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KLBJ-FM shock jock Dale Dudley matures?

Dale Dudley (l) with Jack Black in a scene from local filmmaker Richard Linklater's new film<i> Bernie</i>.
Dale Dudley (l) with Jack Black in a scene from local filmmaker Richard Linklater's new film Bernie.

"Are you going to mention that I was touched as a kid?"

It's 5:15am and Dale Dudley looks at me through the steam rising from his cup of coffee. Dedicated club types have only recently crawled into their beds, but The Dudley & Bob Morning Show namesake has been awake since 4am prepping for the drive-time shift on KLBJ-FM, something he's done every weekday morning since 1987 for the four-hour talk-radio program on Austin's homegrown classic rock station.

This particular predawn April morning, he's nervous about what will end up in print. He doesn't sound like the skittish type, and at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he doesn't look it, either. Besides, there's no point in writing about that childhood molestation incident. The episode is public knowledge, as is an unconscionably cruel childhood. So are his rambles on the wild side, and his run-ins with drugs, depression, alcohol, divorce, and suicide attempts, all the way to the comparatively picture-book life he lives today with his wife and two children. All of it plays out on the airwaves to listeners, ratings, and a hard rock soundtrack.

If that sounds like spiel for a publicity campaign, it is, sort of. He's recently retained a local PR firm. Yet the true story isn't a reality-show-ready tale of redemption and resurrection. In this case, rather, it's that even when you're one of the leading morning shows in the Texas state capital and inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame, there are no guarantees in radio.

Commercial radio is now akin to newsprint, a charmingly beleaguered medium whose glory days are past but which holds essential connection with its audience as voices of the community. The ability to generate new audiences wanes in the face of satellite radio and the Internet, media delivering instantaneous gratification.

At a career juncture where a gold watch ought to be in order, Dale Dudley's future is in question.

Setups and Second Bananas

At 5:40am, Dudley's still in front of his computer, skimming websites, Facebook, and links for news and juicy bits, noting them in a Google document shared by a morning show team that color codes its chosen topics. Ten minutes later, he strides from the copy machine down the hall into the control room, script in hand. He passes the room with production interns, overseen by show producer Daniel Gallo and associate producer Carissa McAtee, who are busily scouring the Web for further items.

"Any minute Matt will walk in, all ready to go," Dudley comments offhandedly.

The words are barely uttered when Matt Bearden strolls in, all ready to go. A comic and writer named 2002's Funniest Person in Austin, Bearden completes the triangle of personalities heading the KLBJ cast, along with Dudley's partner Bob Fonseca. The latter looks to a big-screen TV, sifting through YouTube videos to accompany the morning's topics. "Ganja Granny," a senior citizen busted as a pot dealer, becomes one of the subjects on this typical day on the air.

The day before wasn't quite so normal. Fueled by Facebook-induced public outrage over an APD officer's shooting of a dog when answering a call to the wrong address, Dudley used his friendship with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo to have him talk with the dog's owner. It was the first such exchange between the APD and victim since the incident. Consider it a milestone moment for the morning show.

At 50, Dale Dudley's been in radio since he was 17. Born in Odessa, he landed at KLBJ-FM on the morning show with Clark Ryan in the Seventies, fresh from a stint in Lubbock.

"I didn't have the voice to be one of those big boss radio jocks," he shrugs. "Then Howard Stern came along and I thought, 'Uh-oh. People who play records in the morning aren't going to be around.'"

Music hasn't been part of the KLBJ show since the Nineties, when Fonseca joined the program and Dudley's Stern worship peaked, injecting the morning hours with testosterone-fueled locker-room topics like "Steak and BJ Day" and the "winna winna chicken dinner" routine recounted in their Wikipedia entry. Then there was the 2007 pranking of Ellen DeGeneres, who believed they were 88-year-old "Gladys Hardy" and contacted them back.

Most shows are less adrenaline-filled than that, or the recent dog-killing controversy, pacing the long shift with commentary volleyed among the cast. Dudley leads the discourse on current events, Fonseca weighs in, and Bearden puts a sharp point on it.

"Doing the show is more akin to a bar fight," Fonseca only half-jokes, "because trying to get a word in is impossible. I have to look for little tiny wedges of silence to try to squeeze something in.

"I never expected to be more than the best second banana in the business, to be his Ed McMahon. I don't try to top him. My job is to be the best support, not suck up, but that doesn't mean I agree with him, though I support Dale.

"Even during the rough times, I didn't throw in the towel."

Fonseca originally came to KLBJ-FM in promotions, left to work at ad giants GSD&M, and returned after an audition landed him the morning spot vacated by Clark Ryan. Neither he nor Dudley knew each other, and the first years were tenuous.

"It's a team concept, like a band with Dale as the leader," explains Fonseca. "When bands form, it's all about the band – Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. A few years into it, the members are struggling to get their individuality back. We went through that stage. It's corny, but it's been the concept, the team.

"I've had a front-row seat to Dale's life, the good and the not so good."

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