Try being at the office by 5:30 a.m. — and ready to speak to millions by 6.
That’s the task facing Elvis Duran every morning.
The New York City-based radio host and former Philadelphian spearheads the “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show,” the nation’s number-one Top 40 morning show.
Duran, 49, has spent about three decades climbing the radio-industry ladder, including several seminal years spent in Philadelphia.
“Philly was a major turning point in my life,” Duran said. “I’d always lived in the South — cities in Texas or in Atlanta, Ga. — and never really had a career path as far as where I was going to do my radio thing. In those days, you just went where the jobs were. If it was a larger market — and Philadelphia’s a massive market — you take it.”
In 1989, he was offered a position as program director and host at Philly’s WIOQ, now known as Q102, which, until that time, had been a classic-rock station.
“We came out and just flushed the format and played dance music. Q102 listeners hated us. People threatened our lives and wanted us to die slow, painful, horrible deaths,” Duran laughed. “But we put this station on and went to number-one immediately. The station went from 18 to one in two or three months. We were really riding high.”
His team lived in a hotel across from the studio in the early months of the station and he later rented an apartment at Fourth and Spruce streets. But, less than a year later, Duran was let go.
“I was fired by the most shitty-we-don’t-know-what-we’re-doing-in-radio company that I’ve ever met in my life. But let’s not talk nasty.”
Soon after, however, Duran was offered an afternoon hosting job at New York City’s Z100, and transitioned to the morning spot in April 1996, where he’s spent the last 18 years. The show is now syndicated in more than 75 cities — including Philadelphia’s Q102.
Duran said his passion for radio is in part rooted in his upbringing, where his years of being an outsider during his Texas childhood sparked his imagination.
“I was somewhat of a loner, so I needed to use my imagination to stay in gear,” he said. “I think that’s what radio’s really about. Any communication field is being able to connect to someone else — a listener, a viewer, a reader — by being able to tell a story, or help others tell their story. Growing up as a loner or an outcast, I got to know myself really well, and I think that helped me.”
Imagination comes into play every day for Duran, who spends four hours each morning entertaining listeners — more than five million weekly.
He arrives to the Tribeca studio each morning by at least 5:30 a.m. and takes a quick peek at the day’s news to give him some fresh material for the morning banter with his co-hosts.
From 6-10, Duran, situated behind a curved desk with a pair of headphones affixed to his ears, runs the show — most of which is non-scripted and flows organically from the interesting characters on his team.
“Probably about 90 percent is impromptu, off the cuff,” he said. “We have a working system, just an unwritten rule, where we come in, feel the pulse of the day, go online and see what stories are making noise, ask each other what we all did the night before, and then we have a show. The people who work here are all from another planet and have great, interesting lives. You put that many people together and you can come up with a show.”
The studio is connected by a glass wall to a bustling monitoring room, where a web team operates the show’s website and social-media sites. On the day of PGN’s visit, the team excitedly tracked as #5sosonelvis began picking up speed and ultimately began trending nationwide, for the visit to the studio that day by teen band 5 Seconds of Summer.
From the other room, Duran jokingly gestures through the glass on commercial and song breaks, which also prompt a frequent flow of traffic in and out of the studio as staffers visit the snacks table — stockpiled with donuts, breakfast sandwiches and, on this day, a display of Baked by Melissa mini cupcakes pedaled throughout the studio by a seemingly endless flurry of interns.
As soon as the break is over, the headphones go back on and the hosts continue with elements like their pre-recorded prank call Phone Tap, the Sleaze Report or the Topic Train, where they take calls from listeners on quirky topics.
Duran said keeping callers on track is a time-tested skill.
“I’ve been accused so many times of being short with callers, but when people listen to our show, it’s for an average of 20 minutes. So I’ve got to cram as much as I can into that 20 minutes as possible. I can’t spend much time with callers and sometimes you have to go, ‘Hey, here’s what I need you to talk about: A, B and C. I love ya and don’t mean any harm, but you’ve got to get to your point.’ When you shoot a gun, the bullet has to hit its target, it can’t spiral before it gets there.”
Duran’s also tasked with guiding the conversations with the myriad celebrities who visit the studio.
The show’s stature makes it the go-to stop for musicians, actors and others. Duran said he doesn’t get anxious about interviewing big-name celebs, but rather about how the interview will play out for listeners.
“I get nervous about the mechanics of an interview, no matter who it is, because I always want to make sure it’s interesting,” he said. “Some people you interview, they make it easy for you, and some are not so easy.”
He has, however, gotten starstruck by some of his own idols, such as Stevie Nicks and Barry Manilow — “laugh if you will” — whose encounter was less than positive.
“The time I met him, I was so disappointed because he was such an asshole. But I think that’s also him, just being a crotchety old man,” Duran said. “I learned a long time ago that you’ll always be a little let down when you meet your idols, so lower your expectations. But I don’t get too starstruck; I’ve interviewed the Bruce Springsteens, the Paul McCartneys, the Barbra Streisands ... OK, maybe I was a little starstruck with Barbra Streisand.”
Lady Gaga has become one of his good friends, Duran added.
“Meeting Lady Gaga was life-changing,” he said. “Here you had an artist who grew up listening to our show, dreaming of one day being on it. When she walked through the door, she looked around and went, ‘Oh my God, this is the strangest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ And of course we’re thinking the opposite: Oh my God, Lady Gaga is in the room. It was a clash of these weird feelings. But positive.”
On PGN’s visit, Duran was tasked with conducting 5 Seconds of Summer’s first American radio interview. After the chat, Duran mingled with the four teens outside the studio as they set up for their live performance of hit “She Looks So Perfect,” which sent the small throng of tween girls who had been admitted to the studio — from the larger throng of boy-band fans assembled on the street — into fits.
Once the performance wrapped up and the fans were ushered out, Duran headed back to the studio for the completion of the show, which he and the cast sign off with their customary “Peace out, everybody!”
While on the air, Duran is seemingly always in positive spirits — which he said is genuine.
“My bad day doesn’t begin until after the show’s over. I’ll come in with a headache because I drank the night before or I’m tired or didn’t get any sleep, but from 6-10 a.m., I love life,” he said. “It really is a fantastic way to fly without having wings. You’re actually flying through air, saying what you want to say, taking to people, interacting with people. At 10 o’clock, when the show’s over, that’s when the day can go happy or sad, depending on the workload and what has to be done. But, while the show’s on, there is no sad day.”
Some days, Duran heads right home after the show; others he sticks around for staff meetings or to get work done.
His corner office exemplifies his storied career — decorated with a Hugo Boss mannequin from Atlantic City that wears a celebrity-autographed bra, a framed photo of Lady Gaga, a U.S. map with pins signifying the markets that carry his show and an impressive liquor collection, many of the bottles gifts from visitors and fans.
When he leaves the building, though, Duran said, he tries to lead as ordinary a life as possible.
“I love my down time, my private time,” he said. “I love to go home and put on my stretchy pants and watch TV. I love to make sure the dishes are in the dishwasher. My room’s a mess. I love vacation. I love to cook; that’s why I weigh so much. I don’t eat bad-for-you food — I eat a lot of great food — but like massive quantities of it,” he joked. “But I love everything everybody else loves. There’s nothing really extraordinarily weird about me.”
Duran takes that same laidback approach when talking on air about his boyfriend, Alex. He casually discusses their weekend outings or tells personal stories when the topic turns to relationships.
“It’s not my intention to turn this into the, ‘Elvis Duran is Gay Show.’ It’s a show where the host happens to be gay,” he said. “When I began becoming more vocal about being gay on air, it was met with little to no fanfare from the audience. To me, the audience was saying, ‘OK, great, but you being gay is not enough to entertain me. You’d better tap dance a little faster and then tell me you’re gay.’ I love that it wasn’t that big of a deal. And I assume that the people who aren’t into it already left us or they don’t care to make a comment. Who knows, who cares? I couldn’t care less because there’s no way to win everyone over; you just can’t do it. I’d drive myself crazy trying to make sure everyone likes me.”
Duran came out as a teen and said he faced little pushback throughout his adolescent years.
His own confidence and comfort level with his identity helped to make his sexuality a non-issue in his career.
“I’ve been out of the closet with my colleagues since I was a kid. Back in those days, in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was a novelty to have, like, the fun gay guy. I was always thought of as the fun gay guy in the crowd. But I think we all gravitate toward people who aren’t afraid to be themselves — be it out as gay people or as people who are happy ... baking bread, whatever.”
Duran said that self-acceptance has been one of the keys to his professional success.
“You’ve gotta be honest. You have to be honest with yourself about who you are and honest with the people around you about who are. You have to put yourself out there and be willing to be hurt — in a relationship, taking a chance in a career, in everything. Otherwise, you’re not going to get anything you really, really want.”
In his own career, Duran said he plans to use that philosophy to continue to embrace the changes of the ever-evolving radio industry.
“Radio is turning into something different, and no one’s quite sure 100 percent what that is. Radio is that box that receives the signal from the air. But now we’re on satellites, on the Internet, on broadband, in the air in Wifi. Radio is becoming content. How it’s delivered and how it’s received is changing. I want to continue doing what I’m doing, I’m just not sure what you call it. I’ll just do what I’m doing and these big companies, like the Clear Channels of the world, will try to figure out how to use it. I’m definitely not going to retire because A.) I’d be bored and B.) I can’t afford it. So I gotta keep working. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
For more information on Duran and the “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show,” visit www.elvisduran.com.