Air Head

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."

Faggot

At 6:45am, the sky is blue-purple, evident through the window behind Dudley. In the early days of KLBJ, when you visited late at night or before office hours, you parked as close to that window as possible and blinked your car lights to get the deejay's attention in the dark. In those days, this control room was lined with tape cartridges and shelves filled with vinyl. Today, even CDs look passé. By 10am, when Kirsten Winquist takes over the airwaves and Dudley returns to his sparsely decorated office, the window is filled with the light of day.

"I grew up in a horribly racist, white trash family," says Dudley, who candy-coats nothing, leaning back at his desk. "Church of Christ-goers on Sunday, Sunday night, and Wednesday. The rest of the week it was alcoholism, beatings, and my dad the serial philanderer. He had a girlfriend across town and came home to change clothes. My mother was invalid the last three years of high school from alcoholism. There was never a cooked meal in the house then. The good news was my dad was manager of the Dairy Queens, so I always had a place to eat."

It's not what Dudley says. It's the way he recites it. Flat. Unemotional in the way that tells you he's said it before, written it, even. For some, that's an excuse to live half-assed while blaming everyone else for the inability to keep a relationship, a job, or a handle on life. He used the excuse to its zenith in the Nineties and, coupled with almost crippling depression, balanced it with on-air controversy.

"There are a lot of radio shows I respect that have a figurehead, and the figurehead is not touchable," he reasons. "You can't get into his arena and make fun of him, you can't bust his balls. I love Howard [Stern], and the best way to do a show like that is to reveal the underbelly of yourself with the stuff that's painful. I've had people write me about the molestation and ask how I can make light of something so horrible.

"For me, it's good therapy. On the air. I always write them back and say that for me, it was a way of letting go of the heaviness. It was a fucking albatross.

"The whole reason that my molestation came up is because we were a really homophobic show, three guys sitting around saying, 'This is gay, that's so gay.' I had a gay nephew and was getting really uncomfortable with 'fag' being dropped on the air. Not that homosexuality is even related to molestation, but I had heard 'faggot' my whole life. I got called that all through junior high, so every time I hear that not being said in jest, it makes me think about what happened to me as an insecure kid.

"There's a point in life where you gotta stop taking the past so seriously."

Married With Children

"Like a married couple, we'll blow up, start picking on each other with the mics open, and one of us will pull out our headphones and almost go home," admits Dudley about his close relationship with Fonseca. "People say that's entertainment. It's not to me. About once every two years, we have a big fight, but he's like my brother.

"I used to hate Bob talking about his kids. I'd turn the mic off. We were a fucking rock & roll radio show! Now, I get on the air the other day talking about my daughter. If you told me 20 years ago Bob and I would be at the same Little League baseball park, I would say you were crazy. Never happen."

Dudley also would have said you were off your nut if you'd told him then that he'd be spending his weekends playing with his family instead of snorting hundreds of dollars worth of cocaine and staying up all night. Or that he'd have a devoted wife who once preferred boy bands to her husband's style of radio, and today says that Dale discussing their sex life on-air was "the cause of our first fight."

"My parents would call me and ask questions about his show," admits Amanda Dudley, 30, about the downside to her husband's high public profile. She runs her own events business, but prefers raising the couple's son and daughter.

"I had to tell them to either quit listening or stop asking me about it," she continues. "After that, Dale and I set limits on how much of our personal life he's able to talk about on the air. He will call me every now and then and ask me if he can bring up certain topics. Most of the time I tell him to go for it, because it makes great radio. But I have to remind him every now and again that my grandmother might be listening."

Which just goes to show how broad and fickle the listener demographic is in 2012. Austin's radio market rank is 36 in the U.S., behind fifth and sixth Dallas and Houston, respectively, and after San Antonio at 28, according to Arbitron. The Dudley & Bob Show still leads the album-oriented morning-show format in Austin and remains the station's flagship program even as KLBJ hovers between eight and nine of the Top 10 frequencies in town.

Complicating ratings measurements is the fact that the show averages between 15,000 and 20,000 downloads a day, yet online listening has no accurate measurement to sell to advertisers. At the same time, the numbers of those listening in traditional modes dwindle in a tech town that often tunes into satellite radio or the Internet. That's how radio formats change overnight, and beloved local deejays are exiled to the Hill Country.

If 25 years with KLBJ-FM doesn't guarantee a future in broadcasting, Dudley and Fonseca celebrate the two-decade mark together in July with Boston at the Moody Theater. Meanwhile, Dudley's expanded into acting, with choice bit roles in Richard Linklater's new film Bernie and the Robert Rodriguez franchise installment Spy Kids 2: Islands of Lost Dreams, plus Deep in the Heart and the upcoming Spring Eddy. He also writes a column for Austin Monthly magazine. And with Dudley talking on-air about getting a real estate license, one gets the sense he's hedging his bets in radio.

"Sure," he nods. "I've always been into properties and handling your own acquisitions. There was never a grand or master plan to be in radio all my life. This business is like a roller coaster. Sometimes, it's like, 'I can't do this one more day,' but it's what I've wanted to do since I was 14, 15.

"I've tried acting and stand-up comedy. For a while in the mid-Nineties, Bob and I tried to get gigs in other cities, but behind the mic is a comfortable place to land. And Austin is a comfortable place to be, a comfortable place to live.

"Except in the summer."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Dale Dudley, KLBJ, Bob Fonseca, Matt Bearden, Art Acevedo, Ellen Degeneres, Clark Ryan, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez

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