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Radio host Alan Cox's caustic, hip and raunchy barbs pull in listeners

Thursday, May 02, 2002

By Adrian McCoy

A woman calls radio host Alan Cox on WXDX-FM (105.9) and requests a song:

"I put the people who can't stand me on the air, because I think that's funny," says Alan Cox, who handles the afternoon drive-time slot on WXDX-FM. Cox's outrageous or inflammatory remarks mean that few listeners are lukewarm about him. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Cox: I'll see what I can do.
Caller: Promise?
Cox: I will see what I can do, yes.
Caller: You're not very fun on the phone. I thought you'd be fun to talk to.
Cox: You want me to play a song for you, correct? I will see if I can get it on for you.
Caller: But I want you to, like, banter with me about nothing for a while
Cox: OK, what do you want to talk about?
Caller: I don't know. What do you want to talk about?
Cox: I don't. You called me.
Caller: Do you have nothing interesting to say to me? What about all those people you argue with and it's funny?
Cox: They call me with something to say. What am I, like a monkey on a string?
Caller: Can't you make an ass out of me? Is it possible?
Cox: Honey, you're already doing that yourself.

It's not your typical radio request-line dialog, for sure, but then there's little that is typical about afternoon-drive radio personality Alan Cox. Few listeners are lukewarm about him: They love him or they hate him. The latter, if they're vocal about it, might end up on the air in a verbal death match with the host, which -- take it to the bank -- they'll ultimately lose. His voice-mail greeting contains a disclaimer telling listeners that whatever they say may go out over the airwaves.

"I get hate mail all the time. I can't do the kind of show I do and not expect that half of the people listening are going to be [ticked]. That's just the nature of the beast," the 30-year-old Cox says.

Unlike many radio personalities, Cox didn't grow up with dreams about being a DJ. The Chicago native double-majored in philosophy and political theory at Northwestern University. He was thinking about going to law school when a public speaking class led to a shift at the college radio station. At first, he recalls, "I was terrible. But for some reason I really dug it. Little by little, I decided it was something I really liked to do."

He started out part-time at a Top 40 station in suburban Chicago. "I just hated the format. My style is not conducive to that format. The music and rotations were maddening."

He was fired for falling asleep during an overnight shift.

"That last 90-minute stretch is just brutal. By that time, you've been hearing the songs three times."

One formative experience was his work as morning show producer for Chicago rock station WLUP-FM, which at the time was one of the first rock/talk hybrid shows and influenced the kind of topical and irreverent material Cox does today.

Although he enjoyed being in the vibrant Chicago radio market, he decided to leave the producer's booth and hit the road. Following stints in California and Michigan, Pittsburgh modern rock station WXDX hired him in January of 1999. The show took off quickly, and within six months people were tuning in, talking on air ...

And taking sides.

The appeal and the outrage come from the same place -- Cox's seeming willingness to say anything, no matter how outrageous or inflammatory or gross. Conversation covers anything and everything about music but also ranges far enough afield to cover the gamut of topical issues -- from entertainment to politics.

To hear him tell it, self-editing doesn't make for good radio.

"I never really think about what I'm going to say. My filter is very non-existent. That's the way I am off the air; that's the way I am on the air."

But while the show's attitude may be too rough for some listeners, it strikes a chord with others.

"The bottom line is, if I didn't have the ratings and the station wasn't generating revenue, I'd be out on my ass like any other punk."

The show is strong among younger listeners. In the most recent Arbitron ratings, it ranked seventh for its time period among total listeners and was No. 2 with a 12.2 share among its target 18- to 34-year-old audience, trailing only WDVE-FM. In the previous ratings period, it hit No. 1 among the 18-to-34 group.

Fits the X's profile

WXDX program director John Moschitta is the guy who gets the calls when Cox crosses the line. "It's my fault. I hired him," Moschitta quips.

But he claims he doesn't really get a lot of complaints.

"The audience knows what they're getting with Alan. It's going to be topical and edgy. He likes pushing the envelope. At the same time, it's entertaining and funny. Our audience expects that."

The show's hip, sometimes raunchy humor fits with what The X is about musically, Moschitta says. "Alan's very intelligent, very quick-witted. And he's very good on the phones."

He's also very good at keeping quiet about his private life. Unlike Howard Stern, who's never had a personal secret he wouldn't divulge, Cox declined to discuss his family situation and after-work habits. But his on-air family -- the callers -- know about as much as they need to know: He's entertaining.

Listeners stuck in rush-hour traffic -- the show airs from 3 to 7 p.m. -- are treated to sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing confrontations on the phone. While other radio personalities might hang up on a caller or scream him down, Cox strings them along. Otherwise, he says, "You're wasting a potentially entertaining conversation.

"I put the people who can't stand me on the air, because I think that's funny. I always appreciate when people come to me with well-formed arguments. It's better than just, 'You suck ... click.' "

But, he adds, they have to be sincere in their hatred.

"I can tell when people are faking that they don't like me in hopes of putting them on the air. I've done this long enough. And I'm also not going to try really hard to come up with something just to generate calls, because that sounds fake, too."

And the calls are real.

"If I knew anybody who could act, for those slow days, I'd love to fake some calls. On the other hand, I'm glad I never did. You can tell when somebody's faking."

Also on TV and in clubs

His face has become familiar to Pittsburghers through weekly appearances in a media roundtable on WQED-TV's "On Q" and through a constant schedule of club appearances for station promotions.

It's clear to most listeners that a lot of work goes into the show. Cox doesn't program the music, but he produces the breaks, calls and recorded segments, incorporating odd sound bites culled from movie soundtracks and other recordings.

Because he puts so much time into what happens between songs on the show, he'd seem a natural for talk radio, which he says he'd like to do someday. But probably not a straight talk format, he says.

"I like the attitude of rock 'n' roll ... maybe doing a morning show at a rock station that is primarily talk. FM talk is kind of a burgeoning format -- that's basically talk radio for X listeners, for young men, rather than the KDKA crowd."

'Not just a music jock'

Fellow "On Q" panelist and drive-time talk host Fred Honsberger of KDKA says Cox is giving a younger generation of listeners a glimpse at the future of talk radio.

"He does a great job at getting opinions and soliciting opinions -- on a music station," Honsberger says. "That's a pretty versatile person He's not just a music jock."

Cox, adds Honsberger, does what talk hosts are supposed to do -- inform, entertain and make listeners "scratch their heads and get angry."

Cox did standup comedy during his college years but gave it up to focus on radio. But since his arrival in Pittsburgh, he's managed to work in a few appearances during X events at the Funny Bone comedy club.

"It's stuff I don't do on the air. I miss doing it."

Of his on-air competitors, Cox says he admires most the humor of morning hosts Jim Krenn (who also started out in standup comedy) and Randy Baumann, who work down the hall at sister station WDVE. He also likes syndicated Los Angeles talk host Phil Hendrie, who does many of the voices of his callers himself.

But don't paint Cox a slave to radio. While he scouts other personalities and their interaction with callers, his radio is usually turned off after work.

"It's like if you work at McDonald's -- you don't go home and fire up the griddle and start flipping burgers."

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