Heavy Mental

Alan Cox may be the smartest guy on the city's airwaves. After making a name for himself in Pittsburgh and Chicago, the mind behind 100.7 WMMS' afternoon drive is bringing a fresh, intelligent and irreverent voice to the legendary rock 'n' roll station. H

Kevin has a problem.

It's not the kind most people would feel comfortable sharing with a city full of commuters in the midst of the evening drive home. But here he is on the phone, telling how he's made the most unpleasant of discoveries concerning his girlfriend of 14 years while browsing the Web: photos of her with another guy.

Alan Cox listens to Kevin's story from behind a wall of computer screens that serve as his show's central command. His co-host, comedian Chad Zumock, is on the opposite side of the console. The show's other regular, The Real World: Washington D.C. alum Erika Lauren, sits behind a window in a booth next to the studio.

It's inching toward the final 60 minutes of Cox's four-hour show, and subject matter this afternoon has, as usual, been all over the place, careening from news that scientists are growing retinas in the laboratory to Zumock's recounting of a bizarre underground horror film he was forced to watch after his Tribe lost to Chicago native Cox's White Sox on Opening Day.

But, right now, Kevin needs an answer on what he should do about his wayward girlfriend.

"End of the day, Kevin, love aside, you know how people live to be 109?" Cox asks, before explaining there is a proven, Darwinian streak in those who most successfully persevere in the face of life's obstacles. "They adapt well."

Cox knows about adapting. The 19-year radio veteran had success in Pittsburgh and Chicago before being forced to reinvent himself in the face of a changing industry and tough economy. He even spent 14 months off the air completely before 100.7 WMMS hired him in late 2009 to fill the slot left by The Maxwell Show, which disappeared despite its popularity.

In the 18 months since his arrival, the chatter about Cox has morphed from "Who is this guy?" to "Have you heard this guy?" In fact, The Alan Cox Show has enjoyed a surge in buzz and ratings. "[It's] the fastest-moving show, when it comes to performing, that I have encountered," says WMMS program director Bo Matthews.

So, Alan Cox knows about picking up, moving on and not looking back. But he also knows that success can be fleeting. He's experienced firsthand that solid ratings don't necessarily mean you'll keep your job. He realizes that listeners and radio executives are fickle creatures. Staying fresh and staying agile means surviving.

As he advises Kevin about his dilemma, Cox's voice takes on the cadence of a halftime pep talk. "They find these people adapt well. They get cancer. They move on. They have a stroke. They move on. They take care of themselves. That's how you live to be an old man, Kevin, is you adapt. You say, 'Later, baby. It's been fun. Suck it.' "

Solved. Case closed. Mission accomplished. But when Cox points out that the woman wasn't exactly trying to hide her indiscretion if she posted the photos to Facebook, Kevin nonchalantly mentions that he actually found them on an adult website.

"Wait, wait, wait, wait wait," Cox interjects, pushing Kevin for more information as he sets the stage for his listeners. "So, you accidentally found your 14-year-long girlfriend on an amateur porn site you were already on?"

Yes, and despite that atom bomb of drama, Kevin says he's still not sure what to do. In a rare moment, Cox seems almost speechless before managing a cringing laugh, "Oh, man, I don't know ..."

Then Lauren jumps in. "Find someone younger and hotter."

"I think you got to wash your hands, dude," Zumock offers.

"Wash them twice," Cox quips. "Buy a new toothbrush, too. Yep. Swig a couple of times with some alcohol-free mouthwash."

This is Monday afternoon, Alan Cox-style — cynical, smart and always entertaining.

The 223,000-square-foot complex that's home to Clear Channel Radio's Cleveland headquarters is a boxy, nondescript office building among the many boxy, nondescript office buildings that line Rockside Road near I-77.

But every local Clear Channel radio personality you listen to calls this place home. Majic 105.7's Lanigan and Malone show originates from here, as does Mike Trivisonno's afternoon-drive institution. The same goes for Rover's Morning Glory, the juggernaut morning show that 100.7 WMMS lured from CBS Radio in 2008. The coup allowed WMMS to try an industry hybrid that airs talk shows with a younger, rock-oriented sensibility in the morning and afternoon while playing music at midday.

Cox is still one of the newest personalities roaming the halls. Today, it happens to be while toting a coffee mug with his kids' pictures on it and wearing a black T-shirt with the word "RESIST" across the front in white letters. He shares a small, tidy office with co-host Chad Zumock. There are two framed pictures on his desk. One is of he and his girlfriend of three years, Gwen. The other is an autographed photo of Cox with legendary comedian George Carlin.

Cox grew up in Chicago with two younger brothers and a sister who was born his senior year of high school. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a homeopath, sent him to Catholic school and carted him to Mass almost obsessively. "From kindergarten through eighth grade," Cox recalls. "We went every day."

Although his parents were conservative in a traditional sense, they were also open-minded. Cox — a devout heavy metal fan and musician who keeps a list of cool potential band names generated from phrases that arise on the air: Johnny Octopus, Digital Alka-Seltzer, Brundlefly — started playing drums because his mother was a drummer. And while other parents may have balked at their kids listening to a Carlin comedy album, his had no problem letting their oldest son soak in the comedian's anti-authoritarian views.

"With Carlin, there were a lot of parallels for me," Cox says.

Although Carlin's career is at times sloppily boiled down to his famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" monologue, fans know that the current running beneath his comedy was always an urgent questioning of institutions and ideas that we as a society freely accept, be it politics or religion.

Cox's show has that same dual nature Carlin's act did. Yes, he may ask whether you've ever been watching porn and recognized someone you know. But, he's equally as likely to discuss how years of rising gas prices have trained us to a new normal when it comes to the cost of consuming energy.

"Carlin was a huge influence on me," Cox says, "and the fact that my parents cultivated that in me, I was like, Alright, at least they've got my back if nobody else does."

After graduating high school, Cox studied philosophy and political theory at Northwestern University. He thought he might go to law school and even took the LSAT.

During his years at Northwestern, Cox also began performing stand-up comedy. Then, he "fell ass-backward into radio" as an intern with Chicago radio legend Jonathon Brandmeier's morning show on WLUP. "This was, at the time, the guy that ruled morning radio in Chicago," Cox says.

Brandmeier was also notoriously hard on interns and full-time staff members alike. When the show's producer of 10 years left his post, station management asked Cox — a 20-year-old college junior at the time — if he thought he could do the job. "I said, 'yeah' even though I knew I was absolutely in over my head," he says.

For the next two years, he was exposed to Brandmeier's fierce work ethic and high standards, which made him a constant target of his boss's rage but also taught him what it takes to create a compelling, interesting talk-radio show.

"The guy was absolutely manic, and the show moved so fast, and his mind moved so fast," Cox says. "You'd get screamed at for four hours a day, and then, at the end of the show, it would be like, 'Alright, we've got another four hours to do tomorrow.' "

Around this time, a fellow student suggested Cox get involved with the campus radio station. "That was really the first taste for me. That was actually the bridge between deciding that I was done producing with Brandmeier and really wanting to do my own thing."

Cox had never wanted to be a disc jockey. Radio stations didn't even play the heavy metal music he loved. But Cox was drawn to the possibilities for long-form comedy that radio could afford. Although FCC restrictions would require adjustments to the stand-up material he used on-air, and he'd have to shoehorn his personality around the playlist, he was intrigued.

The set is small, tiny even, with four chairs pushed together facing one another not unlike how Bill Maher used to face off his guests on Politically Incorrect. In the background, the lights of Pittsburgh stretch out in one of those fake skyline shots that are used only to create artificial spaces for television conversations.

Sporting blond-streaked hair that is slightly longer than it is today, Alan Cox is ferociously espousing his dislike for fire-and-brimstone pleas for teen abstinence.

"I have seen people speak to colleges and high school classes that abstinence is the only way to live a good, moral life and save your soul," Cox says thrusting his finger at longtime conservative Pittsburgh radio host Fred Honsberger. "I've seen it happen. That is not the way to sell abstinence. To sell abstinence is: lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases, higher self-confidence, however you want to do it. Not the tack that you're going to hell."

It's intellectual big-time wrestling, and Cox is unafraid to deliver a pile driver to the frontal lobe, whether the topic is morality ...

"When you tell pregnant women, 'Don't eat fish that come out of the ocean because the mercury levels are so high that you can't eat them without endangering your unborn child to birth defects,' that, to me, is a moral issue. The environment is a moral issue. And conservatives by and large, give less than a whit about the environment."

Or the attacks on those who protest war ...

"Anyone who speaks out against what's happening in Iraq is immediately branded as a peacenik or someone who is not looking at the situation realistically, and I take, personally, great offense at that. Part of being a great American, or a patriot, is not always going along with what is happening but speaking out against it and finding ways to make your country better."

The television show was called OnQ and included a roundtable segment that featured Cox and three other guests. It became so popular it was later spun off into its own hourlong program. He was the young, liberal voice, and PBS station WQED called him for OnQ in 2000 because they liked the confrontational style of the show he had been doing on WXDX for the previous year. The Pittsburgh radio station played alternative music, but Cox had plenty of latitude to make his afternoon-drive show his own.

"I was doing a very adversarial kind of show," he says. "When I got to Pittsburgh, I became the guy people argued with on the air."

After graduating from Northwestern, Cox manned the grueling weekend overnight shift at a Top 40 radio station in Rockford, Ill., where he fell asleep at the end of one of his air shifts and was fired. Luckily, he'd been searching for a new job and soon received a call from WRKR, a classic-rock station in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he was given the freedom to work his personality into his show — in between the eight songs an hour he was required to play.

From the start, Cox avoided raunchy topics and dancing along the border of the words you can and can't say. "I think ideas are more interesting," he says. "People get pissed off at ideas, and that's really where you get them invested either positively or negatively."

Cox spent three years in Kalamazoo. There, he met his now-ex-wife, with whom he has two children, and was eventually promoted from his original 8 p.m. to midnight shift to the afternoon-drive slot. But he was still looking for work in a larger market, sending tapes to stations in Miami and Houston. They were interested but wanted him to tone down the confrontational nature of his show. Cox was so dejected by the process that when Pittsburgh's WXDX called, he assumed it was for overnights or some other undesirable shift. Instead, they wanted him to bring his opinionated, idea-driven brand of radio to their afternoon drive.

Over the next several years, Cox cemented himself in Pittsburgh with the radio show, his television appearances on PBS and even as the in-arena host for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I had essentially become the face of the radio station," he says.

So when Clear Channel dumped Howard Stern from WXDX in 2004, station management wanted Cox to take over the morning drive. His agent renegotiated his contract, getting him a huge raise, but also the added pressure of delivering ratings.

But by 2006, as his new contract was nearing its end, the station wanted to shift to a sports-oriented morning show and move Cox back to his previous afternoon slot — for half the money. "I was completely blindsided," he says.

Incensed, Cox made the emotional mistake of telling the afternoon host, who happened to be a friend, about the station's plan, setting up a standoff with management that ended in Cox leaving WXDX after 7 1/2 years.

"Essentially, Clear Channel corporate was like, 'You're paying him how much in Pittsburgh?' So that's what it was. The ratings were great. It was the first inkling where I was like, OK, so you can have ratings and still lose your job."

Cox was only away from radio two months. His agent called in August with word of a new morning show at Q101 in Chicago. "The concept was pretty ill-conceived, but I wanted to go there so badly that I didn't care," Cox recalls. "But I didn't see how it could fly."

The idea was to create an ensemble show called The Morning Fix that covered current events in a humorous way, not unlike The Daily Show. Cox, who had both radio and comedy experience, was to be the ringleader. But hiring talent made the show expensive, and the pressure was on from the start.

It lasted just 14 months in its original form before management fired everyone but Cox and another on-air personality who'd been with the station for a decade. But when the economy tanked in 2008, the Clear Channel-owned station cut Cox and his hefty salary loose, too.

"I didn't know what was next," he recalls. "I didn't have anything plotted out past that."

He talked his way into a job selling advertising at a Chicago radio station. It lasted 11 weeks before the economy's continued nosedive led Clear Channel to eliminate more than 1,000 sales positions nationwide, including Cox's.

He was forced to crash at his parent's house because his girlfriend, whose background is in television, moved away to take a job in Michigan. No one was hiring. And while Cox did snare voice-over work for national clients, it wasn't enough to sustain him.

"It was rough times, man," he recalls. "I was trying to keep my head above water with financial commitments."

A year passed, and he still hadn't found a radio job. "I genuinely thought that might be the end of my radio career," Cox says. "That was a dark time."

A list of more than 200 names is written in Sharpie on plain white poster board on the wall in Alan Cox's studio. It's the Black List, an honor roll of more than 200 African-American listeners who have pledged their allegiance to The Alan Cox Show. Among the names you don't recognize are several you do: 19 Action News anchor Sharon Reed, the Cleveland Browns' Josh Cribbs, and Shaquille O'Neal, who stopped by the studio during his yearlong stint with the Cavaliers. Members can request official identification cards. There's even a president of the Black List, elected by listeners.

The Black List is one of those things you think should be offensive but clearly isn't. It's Alan Cox playing with your perceptions, making you think. If anyone has been offended, it's some of Cox's white listeners who periodically call in to bitch that they're not being recognized. But, truth be told, the whole bit started pretty innocently.

"When I first got here, one of the clear signs to me of how ingrained 'MMS is in Cleveland is that black guys listen to it," Cox says. "Rock stations are traditionally cracker formats — white guys listening to Zeppelin and stuff. ... So we started getting calls from these black guys. And, I said, 'You know what? You guys don't get any props for listening to 'MMS. I'm the new guy here. I can chart my own course.' "

Alan Cox may also be the only guy who's ever played Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" over the Buzzard's revered airwaves. Each day, just before he wraps the show, he asks listeners to suggest a song — any song — for a five-minute rock block. Cox picks the best suggestion each day. The Monday after Osama bin Laden was killed, the song was Megadeth's "Holy Wars." The day after Murphy was recognized with a comedy lifetime achievement award, it was the comedian's unintentionally hilarious 1985 pop song. Cox points out that you know management has officially taken a hands-off position when you can bust out a cheesy dance song at the end of your shift at one of the nation's legendary rock stations.

But that relationship wasn't always as harmonious as it is now. When Cox first arrived at WMMS, program director Bo Matthews still wanted him to play some music. It didn't go over well with Cox, but he ultimately decided to roll with it. He'd received the call from Matthews in late 2009 after being off the air for 14 months. It was no time to make ultimatums.

"I was like, You know, I'm just going to f---ing do the work, and I'm a pro, so I'm going to be a pro," Cox recalls. "But there was a lot of tension early on because I came in and they were so freaking out."

The consternation among management was in part because The Maxwell Show, which played no music, was extremely popular and it generated big ratings. But it seems that's where the good vibes ended. Although Matthews chose not to discuss the matter on the record and Benjamin "Maxwell" Bornstein also declined to comment, there was tension between the two. When Bornstein left the station in November 2009 after a new contract couldn't be reached, Scene reported that he had been put on probation the previous April for pranking listeners by telling them WMMS was hosting a Metallica concert to coincide with the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Matthews says his decision to have Cox play five songs an hour when he first joined WMMS was to get listeners acclimated to a new voice and a different style.

"Whenever you have a new show, there is going to be push back," he explains. "We told Alan from the start, 'Hey, this is a talk product, but in our situation that is so unique at WMMS in Cleveland, we want to create that demand for you by giving them you in doses that are palatable from the beginning.' "

Cox openly admits that his earliest days in Cleveland generated gripes from listeners who weren't sure what to make of this intellectual talk-radio guy who had shown up on their favorite station. "Everybody hated me," he says. "Because I'm the old guy. They're like, 'You suck. You better dumb it down, dude, if you're going to make it work here.' "

But Cox refused and won over listeners anyway. Eventually, the requirement to play music during the show evaporated, too. But there is one big difference in The Alan Cox Show at WMMS versus its previous incarnations: two other voices.

"I'm a fan of different voices," Matthews explains. "I'm totally a fan of people disagreeing. It's hard to get disagreement when there's only one person in the room."

Chad Zumock, a comedian and comedy writer whom you may remember from his time with the Last Call comedy troupe led by comedian Mike Polk, is Cox's counterbalance. They're both funny, but in different, complementary ways.

"I've always been with the alpha male, ... where they are the leader, the guy," says Zumock, who was one of several people WMMS auditioned for the part of Cox's co-host. "Mike Polk is a real control freak. He has an idea. He has a vision, and I respect that, and I've done it for years. Alan has a lot of similarities to Mike. It was just a natural fit."

But Zumock, a Kent native, has also been involved with many of the show's most creative off-air bits — the things that keep The Alan Cox Show on people's minds outside the hours of 3 to 7 p.m. One of the most popular was the Jay-Z parody "Parma State of Mind," which showers love on I-Rocs, Big Lots, Affliction T-shirts, tramp stamps and Natty Light 12-packs. The superbly produced video even got a shout-out from comedian Drew Carey on Twitter.

Erika Lauren, a The Real World: Washington D.C. cast member and Chicago native, is the woman in the video who sings Alicia Keys' part. She moved to Cleveland to live with her boyfriend after her stint on the perennial MTV reality show.

When she randomly tweeted Bo Matthews about being interviewed on-air about her reality-television experiences, he offered her a part-time gig on The Alan Cox Show answering phones and posting each radio segment to the show's website. But he also had the foresight to put a microphone in front of her.

"I'm an opinionated person, and I felt like I definitely vibed with Alan, so after awhile, my mic would go from being turned on rarely to being turned on sometimes to being turned on all the time," Lauren says.

Although WMMS cannot disclose specifics about the The Alan Cox Show's Arbitron ratings, Cox is able to provide some context for the numbers and how the show has found a place in the public's consciousness in the past year and a half.

"We're not No. 1 yet," he says. "We're No. 1 in a couple of demos. We're top 5 in all of them. ... I'm surprised by the speed with which it's climbed up there."

Matthews is less specific but equally positive about where The Alan Cox Show is headed. "We're all very much thrilled with the passion that his audience has," Matthews says. "He has more Facebook followers on his show page than the radio station. ... When people know what you look like, but you're on the radio, that's a big deal."

The success seems to provide Matthews with a palpable relief after watching his previous top-rated afternoon talent walk. And, for him, Rover's Morning Glory, The Alan Cox Show and everything else that is part of 100.7 WMMS' rock-talk philosophy is about building buzz, an audience and a legend that's worthy of its call letters.

"This radio station is known for breaking the rules, changing the game and being successful," Matthews says. "We all have such respect for what this station did back in the day. That will never be done again. All we can do is hope to create something cool so that in 20 years people will say, 'Man, remember what WMMS used to be like? It really was an awesome time.' "

For Cox, coming here wasn't just an opportunity to get back into radio, but a chance to work for people that understood as well as he does that adaptation is essential to survival, even if it means reinventing one of the nation's most famous rock stations.

"Radio is a changing animal, and content is always going to be king," he says. "For a station like WMMS, which has gone through a lot of ups and downs, to put on two talk shows and have the audience respond to it and expect it, that's phenomenal."

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