio industry’s apparent need for new content creators that understand and even revere radio’s principals and history and our desire to leverage its reach and plug into its revenue model - rather than deriding it as "outmoded" or "competition" - seem to be crossing paths at a good time. We hope programmers will take us up on our offer to team up and clear our show or otherwise reach out @ jonesandmike.com/affiliate.
7. Put on your producer's hat for a moment (you DID get issued an official producer's hat, didn't you?): what, to you, as an experienced producer and/or as a listener, makes a good talk show? What are you listening for when you listen to other shows... or your own?
B: For me the main thing - and really the only thing that I care about - is the quality of the conversation. How authentic is it? Would it sound the same without microphones? The question that I always ask myself is, “Is this a conversation that would cause people sitting next to you at a bar to listen in over your shoulder as they pretended to pay attention to the TV that is on overhead?” I think the thing that makes Jones and Mike unique from other shows is our relationship. Mike and I have known each other since high school. I stood up at his wedding, and I am the godfather of his oldest son, and we were there for each other when our parents passed away. I don’t know of any talk hosts in the country that have that level of personal understanding between one another. Maybe there are a handful of married talk duos out there but I’m pretty sure Mike and I are closer than they are too…feel free to let your minds wander…
M: Yeah, this is exactly like a marriage, only we get along without having sex.
B: Great talk content for us as listeners is about the authenticity of the relationship of the participants, and when that authenticity is manufactured we believe listeners hear and feel it. Listeners are looking for a friend, whether that friend is on terrestrial radio, internet radio, or via podcast it does not matter. If your content connects and causes the listener to stop and think, “I would love to talk to someone about this” then I think you’ve created a listener for life, or at the very least one that will come back to you again and again.
8. Of what are you most proud?
B: I’d say the number of female listeners that we have connected with is something that I take a lot of pride in. While we do not aim to make the show man-centric Mike and I are men…we can’t help it…
M: Or at least we’re choosing not to change that fact, for now…
B: At times our conversations veer toward situations that arise while drinking at a bar or we’ll rap about an upcoming UFC fight, but even when we do we’ve heard that a lot of our female listeners enjoying hearing the thoughts of 40-something men as, many times, their brothers, boyfriends and husbands have grown silent and have succumbed to what we have termed “middle-aged ennui”. I think I have used that word twice now. Clearly I am proud of the fact that I know what that word means and also that I know how to use it in a sentence. I also have to say that when I listen to our show I am also proud to say that our off-mic conversations sound just like our on-mic conversations.
9. Who are your inspirations, mentors, or influences in the business?
B: An early influence, and why I first fell in love with long form talk radio was Jonathon Brandmeier. I loved the environment and feel of his show from both his WLUP and WCKG-FM days. There was a camaraderie that sucked me in. I felt like I really knew him and everyone on his show personally. The feeling of that show, of having a “friend” that you didn’t really know but felt like you knew anyway, is a huge inspiration for me with Jones and Mike. Mike and I are very honest and frank with one another and I think when you listen to the show, whether you are in your car listening on terrestrial airwaves or in a podcast format jogging through your neighborhood you can hear that we enjoy one another’s worldview. The goal is always to create conversation that people want to be a part of.
10. What's the best advice you ever got? The worst?
B: I can’t really think of a piece of advice that was especially bad, but the best advice that I ever received was, “If you are going to do something of a creative nature, do it for yourself first.” I was also going to say that, “if you come from art, then you will be art” but then I remembered that David Bowie said that to Nile Rodgers, not me :(
M: It wasn’t necessarily advice per se, but, in fact, it turned out to be incredibly incisive and guiding for me: When I was a blue collar day laborer trying to get started in radio after school, I got canned and had to go home and tell my old man. He was disgusted and blurted out “The world’s a tough place for people without skills.” At the time I was a hot-headed jerk kid so I got pissed, but he couldn’t have been more right. The onus is on each of us to make sense of and provide value to the world, and developing the skill set to be able to do that is on us and can't be taught but, rather, honed over time.
20 years on from hearing that truism, I’m still trying to figure a great many things out. That’s really what this show is about. Nothing is more annoying than to hear a radio host tell you how the world works and what one should think about it, but, yet, off air, they’re perpetually in search of a pot and a window to throw it out of. We’re real in that we admit we don’t know everything, and maybe anything, but we’re striving to improve every day. In that way we’re just like most people - only we actually admit it while many guys our age bottle it up inside and project an outward appearance of having it together. We've found, that that openness draws people in. Many people have said that transparency and honesty is why they listen, and, coincidentally, there happens to be very few hosts and shows that share that vulnerability with their audience. I love when Howard Stern reveals how insecure and paranoid he is. By comparison there are hosts I've listened to for decades and I truly know nothing about them. I know others who are faking who they are to such a degree it's beyond weird. Radio should be a way to connect as well as entertain and inform.
We offer listeners no frills, no filter, no BS. We’re out to make radio great again. We’re Jones and Mike, and we approve this message.