Up Close with Opie & Anthony

Up Close with Opie & Anthony

Sitting in their newly revamped XM Satellite Radio studio, Opie & Anthony look very comfortable and at home. It's not surprising when you take a look around the room and remember how dingy it was before XM spent a ton of O&A generated revenue to remodel the place into a state-of-the-art broadcast center with 12 flat screens (but only two feeds…Anthony is working on fixing that.) There are six Pal Talk cameras so listeners can watch O&A do their radio show. The room is divided into two broadcast areas with one being a roundtable ops center and the other a lounge atmosphere with couches and comfy chairs. All this is for the same guys who were the first to get suspended from uncensored satellite radio. It makes you wonder what the people who said Opie & Anthony would never succeed would say if they walked in the room.
The sense that the O&A Empire is still growing can't be ignored. Even after a handful of recent terrestrial losses, including the high-profile exit from WYSP/Philadelphia, they still have a solid affiliate base in major markets at a time when radio seeks to be local more than ever. And contrary to the recently released Arbitron report on satellite radio ratings, which culled from data while O&A were suspended and wiped clean from the XM airwaves for 30 days, they are one of the most-listened to shows on satellite radio. In a recent appearance on their program, XM EVP/Programming Eric Logan said internal XM numbers put their listenership around 1.2 million people.
It's been over a year-and-a-half since FMQB last caught up with O&A. In that time they have navigated putting together a show to fit two broadcast platforms and had a couple highly successful and record setting comedy tours that took their show to Boston, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Detroit, among other stops. Always ones to speak their minds, we put the topics of their suspension, Imus, losing terrestrial stations and more in front of them, which they candidly answered in this interview.

The new studio looks great. How do you feel about coming in here now and doing the show?
I guess we're not used to being taken care of. We've always been broadcasting from crappy studios and it feels cool, feels like home and it feels like our own clubhouse. Like when you were growing up and had that fort or a place that you could just hang with the guys and be stupid. But it also feels weird because, like I said, we're just used to crappy situations.

Anthony: It's great. We had input to what it was going to look like and how it was going to function, so it's not like just walking into a really cool studio. It's walking into a cool studio we helped design. With the room the way it is, we can sit here and lounge on the couches one day if we want to do the show in a casual, living room atmosphere. Or go to the console and do our normal show. So it's fantastic. I don't know where the hell they stole the money to build this, but I'm glad they did.

Does this mean you like XM again?
Yeah, now that they built a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art radio studio that looks more like a TV studio, I'm almost ready to forgive XM for suspending us for 30 days. Almost. I said throw in an Escalade and we're good to go.

Let's talk about the suspension. What are you allowed to divulge about what went down?Opie: We strongly feel that we should never have been suspended for doing an uncensored radio show on satellite radio.

Anthony: But, the thing was, management told us we weren't being suspended for what we said. It wasn't the Condoleezza Rice thing. Not that we even said it, it was a homeless guy, but regardless, we weren't being suspended for that. We were being suspended for insubordination for commenting on it when they told us not to. And if you listen to what those comments were, we were at CBS talking about JV and Elvis being fired and how that wasn't right. Someone heard it sideways and thought we were commenting on our situation, and we got suspended. I loved it! I was back home by 9:30, in bed, took a nap, and I woke up by the time I'd normally be off from XM. I had a whole day; I was refreshed, ready to go!

Opie: Yes, but we understood they are going through a huge merger and maybe…I'm speaking for myself here…maybe they got a bit scared and needed to show some responsibility.

Anthony: I think the merger had a lot to do with it too. They're dealing with government officials, trying to get them on their side and then they go: "Oh, this is the type of entertainment that you're going to have on this platform." They obviously didn't want to fire us, or they would have, so they had to make a strong stand and getting rid of us for a month was, I guess, as strong as they could put it.

There's a section in your show opener, to paraphrase, that questions when the rules changed and why does everybody have to be nice on the radio. When did this start?
Yeah, that's what it comes down to. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we're supposed to be nice on the radio. Really? When did they hand out that new rulebook?

Anthony: Yeah, everyone on the radio, everyone on the airwaves has this obligation to be Edward R. Murrow and is supposed to be a professional and responsible. What happened to comedy on the radio; and comedy being dark humor, humor about race and about sex within FCC guidelines? We're not even talking about the FCC anymore, we're talking about interest groups that are able to shake down and intimidate corporations into firing people, changing their practices, and changing their rules and regulations as to what can be on the air. That is ridiculous, and it's reached the point where company policies are well beyond what the FCC says. I'd love to just have to adhere to FCC rules these days. It would be great!

Opie: This is the only medium where they ignore the fact that what you're listening to is a bunch of guys trying to entertain you. If you do the type of stuff we're doing in a movie or as a cartoon character or sitcom on TV, then you have leeway to do edgy entertainment. But for some reason it's not acceptable on the radio. I don't understand why that's not acceptable as long as you follow the FCC guidelines.

Anthony: For some reason, everything you say on the radio, you absolutely mean it and there can't be an exaggeration; it's absolute. Radio seems to be lost as an entertainment medium and is looked at for music and news. If you do Talk radio, it fits into this news thing where no matter what you say, you meant it, it's the truth, and if it's offensive you ought to be fired. No, it's a fucking joke!

But there are shows that still get away with some of that type of stuff. You guys have a history with some incidents, so I think you're held under the microscope more than some of these other shows.
We're on a lot of people's radar. At XM, we've got the beauty of playing some of our old shows because we have a lot of time to fill up on our channel. There are times when we hear a bit and we're like, "Wait a minute, that was on regular radio?" The rules were different and we were under the radar where people weren't quick to complain. I don't remember which one it was, but we got some major exposure, and our boss at that time said, "You guys will now be on the radar for the rest of your careers. And I said, "Wow, pretty interesting benchmark."


Opie in the WYSP/Philly studio during a
stop on the Virus Tour.

Has the Imus situation made you guys think differently?
Corporate policy changed a bit. The way we think? No! But I'll check myself. You have to stick another filter in that very, very small conduit between your brain and your mouth, which is a fraction of a second, and that's another thing a lot of people don't understand – that's what you're dealing with here. It's going from your brain to out of your mouth in a split second, and now they're trying to shove more and more filters in this little conduit and it's getting harder to do. A couple of years back, racially based humor was fine. You could talk about any race, a stereotype, as long as it's a joke. As long as it's put in a joke in the right context, anything goes with me; there are no taboos. Now it's at the point where everything is taboo. You can't mention another racial stereotype, be sexual or misogynistic or some group will send a letter, and it doesn't matter if there's six people in the group, 6,000 or 60,000, the company loses their mind. Instead of just saying, "Alright. Hey, we heard you; we read your letter; thank you for your comment." They entertain them and give them empowerment. When they give them that empowerment they're not going to go away for the next time. No one ever goes away from a victory and goes, "That was great! We're done!" They always look for the next one.

Such as The National Association of Black Journalists and National Organization of Women coming out against Imus' return?
Should Imus not work anymore? That's the question I would like to put to these people. Obviously the guy's got a lot of money; he doesn't need to work for money. But the guy has a genuine passion for doing radio. He enjoys doing it. It's his art. Who the fuck is anyone to say he shouldn't be able to do that when he's keeping within the guidelines placed on him? Imagine an artist that made a painting that offended me and I wanted to keep them from picking up a brush and painting again. People might think I'm going a little too far with the art thing, but you feel passion for what you do on the air as an artist would when he's painting. So who's to say you can't do what you love doing. It astounds me that they're trying to get the negotiations between Imus and ABC to stop.

Opie: You should be able to offend whoever the hell you want on the radio as long as it falls within FCC's guidelines. Early in our career, all we had to worry about was the FCC. We'd sit down with lawyers and they would give us the latest rulings and say, "Be careful of this gray area. We can get fined for this or that." Anthony and I would study this stuff and then figure out ways around it so we could get it on the radio. But now, who knows what you're going to get fired for? Just because you offend someone you could get fired. It's just ludicrous. It's insane. And the people who really suffered were Imus' listeners. That was a good show that really entertained a lot of people on their way to work, and that was taken away from them. I feel bad for those people.

Anthony: The thing about Imus and feeling bad for his listeners is there's no alternative to Imus. You can't just go to another show that's like his. There are very few shows out there that have the heritage and history he has. His crew is an amazing bunch of very funny guys, and that's taken away because a few people got offended. And a lot of it was false offense; they didn't feel really offended. They were told about it, and told to be offended by it. That's how organizations like that and Reverend Al work, by being out in the public eye. The only way he gets support and money to his organization is if he can jump on somebody for doing something he deems offensive. If everything's fine and dandy, he's out of work! He wants shit to happen so he can jump on it. He loves the Imus thing.

There are some stations dropping your show. What are your thoughts on why it didn't work?
Opie: Going into it we knew there were a lot of damaged stations at CBS, and we knew we were holding the spot until they figured out what to do with a lot of these stations. If you really look at the stations we've been dropped from, it's not any fault of our show. It wasn't like they tried to put in a better show or what they would deem a better show than what we're doing in the same genre. You have stations turning into Fresh and Sports Talk, and Pittsburgh went back to an AC format. There are really no surprises. They threw us in knowing some cities will work and some won't. It would drive us nuts if we sat there worrying about each individual market. The markets we want to do well in, we're doing well in.

Anthony: When Dan Mason took over, he gave a lot of these stations more autonomy to do what they wanted to do. It's up to the GMs and PDs to decide what they want to do now. If they want to switch formats, obviously we're not going to work on a Country station or a Sports station, so we're going to lose some, but that's the nature of the beast. If I felt we were losing stations because our show was doing poorly or sucked, there'd be an issue we'd have to sit down and hammer out what we could do to make the show better. But, I absolutely think we're doing some of the best shows we've ever done at this point in our careers.

Opie: You have to factor how many people are listening on XM instead of the regular radio stations. It's this fine balance. We know we have a massive audience in all these cities. XM has privately told us that our Channel 202 is one of the top two on the whole platform. And for some reason they don't want to release the numbers, but they're quite impressive. We know we're doing quite well. Just look around where we're sitting here today, in a state-of-the-art studio. They're very, very happy with us, and we know if you take the XM subscribers and take our ratings on these local stations, it's a pretty impressive number when you add the two. But, unfortunately, they don't look at it that way. Commercial radio looks at it as, "this is our number." XM looks at it as, "this is our number." If you put the two together, this is pretty fucking impressive.

I was going to end the interview with this question, but this seems like a good place to ask – if you had to choose, satellite or terrestrial, which would it be?
My answer completely changes, and Opie and I are usually on the exact same page.

Opie: Both sides have their challenges. It's fun to be completely uncensored and curse your face off, but sometimes that makes it hard to be clever. It's hard to explain unless you sit in that seat. When we went back to commercial radio it challenged us to be a little cleverer.

Anthony: Especially with all the newer restrictions put on us when you realize we're doing our show with all these restrictions on it, and we're still able to get the material we want to do out there. Then we start thinking, "Alright, what's the next shoe that's going to drop that they are going to tell us not to talk about?"

Opie: It makes you more disciplined on regular radio because you've got twenty minutes before the commercial break. When we're at XM, it's more of a feeling that you're hanging with your favorite radio show. We have a little leeway and don't take as many commercial breaks. There's no real panic there. They know it's more of a long form show.

Anthony: On the XM side we can pick a subject and roll on for an hour straight. Over on the FM side, you've got to get breaks in; you've got to make sure you're hitting the right segments during the right hours. Like Opie said, it takes a lot more discipline, but that's a good thing.

Opie: The answer for me is I want to do both right now. There's going to come a time where we'll have to either choose or it's going to be chosen for us, and we'll be fine with it whichever way it falls. Right now I enjoy both. The frustrating thing about doing just satellite – and I know this is what Howard thinks – is you really thought that on satellite radio all your past fans would have come with you. The reality is, a very small percentage goes with you. It's not because they don't love you and your radio show, but maybe they don't have the money or there are all these reasons why. When we were on XM exclusively, especially three years ago when we first started, there were only 2.2 million subscribers, now we're up to 8 million something. It was frustrating that we were pumping out really, really good shows, and we just weren't hitting the masses like we used to. When we got the opportunity to go back to regular radio we jumped on it, because we wanted more people to hear our stuff. Although Howard's making a bloody fortune, it has to be driving him nuts that he's out of sight, out of mind and he's just not talking to anywhere near the same amount of people he was on regular radio.

Of all the PDs you've worked with in syndication, which one gets your show the best?
Wow! You're going to piss off a lot of PDs. The best ever, as far as syndicated markets went, was Tim Sabean. He was by far the best. Jim Kurdziel in Buffalo does an amazing job. I like his attitude; I like his motivation. Dave Wellington gets it in Boston and so does Dom Nardella in Cleveland.

Anthony: He's covering his bases here.


Anthony and Jimmy Norton in the WYSP/Philly studio during a stop on the Virus Tour.

Opie: Actually, I'm just mentioning the ones that get to a point where we're in touch with each other. The rest of them, it's kind of sad that they thought they just got a syndicated show and it'll run itself. That's really the worst thing you can do if you're a PD syndicating a radio show. Tim Sabean was able to take the Opie & Anthony that was well known as a New York radio show that didn't syndicate yet and make it sound like it was a Philly radio show to the point where when we went down there, people were convinced we were from Philly and they wanted to come by and see where we broadcast from. That was Tim's talent and PDs should learn from that. You shouldn't just take a syndicated show and throw it on the air and go, "Well, I don't have to worry about that daypart." You still can work that show and find a local angle for it and make it work for you. People like Dom, Jim and Dave certainly understand that. I don't like the station that has to be forced to take the Opie & Anthony show. We'll find our own audience. There'll be enough stations that want this show.

Find one nice thing to say about your support staff. Since it is E Rock-tober, let's start with him.
E Rock reminds me of a younger version of myself. He's extremely passionate, extremely hungry. He's a student of radio. It's kind of creepy how much knowledge he has of other shows out there. He understands the Opie & Anthony archive better than anybody. He has quite a future if he could just learn how to sleep at night.

Anthony: He can take abuse like a trooper. He gets beat up pretty good, but he's right there, doesn't bitch or complain about it really. He's able to give us very entertaining radio when he's put in that position.

Than is a really smart guy. I don't like that either, 'cause I kind of like being the smart guy. Sometimes he knows more things than I do, and it annoys me. But, he's very, very intelligent.

Opie: I'm a huge fan of his dry humor. I'm a huge fan of dry humor and subtle humor in general, and I like that about him.

Sam was a young go-getter that used to get our coffee. He's still very green, but you can't help notice he was motivated to learn this business. We have a lot of guys come through here and they have no idea of how easy it is to actually work for this show, and they blow it time and time again 'cause you just see they don't have the passion or the motivation. Sam certainly has both those qualities, and he's growing everyday.

Anthony: What I like about Sam is the first instinct you get from him is this youthful innocence. But he is probably the biggest scumbag prick out of everybody on our staff. He would fuck with somebody and just get vicious with them, worse than anybody else on the staff. Yet he looks like Bambi when he's walking around and that makes a great duality.

Opie: Plus I like having him around because you have no idea what he is. There's no clue.

Anthony: Not a clue what his ethnic background is. It could be anything. Roll the dice.

Alcoholic. Raging alcoholic.

Anthony: Danny's a fucking blast to hang out with. He has this ability to find this niche audio and knows what we can roll on, as far as the show goes. He knows if he finds an audio clip from a news story or some little out of the way article about some horrid, sexual rampage that happened somewhere, he will sniff it out and bring it to us because he knows our sense of humor and what we can roll on.

Opie: At this point it's very easy to find stuff on the Internet, but he has an ability to dig deep and find stuff that other people don't find. I truly believe he was the one who started the "Chocolate Rain" phenomena. That was on our show way before Jimmy Kimmel, way before anybody else was even touching that. I do believe that Danny was the one that brought the world "Chocolate Rain." I have no doubt in my mind. [Ed note: The day O&A first played "Chocolate Rain" on their show, YouTube views were barely above 30,000. The video has now crossed the 10 million plateau.]

Anthony: And about the drinking thing, he is probably one of the best guys to go out drinking with. Oh, he'll drink all fuckin' night; just don't try to make it into work the next day. I actually puked because I was out drinking with him one night. I came in to do the show and these guys knew I was hung over and my stomach hurt and dedicated the show to trying to make me vomit, and succeeded.

He is a big, loveable bear that brings us honey.

Opie: I've never seen anyone work harder than Steve. That guy will probably work on the show and his website 20-hours-a day. His work ethic is literally second to none. It's quite impressive, actually. All these guys you just mentioned are all guys that were pretty much fans of the show that we ended up hiring. Steve was just a listener and we needed a website at the time and it's a nice marriage.

Anthony: And he's got a pretty twisted sense of humor, which makes me laugh.

You have an unparalleled revolving group of today's top comedians that come through here and sit in on the show. Jimmy recently went out to do the Tonight Show and Louie CK, Rich Voss and Patrice O'Neal were here to fill in. Discuss their importance to the show.
They are a great asset because they understand radio in that they've been on so many stations around the country, that they know what it's like to do bad radio. When they come to our show, they know it's not going to be the same old "sit down for five minutes, do some of your act, try to sell some tickets to your show, and then get the fuck out." They know they can sit here and talk about stuff that isn't their act. We'll bring a guest in that's doing some outrageous thing in the studio, and they can talk about it like a guy hanging out. They don't have to sit there and have a punch line. They could just be funny by themselves as they're funny to their friends.

Opie: We try to create an environment they feel comfortable in. The funny thing is, when Anthony and I first got together, we hated comedians being on our show, because the comedians were looking at it as coming into a fake environment with guys with radio voices, and we felt like comedians weren't joining our program. It wasn't a marriage. We felt they would come in and all of a sudden they would do two or three minutes of their material. Jimmy eventually opened the door for other comedians coming in. He would be at the Comedy Cellar and he was getting this exposure on our show, and they would ask, "Hey, how do we get on the show?" And Jimmy would tell the guys to just come in and hang out. That's how we ended up loving comedians on our show. Now I see comedians work Jimmy in the comic clubs like, "Hey, get me on." And we pay close attention when these guys come through. A lot of them are well know comedians that bombed on our show, didn't get the feel of the show and we never invite them back. Others that are barely openers become huge stars on our show.

Jimmy's not here right now, so maybe you can answer this for him. Why does he continue to do this show with you guys?
He would absolutely say he loves the freedom the radio show gives him to entertain everybody with his humor. When you're working on your act for on the road and stuff, you’re working on a specific hour for the most part. He improvises on our stage. He's really good at that when he does go down that road. This gives him the freedom to just kind of riff on the news. When you're a creative person, this is such a great atmosphere to get your creativity out there. I have a feeling that Jimmy's time with us is probably limited. He'll always be a part of the show, but I have a feeling that really big things are going to happen to Jimmy in the future, I really do.

Anthony: Good riddance! That's what I say.

I don't think you guys get enough credit for the social commentary you do, whether it's observations on daily life or the way you police the news media or other radio shows. Does it bother you that you're looked at as goofy shock jocks and not taken more seriously?
Anthony: It's real hard to break out of a perception people have of you, especially when that initial perception was pretty accurate. When you fuck up three times, it's very hard to convince people that we're not completely a fuck up – because they're just going to remember Sex For Sam and the mayor's dead and the voyeur bus and other shit that got us in trouble. So, people who aren't very familiar with the show will never give us… and I don't want to say the respect that we're due; we do shit jokes sometimes, so I'm not looking for respect. I don't think they'll ever look at some of those breaks we do that are political and social oriented and ever take them seriously. But, the real fans know we go there every so often. Our opinions get out there. We let the audience comment on them. Sometimes they love us; sometimes they think we're assholes.

Opie: I understand it takes a bit of everything to make the Opie & Anthony show work, but I get off on the highbrow stuff we do. I get off on the pop culture stuff we do. Believe it or not, I really get off on the times we're clever and funny without shocking. That's my favorite part of the show. I understand why all the other elements work, and we'll do a bit of those too, but when we go down some road where the show is very clever and highbrow and thought provoking, I love that more than anything we do on this radio show. And every once in a while we'll see ourselves referred to as comedians, which is an awesome feeling. And like Anthony said, we know changing people's conception of us is almost not a winning situation, but we'll continue to try to change their perception. I know they'll continue saying shock jocks for the most part. Every once in a while though, you'll get that little accolade of being called a comedian, and it feels good.

** QB Content by Michael Parrish **

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