Chris Demm (left) and Chris Kelly are the two guys named Chris, who celebrate a decade on the air at Rock 92 this year. This cluttered man-cave is their downtown Greensboro office. (photo by Brian Clarey)
Baby Chris Kelly (left) and Baby Chris Demm. (courtesy photo)
The spotlights swivel on Elm Street, cutting serpentine swaths into the nighttime sky and splashing onto the building faades.
Even though the party doesn’t start until 8 p.m., the queue started forming around 6 o’clock outside the Empire Room, and now, with about 15 minutes to go, the line wraps around the corner and extends down February One Place.
They’re all out: folks from their twenties to their sixties, and they’re shivering from the evening chill, yes, but also they shake because this event, this party, has been 10 years in the making. And they’re here not only to celebrate, but also to pay tribute to the two guys, both named Chris, that have helped them usher in the mornings since their unlikely debut in 1999 on Rock 92. “We were piping in John Boy and Billy,” program director Doug McKnight explains. “They were phenomenally successful.” But “The John Boy and Billy Show” is owned by Clear Channel, and Rock 92 is a Dick Broadcasting station.
Clear Channel wanted to keep its programming in-house, and pulled the show so it could air on one of their local stations.
“It was just business,” McKnight says. But it left a gaping hole in the morning drive-time slot, radio’s prime time. And the two guys named Chris had their eyes on the job. At the time, Chris Kelly was working as Jack Murphy’s sideman on WKZL’s “Murphy in the Morning.” But it was the culmination of years in the business. Kelly started when he was 16 at WKXR, a country station in his native Asheboro.
“It’s still there,” Kelly says, “but I don’t think a 16-year-old kid could walk in and get a job so easily.” From there he moved to Raleigh’s G105, WDGC to work the weekend shift. He was 17. “I had to beg my parents to let me drive out there every weekend,” he says. Then, while in college, he worked WASU, the college radio station at Appalachian State University doing a show called “Chris and Jeff, the Breakfast Flakes.” After he graduated in 1993, he went right to Dick Broadcasting as a part-timer, producing the “Murphy in the Morning” show. He’s been in North Carolina his whole radio career, which any radio professional will tell you is absolutely ridiculous.
“When I started in this business,” he says, “the advice I got from people was, ‘Be ready to move.’ Everybody told me, ‘You’re going to get fired.’ I never had to.” Upstairs in the Empire Room, the crowd has filled the place to capacity. There are some media luminaries here, to be sure: There’s Cindy Farmer yukking it up by the stage with her Fox 8 “Morning Show” partner, Brad Jones.
“He’s my TV husband,” Farmer says. And there’s Fox 8 meteorologist Emily Byrd, Rhino Times county reporter Scott Yost, a crew from WFMY and YES! Weekly columnist Mark Burger, who has been a regular on “Two Guys Named Chris” for nearly as long as the show itself, talking movies every Friday morning. It’s one of his favorite gigs. “They really have an uncanny ability to draw you in,” Burger says. “They make you want to listen. It’s not flashy, but there’s something absorbing about it.”
But most of the people here are fans of the show — rabid fans, apparently, because the bulk of tickets to this event were handed out, two at a time, to listeners at various spots throughout the Triad.
Pretty much everyone here got tickets by listening to the show. And one of the tickets is worth $10,000, to be given away right here at 10 p.m. For the 10 th anniversary, you see.
Two days earlier, Chris Demm drove out to Winston- Salem after the show ended at 11 a.m. It was at the Honda dealership, and by the time Demm got there 30 or 40 listeners milled around the ATVs and motorcycles, eating from a table of chicken wings and waiting on the action. There crowd was composed mostly of guys (Chris and Chris own the male demographic, garnering first place in the market among males 25-54 for the fall 2008 quarter) but a number of women hang on the fringes. Connie Wagner and Suzi Brown, for example, came in from Gold Hill to try for a pair of tickets to the party. Brown tried the day before, as well. “We’ve been doing these stops at least once a day since last Thursday,” promotions director Heather Chapin said. Demm stood by the promo table, shaking hands and giving the listeners a little face time. At the appointed hour, 12 noon, he took the mic. By now there were at least a hundred people in the bike shop. “Thank you all for coming out to Winston-Salem Honda today,” he said. Demm never forgets to namecheck a sponsor. He’s a pro. “I’m kind of the cynical older guy,” Demm says. He is the older one — at 47 he’s 10 years Kelly’s senior — but he admittedly came late to the game. Demm majored in broadcast journalism at Virginia Commonwealth
University. “Just so I could play with the radio controls and TV
cameras,” he says. “I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I wanted to be in
“But,” he continues, “I was not prepared for the responsibility of being a college student at 18.” He got a part-time job off the air at WPVA, an AM station out of Petersburg, Va., a big-band operation specializing in Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
“I did the news one day when the guy was out,” he says. His performance got him a job offer from the FM station run out of the same building, WKAK. That was 1984. “I think I remember playing Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA’ about a thousand times on July Fourth, watching the fireworks over Petersburg,” he says. From there he went to WEZS in Richmond, Va., then WXQR in Jacksonville, NC. “The rock and roll animal,” he remembers. “We rocked the Marine Corps. We rocked their faces off.” The move to Greensboro came when he answered a want ad for a part-time job. “I interviewed at the Rhino [club] and had lunch at Southern Lights,” he says. “I fell in love with Greensboro, and left a full-time job for a part-time one.” In 1991 he caught the attention of North Carolina radio veteran Brad Krantz and became his on-air sidekick when Krantz ruled the Rock 92 morning drive slot. “He had a lot of real-world experience,” Demm says. “I learned a lot about radio from Brad: what stories are good, how to connect with listeners, the nuts and bolts of talk radio.”
In 1996 Krantz’s show
was pulled for John Boy and Billy — again, just business — and Demm
stayed at WKRR to work the soundboards for this show and do the news
spots in between segments.
“He was pushing buttons and he was really stagnating,” McKinght, the program director, remembers. “It was a blow to the ego,” Demm says, “but I kept my job. I was able to continue driving a decent car, live in a decent place….”
But when John Boy and Billy pulled out, Demm and Kelly made their move. They worked in the same building and had been palling around for years, drinking beers and watching sports.
“We were single, lonely, socially inept,” Demm says. “We always joked that it would be great to have a show together.” They pitched to station manager Bruce Wheeler, who greenlighted the show, but it was initially met with a lukewarm response.
“They said, ‘These two guys have never been in this role before,’” Demm remembers. “And they were right. Our success or failure rate was about 50 or 60.” “They said it was like having two Ed McMahons,” McKnight says. “Two sidekicks. To be honest, the first couple months were kind of rocky. But who’s laughing now?”
On Thursday morning, two days before the big party, Demm and Kelly do their thing on the airwaves.
There’s a bit about Al Gore, accompanied by a half-hearted impression, some discussion of ACC basketball, a piece about a roadkill possum that’s by the entrance to the parking lot, some discussion of Miss D, that’s Deidre James, who has been on the show for the last six years and is out today because of lingering after-effects of the presidential inauguration, which she attended two days before. And, of course, there are lots and lots of calls.
The studio is roomy, by radio standards, with a signed Aerosmith poster on the wall, a framed front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch commemorating the Rams’ Super Bowl win after the 1999 season and a huge blowup of an article that appeared in a 2002 issue of Stuff magazine about an incident at Wake Forest University where a fraternity was accused of inebriating a pig. “We were all over that one.” Demm says. “We announced we’d adopted a pig and we were gonna cook it in the parking lot.” Much of it is pretty standard morning-radio stuff: promotions, stunts, wacky takes on the news. Right now they’re giving a pair of tickets away to the listener who can predict how long it will take Biggie — that’s John Ellinger, the show’s producer — to push his truck 10 feet in the parking lot. Ten feet because, you know, it’s the 10 th anniversary.
Biggie’s been doing this all week as well. “On Tuesday they had me eat ten deviled eggs,” he says. “On Wednesday I had to make ten dollars on the street.”
Now he’s out here in the freezing, predawn parking lot; he’s got his truck in neutral; and he’s fixing to push it across two parking spaces. Weather Dave Aiken calls in the play-by-play from his cell phone.
“Okay, Biggie’s pulling up his pants,” he’s saying. “I can’t feel my arms,” Biggie says. He moves the truck in less than 10 seconds, another lucky winner gets a pair of tickets. Biggie takes the phone. “Okay,” he says. “You want me to go over to it?” He approaches the dead possum by the gate with trepidation.
“Ugh,” he says. “It’s bleeding from the mouth…. Ewww… I’m gonna kick it.” He does and then, inexplicably, runs away. For a big guy, he can move pretty good. In the studio the guys are cracking up. Then it’s on to a bit about Diane Sawyer, who was apparently drunk on the air the morning after president Obama’s inauguration. It’s right there on Kelly’s loose script, which is clipped to a board right by his mic, right after “Does my dick get smaller as I age” and “Rats as a punishment for not losing weight.”
But the Sawyer bit — a loop of her referring to “teeny, tiny citizens” in a ginsoaked slur — gains traction, and soon they’re talking about hot grandmothers and they’re taking calls.
Helen Mirren. Tina Turner. Bo Derek — is she over 60? Lynda Carter. “Finally, someone I can get behind,” Demm says. It’s a perfect radio bit, entwining sex, pop culture, the Oedipus Complex and a great excuse to reference Bea Arthur over and over again. More importantly: everyone can play. There have been some bits that haven’t quite worked over the years, notably MILF contest. Then there was the Steve Canyon character.
“I thought it would be hilarious if we invented a character, ‘Steve Canyon: A Cop with Tourette’s Syndrome,’” Demm says. “It just didn’t go anywhere,” Kelly says.
But the hot grandma bit is gold, and calls on the subject come in until the show closes at 11 a.m. “When we first came on we thought we could do some crazy bits and funny voices and that would be enough,” Demm says. “But I think now it’s a pretty smart show. I mean, some guys do current events well, some guys do a more entertainmentoriented show. The goal, I think, is above all be funny.”
in the Empire Room most of the crowd has cashed in their two free-drink
tickets and the lines at the bars have slimmed down appreciably.
Everybody’s sticking around, though, and it’s not just for the dulcet
tones of the Walrus, who is on stage serenading the throng. Most of
them are still here because they haven’t given away the 10 grand yet.
They bunch before the stage and the number is drawn to much fanfare and
pomp: 1142. Tammy Sanders of High Point screams from the back of the
room and makes her frenzied way to the stage, where a check the size of
a refrigerator door is waiting for her. Ten grand, as advertised.
Show’s over, more or less. But there’s one more matter of business to attend to. “Let’s get Kelly and Demm up here,” Walrus says. “We are gonna have a cowbell contest right here.” They’re all up there… D and Biggie and Aiken and all the rest. And the two guys named Chros don’t disappoint.
Walrus and Evan Olson tear into “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” and the two guys named Chris start whacking the crap out of their cowbells until Olson calls the contest.
“Kelly,” he says, “how can you be a DJ at a classic rock station and have absolutely no rhythm?” Kelly, undeterred, jukes and jives in a sweaty white-boy shuffle, enticing the crowd to greater and greater heights of volume. The balloons have dropped, and people are batting them around the room, up on the stage, over by the soundboard.
Demm is still on the stage, but he’s standing still and feeling the beat, working his cowbell in perfect time.