Mancow Muller, the frenetic morning disc jockey at WRCX FM, only arrived in Chicago last July. Yet according to the latest Arbitron ratings, his time slot has moved from 19th in the metropolitan market to 5th among all teenage and adult listeners. And among 18-to-34-year-olds, a coveted demographic among advertisers, he has soared to first, besting Tom Joyner at WGCI AM and sending Kevin Matthews at WLUP FM from second to third place. Nearly 20 percent of men aged 18 to 24 in the Chicago area prefer Muller to his competitors.
“You come into a market the size of Chicago, nobody should know the name Mancow for at least another year,” says Muller. “The fact that you know my name–and that I’m headed to number one–is an amazing thing.”
For the first six months the 27-year-old Muller was here only three billboards announced his presence, among them an ad along the Kennedy that read “O.J. thinks Mancow’s killer.” Evergreen Media Corporation, which owns the station, ran TV ads for WRCX, but only recently did it begin running a commercial strictly for Mancow’s Morning Madhouse. “The really amazing thing is that so far he’s succeeding mostly by word of mouth,” says WRCX’s general manager, Mike Fowler.
It’s not quite that simple. In part, points out Robert Feder, radio and TV columnist at the Sun-Times, the growing command Madhouse has in the ratings is the result of uncertainty at other stations, where old hosts (including the outrageous Ed Volkman and Jo Bohannon at WBBM FM) have been quitting or getting fired and new hosts have been coming on.
Muller is also a remarkable self-promoter. He’ll make a personal appearance anywhere. At car shows and bar parties he mugs shamelessly and usually lingers with his fans long past the appointed departure time, signing autographs and dispensing T-shirts. He’s happy to raise money for charity; in September he spent two nights in a bark coffin at the Hard Rock Cafe, raising $9,000 to fight spinal muscular atrophy. And he’s been moonlighting with the World Wrestling Federation and on Downey.
Clearly he clicks with his fans. Before a recent Downey taping, filmed at studios on the near west side, Muller advised his listeners to get tickets, and they showed up. “The Cow’s nuts,” said Kim Buczek, a data-entry clerk, as she waited to be seated for the show, a beauty contest featuring women and female impersonators. “Mancow’s stunts, the phone calls–it all makes you laugh.” Shouts of “Mancow! Mancow!” reverberated through the studio as an assistant tried to warm up the audience. Morton Downey Jr. walking in was a distinct anticlimax.
In 1992 Evergreen Media, which also owns WLUP AM and FM and radio stations in other major markets, acquired the Blaze, the heavy-metal station WWBZ FM, for $28 million. Evergreen had styled the Loop around lippy talk jockeys like Jonathon Brandmeier, Steve Dahl, Garry Meier, Kevin Matthews, and Danny Bonaduce, and it had just changed the AM signal to WMVP, a sports channel (now Dahl’s home in the morning). Evergreen was positioning its Chicago stations to be a predominantly male province–“the testosterone network,” the company calls it in its latest annual report. The Blaze would be recast to capture the youngest listeners, those in the 18-to-34 bracket.
Jim de Castro, Evergreen’s president, was the one who imported Brandmeier from Arizona to Chicago, and he wanted to work the same magic again. He didn’t have to look far. Among the stations Evergreen owned was KMEL FM, a Top 40 outlet in San Francisco that was a rival of KYLD, the station Muller had made the fourth-most-listened-to station in the market and the first among 18-to-34-year-olds. In part Muller had accomplished that by hectoring KMEL. His sidekick, Chewy Gomez, once perched atop a cherry picker and taped Federal Express envelopes to KMEL’s office windows, encouraging disillusioned staffers to stick their resumes inside. De Castro came courting, intent on knocking off the competition in San Francisco and bolstering his Chicago property in one stroke.
“Every time I went to San Francisco I would look up Mancow,” says de Castro. “We had beers together and dinner. I wanted to get to know him.” When de Castro asked Muller whether he might be interested in coming to Chicago, the nation’s third-largest radio market, Muller played it cool. “I like the weather here,” he said. “A straight white guy in this town has it pretty good.”
De Castro, who dispenses $1 bills as a sign of affection, sent Muller a letter enclosing a dollar. “I’ve got a million more of these if you come work for my company,” he wrote. In January 1994 back came a letter from Muller with a $10 bill inside. “Your sales will increase 100 times one of these if I come to work for you,” he wrote. He ended the letter by asking whether de Castro wore boxer shorts or briefs. “I could not work for a man who wears boxers unless the price is right.”
He gets it, de Castro thought, then sent Muller a $100 bill along with two first-class plane tickets to fly to Chicago for the weekend. Soon they were negotiating. Muller was making something in the low six figures in San Francisco; de Castro offered more–guesses range up to $300,000 a year–and allowed him to hire or recommend key staff. “De Castro wanted to keep Mancow happy,” says Irma Blanco, who was Muller’s newsperson in San Francisco and followed him here. Muller also hired Allan Fee, who’d been the program director of a station in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as his producer and sports reporter.
“There are ten radio talents in the country, and Mancow’s among them,” says de Castro. “Evergreen has changed the face of radio in this market, and we’re doing it again with Mancow, who’s as good as anyone who came before.” Early on he told Muller, “Do whatever you want to do–just entertain, have fun.”
“It’s a dream come true,” says Muller, who got his start in radio when he was at school in Missouri. “I had had offers in LA and New York, but I’d turned them down. I wanted to be back in the midwest, and Chicago has such good radio. They’ve given me a program director who keeps out of my face. I have complete freedom.”
Mancow’s Morning Madhouse features sex talk, sexist innuendo, racial and ethnic stereotyping, rude phone calls, news, sports, and put-downs of rival disc jockeys, as well as outlandish street stunts by a beefy fellow with a thick south-side accent who goes by the name of Turd. The goings-on are punctuated by calls from listeners, who usually begin by telling Muller “Love you, love your show,” and by rock sets from the last decade or so–Stevie Nicks, Billy Idol, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam.
Holding it all together is Muller, who defines himself as “a left-wing, conservative, Bible-thumping radical who curses. I believe in God and in capital punishment. Abortion is murder–but I’m not a woman, so it’s none of my business. I’m radical about animal rights. I have no problem with color or race. It doesn’t matter to me who you sleep with or what color you are. I could care less.” Yet on the air he’s constantly belittling Asians, women, blacks, Hispanics, midgets, homosexuals, the retarded, the disabled–all of which he says is intended simply as humor.
“Mancow, love you, love your show,” says Nicole, a caller from Carol Stream.
“Hey Nicole, what can I do for you?” says Muller, headphones on, pacing the floor of the studio on the 37th floor of the Hancock Center.
“I want that plastic surgery you’ve been talking about this morning–for my boobs.”
“What size are you talking about? Around here we go from phone girl to Irma, from Tater Tots to “Oh, my gawd!’ Hey Irma, is it hard to find clothing that you enjoy?”
“I don’t want to be small chested anymore,” says Nicole, not waiting for Blanco to answer.
“My girlfriend’s Asian,” Muller says, “but in a male-dominated society we judge a woman by the size of her hoots. And I do like a sizable set.”
After Nicole hangs up Muller briefly directs his attention to Turd, whose real name is Jeff Renzetti. Yesterday Turd stopped at Superb Video, an adult-film parlor in Kenosha. Tom Peters, the manager, listens to Mancow even though he often thinks he’s “disgusting.” Turd walked among the booths, handing patrons tokens that showed a naked woman from the waist up on one side and a naked woman from the waist down on the other. “Heads you win,” read the token. “Tails you win.”
“So yesterday, Turd, you were going into the booths and cluing our listeners in on what’s happening in Kenosha,” Muller says. “Sort of a blow-by-blow.”
Muller moves on to the first guest of the morning, Charles Pixley from Rochester, New York, who’s pushing an anticancer medicine made from camphor. “My dad’s so sick with cancer,” Muller informs Pixley. “He’s desperate.” Pixley excoriates the medical establishment and the FDA, which has refused to OK the medicine, but Muller decides to ditch him. “This is a fascinating area, but this guy’s so boring,” Muller says off mike. “I’m just trying to find anything I can to save my dad.”
Dave Adler, a studio musician who’s trying out today to be an ongoing character on the show–a homeless piano player–improvises some music while Muller throws out suggestions for names of a band he’s trying to organize. “How about Mancow’s Blow Daddies?” He then describes how after yesterday’s show he and Turd rode around with a large plastic phallus Turd had bought in Kenosha until the police pulled them over and ticketed them for riding without seat belts.
Off the air Adler frets that his contributions are bland. “You’re great,” Muller says. “Relax.”
Soon Muller’s serenading his listeners: “I love it when you lick me down there. I love it when you lick my pubic hair.”
Next up is Laura Steele, a New York-based psychic who writes for the National Enquirer and has popularized a blue dot that’s printed in the paper for readers to meditate on. “It brings you love and health and makes you feel better,” she tells Muller, who’s more interested in hearing some forecasts. She predicts that O.J. Simpson is going to plead insanity, that Newt Gingrich will develop public-relations problems, and that Muller should be focusing more on his love life.
“I’m not investing the time I should in my personal life,” Muller admits, “but as long as there’s hand gel and some magazines you don’t have to. Say, Laura, do you really believe that blue-spot stuff? You’ve got all this white trash running around saying, “I got to rub that blue spot.”‘
Steele gone, Muller moves to the fate of Matthew Coppens, a Mancow fan and emergency-services volunteer who was directing traffic outside a basketball tournament in suburban Richton Park in December when he was struck from behind by a car. He lost both of his legs, and Muller has been promising to do a benefit concert for him. “I don’t even want my name mentioned,” Muller says, still on the air. “This Matthew Coppens is a guy with a great heart.”
But off the air Muller later ridicules Rachel Barton, the violinist who lost part of her legs in a Metra accident in January. “I think she’s a helluva musician, but big deal–she can still play the violin. If she’d have lost her chin I’d feel bad. I’m more upset that she has a mustache. A mustached girl with one leg–she’s not going to get laid.”
Blanco does more news, Allan Fee gives the sports as a character named Gump, and then there’s more rock music.
Muller asks Adler to play some television-show themes, but when he comes through with the music from Cannon, the crime drama that starred William Conrad, Muller says, “Give me a break, piano boy. Not some show about a fat ass that nobody ever saw.”
At 8:45 Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, the real-life thriller about the spread of deadly viruses, is welcomed aboard. “Tell the stuff about the black vomit,” Muller suggests. Preston obliges.
Dave Richards, WRCX’s program director, waltzes into the studio. Richards, an upbeat balding man Muller often refers to as “Sergeant Hair Club for Men,” lavishes praise on Adler. “You’re a funny sonofabitch,” he says. Muller starts complaining to him that David Perl, a promotion man for A & M Records who’s bringing two members of Extreme to the studio to plug their new album, is treating him high-handedly.
Shortly after this, in walk Pat Badger, Extreme’s bass player, and Gary Cherone, their vocalist. Badger charms Muller by saying, “Love you, love your show.” The interview starts off friendly.
Muller says he isn’t going to ask about the meaning of Extreme’s new single, “Hip Today,” since history has taught him such questions are immaterial. “They once asked John Lennon, “What does this song mean?’ And he said, “I took a dump and I wrote it.”‘
Cherone sings a poignant a cappella version of “My Funny Valentine,” observing afterward, “We’re all just lounge singers. This is my future–everybody ends up in Vegas.”
Muller then introduces Turd, a big Extreme fan. “Yesterday Turd was going door-to-door in a porno bookshop,” Muller informs the musicians. “Have you ever masturbated in one of those booths?”
Badger shakes his head no, and he and Cherone start reminiscing about the low life in Amsterdam.
“You don’t care if we don’t play your wussy-wussy music,” says Muller later, referring to the group’s big hit, “More Than Words.” Cherone blanches.
Badger has already left, pulled away by Perl to be a guest with WLUP’s Kevin Matthews, one of Muller’s favorite targets. “Mancow wanted exclusivity, but we couldn’t do that,” Perl explains later. “Kev has been very good to us, and we owe him.” When the Madhouse goes off the air at ten o’clock Muller is still fuming.
The young, white, male, blue-collar Chicagoans Muller appeals to are “people who want to be entertained, to have fun, and get laid,” in the words of one WRCX executive. “My people are passionate,” says Muller. “There’s a cult thing going on here–something like Letterman must have had in his early years. A feeling of la familia, as Irma would say. A real connection.”
Muller, Blanco, and Fee are all 27. Turd is 25. “Everyone here is the same age as the audience we’re going after,” says Fee. “We think about the same things. We think the same things are funny.”
The Madhouse is really a fraternity-house romp, a form pioneered by Scott Shannon when he was a DJ on WRBQ in Tampa, Florida. “We started out in 1979,” says Shannon. “We wanted to be the Tonight Show combined with Saturday Night Live, with heavy listener involvement, parody songs, and biting-satire skits.” When Shannon took what he called his “morning zoo” to New York in 1983, he captured number-one ratings in a record 72 days. Many markets subsequently developed zoos, most of them cheap imitations. Chicago had a short-lived one with Paul Barsky on WYTZ FM (now WLS) in 1986, and some people think the early Jonathon Brandmeier offered another. Shannon, who’s still on radio in New York, is a fan of the Madhouse and calls it “a cross between a zoo and Howard Stern.”
If Muller’s mind too often reverts to the toilet or dwells on the libido, he makes no apologies. “People take a shit in the morning, and they talk about sex. I do too, and I discuss it all.” Each morning he engages in risque badinage with Blanco. “In the beginning I was shocked at all Mancow’s T-and-A jokes,” Blanco says. “But then I thought to myself, “He knows what he’s doing.’ Now I’m used to it, though when he crosses the line I let him know.” Crossing the line includes implying on the air that she masturbates when she’s said she doesn’t.
Muller often manages to get in a brutal dig at his better-known rivals, notably Kevin Matthews and Patti Haze, the morning DJ on WCKG FM. Muller dismisses Haze, an 18-year radio veteran, as “an old rock hag”; he once flew a banner mocking her (“Listen to Mancow on Rock 103.5. Don’t Listen to Sea Hag”) over a concert where she was making a personal appearance. Matthews, says Muller, “is tired. He’s always talking about his Mercedes-Benz, his superstar friends, and about playing golf.” Jimmy Shorts, Matthews’s sports-reporter character, “is some bullshit voice out of a psychopath’s head.”
Muller uses plenty of prewritten bits, including top-five lists and musical parodies, such as a version of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” that Muller wrote after Rose Kennedy died: “Some say Rose / She’s real dead now.” Many of the parodies are lushly produced by Rusty Humphries, Muller’s best friend and the creative director of a radio-jingle company, TM Century, located in Dallas. TM Century also sells WRCX all-purpose comedy satires and send-ups of popular songs.
Muller also tapes in advance what he calls “phone scams,” calls he makes to sperm banks or 7-Elevens or whatever. “They were having a “beaver feed’ at a restaurant in Butte, Montana, and so I called. What man doesn’t love eating beaver except for those damn homos?” He’s called a tuxedo store in the suburbs to ask about bringing in a corpse that needed to be dressed up for a funeral, and he’s phoned a series of auto body shops to ask if they had a “sphincter.”
He has a knack for snaring big celebrities as guests. “I have a friend in law enforcement, and I can get about any number,” he boasts. “There is nobody in town who can beat us up on guests.” Fee books the stars, and he does well. Since landing in Chicago Muller has interviewed on the air Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, and David Letterman. But Brad Kava, a radio columnist for the San Jose Mercury-News who’s followed Muller’s rise, cautions that Muller isn’t above having an actor mimic a celebrity when he’s in a bind. “I basically stopped believing many of his guests,” says Kava. “But it’s great theater.”
Muller is slavish with rock performers and often impolite to mainline notables, especially those who bore him. “When you have some guy going on and on you have to cut him off,” he says. “Ed Asner was the absolute worst. He just rambled on endlessly about his TV show, and I started playing songs right over him. When you’re on to sell a book and you give your phone number too much I cut you off. If I’m rude I’m sorry. But you’re welcome to be rude in return.”
Sometimes celebrities are. A representative of Marianne Williamson, the new-age psychology counselor, had warned that questions about a reported meeting between her, other gurus, and President Clinton were off-limits. Muller brought it up immediately, and Williamson slammed down the phone. When Muller talked up “Gerbil Love,” his perverse variation on the Captain and Tennille’s vintage hit “Muskrat Love,” the Captain stayed on the line, but not Tennille.
Muller pestered Kevin Bacon with calls to his home in Connecticut, but never got beyond his wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick, who hung up. Richard Moll, who played the bailiff on Night Court, got so sick of Muller’s calls that whenever he phoned the actor would yell “fuck” into the receiver, ensuring that the segment couldn’t be aired.
But when Muller’s smarty-pants interviews work, he and his troops are thrilled. “Where there’s tension on the air, that’s such great radio,” says Fee. Though even Muller can be shaken up by his own shenanigans. “Al Gore was in town, and I was hanging out in the Hyatt Regency near where I live. Some guys gave me a phone number that was great, the best. I felt I would be cheating people if I didn’t call it.” He says he tested out the number over the weekend and on the Monday celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday put a listener named Mike up to dialing it. A phone rang somewhere in the White House.
“Yes,” said President Clinton.
“Yes. Bill, president,” said Mike.
“Yes. How ya doing, sir? I’m a voter from the midwest here, and I wanted to know what were you going to do to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday.”
“I’m sorry, who’s this?” inquired Clinton, irritation creeping in.
“This is Mike. I’m just a concerned voter out from the midwest, and I came across this phone number. I wanted to call and see how you were going to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday today, sir.”
“I’m sorry, but this is a secure line. I don’t know how you got through here.”
“I don’t know, sir. I must have got a wrong number then. I’m not really sure how I got it myself. I just came across it. And here you are–and I wanted to know how you were going to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday.”
“And your name is Mike?”
“From where, Mike?”
“From the midwest, sir. I really love you. I love what you’re trying to do out there, and we really support you. We were just kind of curious how you are going to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday today.”
“Hold on a second please, Mike,” said Clinton, disappearing.
(“I think we oughta hang up,” you could hear Muller say into a mike only listeners, not Mike, could hear.)
Suddenly Clinton was on. “Honestly, I don’t know how you got this line. I’m going to have to have it traced, because this is a secure line.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Mike, feigning ignorance.
“I’m going to ask you to give me your last name.”
(“Hang up, hang up,” said Muller, sounding frightened.)
“I don’t really want to get in no trouble,” said Mike. “I mean, I don’t want to create no problems, especially on this line.”
“This is a secure government-executive phone line, and I do not know how you got this phone number.”
(“It’s been nice working in Chicago,” said Muller. “Good-bye everybody.”)
“Sir, believe me, I didn’t know that anything like that was being taken care of at this point.”
“I don’t mind talking to you at all.”
“Like I said, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know that there was any problem with this line.
“I do need to know how you got this phone number.”
“Is this really Bill Clinton, Mr. President?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“I really don’t even have the number myself, sir. It was, like, kind of call-forwarded for me through another person.”
(“He’s going to sell us out.”)
“Do you understand what’s going on here? I mean I’m happy to talk to you. I wish you a very happy Martin Luther King day.”
“I called for no disrespect.”
(“Oh, God, I hope he doesn’t say our name.”)
“I just want you to understand. This is a secure line. Very few people are authorized to use this line. The vice president . . . ”
(“I don’t think he’s being nice at all,” said Muller. “I think he’s being a jerk. Mike, Mike, hang up.”)
” . . . the secretary of state.”
“OK, sir, I’m very sorry.”
“All right. Have a good day now.”
The line went dead. The Secret Service did arrange to come visit, says program manager Dave Richards, but no one ever showed up.
Muller says he wasn’t sorry he’d bothered the president. “I would say that if it had been Reagan or Bush I would have been a little intimidated in doing this. But Bubba? I don’t know. He doesn’t command much respect.”
Muller’s mouth sometimes gets him in more serious trouble. According to a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court by former Chicago Bear Keith Van Horne, when it was reported in November that Van Horne was accused of accosting a woman at a gas station, Muller made some disparaging remarks about him on the Madhouse. Muller claimed on a later broadcast that Van Horne, then a talk-show host on WLUP, was infuriated and had waited for him at the Hancock Center elevator bank, chased him down the hall, and threatened to kill him. “The man is an extremely violent, troublesome individual, and I feel, personally, that he should be put in jail immediately,” Muller told his listeners. “He is out of control. He is gonna hurt somebody. It may not be me, but he is a danger to society.” Muller discussed Van Horne in similar terms throughout his show, and Blanco made the alleged threat part of her newscast. Within three weeks Van Horne, denying he ever stalked or threatened Muller, had sued him, Blanco, Evergreen Media, and WRCX for defamation, asking $5 million in punitive damages from each party. The case is still pending. WLUP canceled Van Horne’s short-lived show, though de Castro says it wasn’t because of the suit.
Muller has always worked hard at radio–Les Isralow, manager of a station in California where Muller once worked, remembers him sleeping only four hours a night–and he’s kept up the pace in Chicago. He rises at 3 AM and writes material on a yellow pad while taking a bath. He’s in the studio by 5 AM and starts the show at 5:30. After it’s over he returns to the downtown apartment he shares with a woman he met in San Francisco who’s currently working in insurance telemarketing. The apartment is decorated with toys. “The stuff makes me smile,” says Muller. Once home, he has lunch and watches “a little trash TV,” particularly Jerry Springer. He says he reads “like crazy,” claiming he subscribes to 100 magazines, and once a year rereads All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s novelization of Huey Long’s political career. He naps in the late afternoon, then writes scripts and commercials, some of which he sells nationally, on into the night.
He also makes time for friends and family, especially his ailing father. He’s constantly phoning them, his voice barking over the wire, and sending them mail. “You get candy, Led Zeppelin memorabilia, or a picture of him doing something stupid, like walking down the street with a hard roll over his pecker,” says his brother Mark.
A couple of weeks before Muller was set to start in Chicago he came for a visit and ended up in Paulie’s Pub in South Chicago Heights, where Jeff Renzetti was working as a bartender. “Paulie’s is a neighborhood beer-and-shot joint,” says Renzetti. “Mancow started messing around, and out of the blue he asked me if I wanted a job.”
Renzetti was loud, and he cracked Muller up. That was enough. “He didn’t know shit about radio,” says Muller.
On the Madhouse Renzetti’s role is to perform one stunt each morning and translate it on the air, each appearance preceded by a drumbeat and the chant “Turd, Turd, here comes da Turd.” Virtually all of the stunts are Muller’s idea. Usually he tells Renzetti what he’s supposed to do that morning, though if it involves a costume he’ll tell him the night before. Renzetti happens to excel at his assignments. “The guy will do anything,” says Muller.
Turd has dressed up like a chicken and complained to the breakfast crowd at a north-side Golden Nugget, “You’re eating my babies.” He set up shop in front of the house of a reputed Nazi in Skokie. “We had a Jewish fest, handing out lox, bagels, and kosher pickles.” He staked out City Hall and succeeded in slapping his arms around the mayor (“He was the nicest guy in the world, though he’s pretty short”). And on Martin Luther King’s birthday passersby at 35th and King Drive were invited to hug him (“Hug whitey”).
Once he cleaned the house of a woman in Hammond, naked except for some Mancow stickers covering his privates. “I did her dishes, her windows,” he reports. He conducted a cheap wine tasting for winos on the near west side, complete with free cheese. He slammed a Geo Metro into a wall going 62 miles an hour to test the airbag and survived without injury, but he hurt his shoulder in a snowmobiling stunt in Antioch in February.
On Ash Wednesday he was in Comiskey Park having his body coated with sticky cinnamon-roll gunk to test the theory, proposed in a study by a local foundation, that cinnamon rolls have a significant impact on penile blood flow. A day or two later a listener at a trailer park in Hegewisch invited Turd in to get his hair “swirled” in the toilet bowl. The stunt attracted hordes of beer-drinking listeners, angering the other trailer-park residents, including one man who came outside wielding a crossbow.
Turd did his most infamous stunts last September. He declared one day “Roadkill Tuesday” and invited people to schlepp dead animals to a shopping center in south-suburban Frankfort. Within hours the site, next to a Burger King, was strewn with 30 carcasses, among them a beaver, a possum, a skunk, a German shepherd, and a 200-pound deer. “It was a very hot day,” says Renzetti. “The road kill was maggot infested and gross. To tell you the truth, it was all pretty disgusting.” As he does with most stunts, Turd awarded the person who made the best offering of the morning $103.50 to match the frequency of WRCX. The dead deer won hands down.
“We were really upset,” says Tom Bartnik, Frankfort’s director of building and zoning. “With all those dead animals outside a restaurant we were concerned about disease, about parvo, salmonella, and rabies.” A fire truck took away the animals, and the site was cleaned with bleach. Renzetti was given a $500 ticket and charged an equal amount for the cleanup. “I was going to write a letter to the FCC,” says Bartnik. “A prank is one thing, but this was a sick prank.”
Shortly after this Turd positioned himself on the overpass at North Avenue and Lake Shore Drive with a naked inflatable female doll. Then he threatened to drop a cinder block on any car that flashed its lights and sounded its horn. He was quickly surrounded by squad cars. “They handcuffed me and put me in a paddy wagon,” he says. Police also invaded the studio, telling Muller to turn off the tape of the cinder-block routine. “Officers, we’re live,” Muller informed them. Renzetti was fined $800 and ordered to perform 120 hours of community service. “Gee,” he says, “the cinder blocks I had were fake.”
Well before 7 AM on Valentine’s Day Renzetti is driving south on the Dan Ryan in what’s called “Mancow Mobile One,” a white Dodge Caravan painted with black cow spots. Kurt Goodwin, a doorman at the Hard Rock Cafe, is acting as assistant. The stunt of the day is to have Turd meet up with a listener named Randy and his girlfriend at the Frankfort location of the romantic motel Sybaris. Turd is supposed to instruct the couple on coital technique.
Meanwhile Muller has a male listener call his girlfriend, who happens to be married to someone else, at home, promising him a prize if he gets the woman to say “I love you.” “The husband might answer,” Muller warns. The coast is clear, but the woman becomes suspicious about her boyfriend’s sweet talking and doesn’t offer the required endearment. As the boyfriend presses his case, Blanco starts to play his lover in the background, “Come back to bed, honey,” she purrs.
Back at the Sybaris Randy and his girlfriend are nowhere in sight, and all the rooms are booked anyway. Turd tries to persuade the manager, Tim Reed, to make some accommodation, but Reed thinks Turd wants to interview his guests in the throes of love. “I didn’t think that would have been appropriate,” Reed says later.
As Turd tries to decide what to do next a long-haired man pulls up in a beater. “I hear Mancow’s looking for a place to play with his band,” he says. “God, I love Mancow. I’m on home confinement, and there’s no better place for his band to jam than at my house.”
Turd drives over to the Holiday Inn in Matteson to find a substitute love nest. On the way he hears Muller ring up Harry Caray at home in San Diego, where the broadcaster is having breakfast. “What are you eating?” Muller asks. “Hey, what’s your name?” responds an irked Caray. “I think we’ve had enough conversation.”
At the Holiday Inn Turd is delighted to discover a waterfall in the lobby that might double on radio as a bubbling whirlpool. “I’m saved!” he says. Through Muller he issues a call for a new willing couple.
First to arrive are Scottie, 23, and his girlfriend Gina, 20. Second are a woman and the young man who delivered the dead beaver on Roadkill Tuesday.
Scottie, a mechanic, is a Mancow superfan. He was so excited to hear Muller’s call for lovers that he woke up Gina and raced down from Mokena with frost on his windows. “Brandmeier used to be big, but Mancow is the shit now,” Scottie says. “From the click of the radio he’s nonstop humor.” Scottie and Gina had attended a promotional party featuring Muller held at a bar in De Kalb several weeks before. “Mancow was in a toga,” says Scottie. “It was totally awesome.” Scottie, Gina, and Gina’s sister all had their photos taken with him.
“This is just radical,” says Scottie. “Turd is the best. We’ll be at work with the radio on, and the Turd will do something dumb as hell–and we’ll stop and listen. I can’t believe I’m sitting around with Turd. It must be in my genes.”
“Look,” Turd tells Scottie and Gina, “you’re going to have to act this out. Pretend the waterfall is by your bed. We’re going to do a little theater.”
At 8:20 Scottie and Gina go on with Muller. “Love you, love your show,” says Scottie. He and Gina are fully dressed, but Turd says Scottie’s wearing boxer shorts and Gina’s luscious in a black negligee. “We’ll be opening up some oils, some lotions,” Turd says.
“Make sure you look at Turd when you’re on top of Gina,” says Muller.
Over the next hour and a half Gina and Scottie periodically go on the air with Muller. Gina is monosyllabic, but Scottie shows a certain verve. “Oh man, this is beautiful,” says Turd. “Gina’s gorgeous. She has a shape like an hourglass. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” Later he declares, “They’re getting frisky. They’ve started fellatio”–deliberately mispronouncing the last word with an eye to FCC regulations. He feels sure Muller and the folks back at WRCX will think the two have actually been making whoopie. “Oh God,” he says, “this is radio as it’s supposed to be. I know how Orson Welles must have felt when he did War of the Worlds.”
Mancow Muller started in radio in 1985, when he was an 18-year-old student at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. He worked at KOKO AM doing the station breaks from midnight to dawn and making sure the feed from Larry King was coming in all right. At the end of his shift he started to talk with the morning man, and the station manager, Marion Woods, liked him enough to put him on in the afternoon.
“Right away he started doing weird and crazy stuff–at least weird and crazy for this market,” says Woods, who’s still at KOKO. “I was constantly being told by my higher-ups to get him to cut it out. So I’d tell him, and he always had this funny little smirk on his face, like he was thinking, Well, I got away with that one.” Things came to a head after Muller claimed Paul Newman, then filming the movie Mr. & Mrs. Bridge in Kansas City, had purchased Old Drum, a cherished statue of a dog on the local courthouse lawn. “He said a crew was coming to take Old Drum away, and he went so far as to call up the mayor to talk about it,” remembers Woods. “The mayor called me later and said, “If that guy ever calls me again there’ll be hell to pay.”‘
Muller–whose real first name is Mathew, though for a while he went by his middle name, Erich–grew up outside Kansas City, the youngest son of John and Dawn Muller. “He was a good boy, and he never caused me any trouble–although he was a little screwbally,” says John.
For a time Muller attended a Christian high school with the ambition of becoming a minister. He played juvenile roles at local dinner theaters and later, as a freshman at Central Missouri State, starred in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and did a solo performance in Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare. His theater professor, Edward See, says, “Erich could have done a good job as an actor, but an actor is more of an interpretive artist. Erich is more creative. His mind is rather free. He’s a little bit of a rebel, you might say.”
Muller’s personal life wasn’t going quite as well. “I was involved with this nice little girl, the first woman I ever slept with, and she comes home and says she’s pregnant. But as it turned out she didn’t know if it was my baby. She’s 30, and she ends up marrying a 16-year-old guy and having an abortion. This devastated me. I’m 19 years old, making $5,000 and totally disillusioned.”
But radio sustained him, and soon he was angling for a job in Kansas City, “I’m waiting in station lobbies in Kansas City with my tapes, but nobody would listen to them,” he says. But college degree in hand, he was hired to be a promotions aide at a now-defunct station in Kansas City, then as the sidekick to Randy Miller, the morning jock of KBEQ FM, a Top 40 outlet. Miller presided over a zany program featuring phone scams, street stunts, and off-color remarks. “Erich Muller was a goofball,” says Miller. “He wasn’t particularly talented, but you could see a lot of energy in him. He was very hungry to get out and do things.”
Muller became a Turd. He covered himself in barbecue sauce and became a human sparerib. He interviewed shoeshine men to see how much they’d been drinking, and at Christmas he rang doorbells and said, “Show me your balls.” People who invited him in won a prize.
Miller says he gave Muller his Mancow stage moniker. Muller insists it’s from a “part man, part cow” bit he did back at KOKO that was inspired by the work of radio humorist Stan Freberg. But then there are bad feelings between the two men. Miller, now 35, still does mornings in Kansas City and claims the Madhouse is a copy of his show. “It’s the same thing,” he says, “and it irritates me a little bit. Mancow wants to be me–to the point where it’s an obsession with the guy. I grew a goatee, and he grew one. I don’t feel resentment so much as I wish the guy would use his own stuff. You can only feed off someone for so long.”
“I had grown up listening to Randy,” says Muller. “When I got to him he was already an old talent who had lost his edge. I made him sound hip to a teenage audience. I was away from him for five years when I grew a goatee–I don’t even know what his facial hair is now. If I stole my act from him, why is he still sitting there in Kansas City? He’s tried to take his act on the road to other cities, but he’s failed. And now he’s the joke of the industry.”
On the basis of a tape of his work he sent through the mail, Muller was hired in October 1990 by KDON FM, a black urban station in the Monterey Bay area in California. His salary went from around $15,000 to $40,000 a year, according to Les Isralow, then the KDON manager. That market, 75th largest in the nation, is generally Catholic and conservative, and Muller made quite an impression. He ridiculed the mayor, who was running for reelection, for his polyester suits, hounding him by spinning the Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” The mayor lost. “Mancow’s big thing was sex,” recalls Isralow. “I have a pickle in my pants,’ he’d say, “and it’s getting bigger all the time.”‘ Isralow loved Muller. “He made it exciting to go to work in the morning. But KDON’s owner was afraid Muller would drive away advertisers. Around Christmas in 1991 Muller made a crack about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer “licking Santa’s ass,” and Isralow was forced to fire him.
“I’d been a good boy, and I’d gotten totally fucked,” says Muller. “From then on I lost all fear.”
“We listened to his tape, and it was clear he was extremely talented,” says Scott Fey, then general manager of KOSL FM in San Francisco, where Muller worked next. The station, which started out urban but turned more contemporary after its call letters changed to KYLD, appealed to a female audience, and Muller toned himself down. “We talked about panty liners and how to take care of children. I was more sensitive, or I tried to be. Sure there were cracks about gays, but nothing mean spirited. Someone would say, “Guys should hold their sweethearts more after sex.’ I’d say, “No, I don’t want to talk after sex. I want to go to sleep. There doesn’t always have to be this emotional goo going on.”
His guests included Pee-wee Herman, in a phone interview the morning after his arrest in Florida for exposing himself, and John Wayne Bobbitt, who was joined by a guy in an Oscar Mayer wiener outfit. But the event that made his reputation occurred in May 1993, after Christophe, the Beverly Hills hairdresser, had held up traffic for an hour at the LA airport while he cut President Clinton’s hair. Muller had his sidekick, Chewy Gomez, get his hair trimmed on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. “We were out there for about 30 seconds,” says Muller. “We had semis turning across four lanes to see the haircut. It became a four-hour mess.” It was a slow news day, and the stunt played big. Muller luxuriated in the exposure, but says, “I had to do 100 hours of community service in an orange monkey suit picking up trash.”
It was around this time that Jim de Castro began courting Muller.
Muller is now getting television offers from people who want him to be another Morton Downey. But he insists he wants to stay in radio. “It’s immediate, it’s spontaneous, it’s fun–there’s nothing like radio. I’m not capable of doing anything else. I’m a professional smartass, and you don’t see ads in the paper saying, “Smartass wanted at Jewel.’ So it’s radio for me. I want everybody to simulcast me. As long as someone else has a listener that I can get I want him.”
He’s still getting them, though this week he got some new competition when WCKG started running Howard Stern’s New York show in Patti Haze’s current slot.
So far the criticism of Muller and his show has been fairly muted, though most days WRCX does get complaints about the show’s content. “A lot of things get taken out of context by somebody driving along and hearing only part of a routine,” says program director Dave Richards.
Radio veterans complain that Muller is being petty when he attacks his competitors. “What he’s doing is the oldest trick in the book–coming into town and going after the established players,” says one prominent disc jockey who preferred not to be named. “Steve and Garry did it when they savaged Wally [Phillips] and Larry [Lujack]. It helped them, but where are they now?” Even Evergreen president Jim de Castro wishes Muller would end his diatribes against other DJs, especially Kevin Matthews. “We don’t think it’s in Mancow’s best interests to ridicule and attack our own people. Can’t we all get along is what I say. We’re all talented here.”
Muller gets mixed reviews from media critics. “I deplore this guy’s use of ethnic and racial stereotypes and the prurient subject matter, but I’m able to separate that from his talent and his intelligence,” says the Sun-Times’s Robert Feder. “He does possess an inherent charm, even when he’s being naughty.” Steve Nidetz, media writer at the Tribune, says, “To me he’s not funny. He typifies the worst of the zoo genre. But then I’m older, and I’ll give him credit. He came here to get ratings for his station, and he’s done it.” Radio columnist Brad Kava says, “The people who are making it now in radio, from Rush Limbaugh to Howard Stern, are appealing to the lowest common denominator, to the people in the cheap seats. Moderation and thought doesn’t sell, except on NPR. Beavis and Butt-head does and now you’re talking Mancow.”
“Look, it’s a radio show,” says Muller. “People will step over crack babies and whacked-out, acid-tripped people who are in real trouble to put a letter in a mailbox to say how hideous I am. I’m the least of this world’s problems. Laugh a little.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Kathy Richland.