Veteran New York City radio personality Elvis Duran has been a permanent fixture of the area’s daily commutes for 20 years. As the host of Z100’s daily “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show,” his broadcasts are heard far beyond the tri-state area, with his syndicated morning program reaching 10 million listeners in 80 markets, and currently rated the most-listened to Top 40 morning program in the country. He’s interviewed just about every major music star imaginable; he’s a regular presence on NBC’s “Today” show, and he’s been a key figure in New York’s annual Jingle Ball pop galas. On March 2, he’ll receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on the same block on Vine Street as his idols Jack Benny and Dick Clark.
He’s come a long way from the self-described “radio geek kid” who got his first broadcast job as an enterprising 14-year-old in his hometown of McKinney, Texas, and he attributes that success to any number of factors: A talented team, an obsession with the history of the format, an ability to be an empathetic ear for both famous guests and regular listeners; and perhaps most importantly, a complete lack of career ambition.
“I don’t know if this is typical of people in radio who’ve been around as long as I have, but I really had no ambitions,” says Duran, now 52. “Radio was always a fun, geeky thing to be a fan of — the history of radio, where it is, and where it’s going — but it was really also a pretty easy job. You just show up for four hours a day, play a lot of music, scream over the intros, then go home. And they pay you a decent amount of money sometimes. So it was the perfect job for someone with zero ambition.”
A look at his resume does belie this notion of a lucky layabout, but Duran insists that becoming an institution in the country’s largest radio market was never the endgame of some meticulous career plan. After kicking around Texas radio for a spell, Duran followed career opportunities wherever they led, from Atlanta, to Philadelphia. Finally securing a job in Manhattan – first as an afternoon jock, then, at the request of new station program director (now iHeartMedia’s national programming director) Tom Poleman, as the morning drive time host – ought to have been a dream come true for an enterprising yakker. But for Duran, the move to the Big Apple was driven by more practical matters.
“I grew up in the age of radio where we just went wherever the jobs were available,” Duran says. “The job doing afternoons at Z100 was, funny enough, the only job I could find. And so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go to New York.’ And it turned out to be the best thing the universe ever sent me. But I had no ambition. And now, when I have brief moments of ambition, I stamp them out as soon as possible.”
As accidental as his career path may have been, there’s nothing accidental about his longevity in the business, and Duran talks with both a critical eye and an activist’s zeal when it comes to the future of radio. He’s certainly been around long enough to see the power the format has to launch and sustain careers: He conducted Mariah Carey’s first on-air interview (she was terrified, until he found her some champagne to steady her nerves), and recalls Lady Gaga fangirling out on her debut visit to the station, having dreamed of one day hearing her music on his show. He recalls, with pride, tracking the careers of the “Selena Gomezes and the Justin Biebers of the world, where we interview them when they’re kids, and then we have a 50-yard-line seat to watch them grow up as musicians and as people.” And he hopes radio has learned the right lessons from its recent missteps to sustain the pressure from digital music delivery models.
“One thing that makes me optimistic is other media from the digital world coming at radio,” he says. “MTV tried to kill the radio star back in the ’80s. And with all the digital services coming at us, people say it’s a thing of the past — it’s not. I have yet to find anywhere else as personal a connection as one that a total stranger can have with another total stranger in the radio. Within 10 minutes, people who’ve never listened to us before feel like they’ve known us. I can’t think of anywhere else to go in the digital world where I can feel that. Not yet anyway. It’s still a one-on-one friendship that cannot be achieved anywhere else.”
Where Duran concedes that radio has lost its way in recent years is in the support of emerging artists — and in simply engaging with the day’s music in a sincere way — and he concedes he’s as guilty of that as anyone.
“Have we been lax [about supporting new acts]?” he asks. “I think so, because I know I personally have been. For many years, we would go in and play a couple songs an hour, but when those songs were on, I didn’t even know what they were. I would just push a button, and then when the song would end we’d come on again. I’d ask someone, ‘what are we even playing?’ ‘I dunno.’ ”
In recent years, Duran has made it a point to change that. He’s been proactive about featuring new acts — Gallant, Alessia Cara, Tori Kelly, and Zendaya are among the artists he’s championed — and struck a deal with NBC to appear on “Today’s” Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb’s segments to introduce younger up-and-comers with his “Elvis Duran’s Artist of the Month” spotlights.
“It’s turned into an incredible feature, and it started out with 45-second [segments],” he says. “Forty-five seconds! To introduce your artist and let them play a piece of their song, which of course is insulting to the artist. Now we have, several times a month, two segments that can add up to 10 or more minutes. Because they’ve seen some great response off this, and so have we.”
In doing this, Duran found that featuring under-heralded acts on his show was hardly an act of generosity. “It wasn’t that big of a gamble, because a lot of them already had a big foundation of listeners online, especially the younger artists – they’d built these large audiences without mainstream media even knowing they were there. We were discovering that those artists are a gold mine. Radio used to be a part of the growth of these artists, a part of the artist development process, and we totally got away from that. So there’s a great opportunity for that, and it’s paid off.”
|Elvis Duran with Iggy Azalea in Miami Beach last year
Courtesy of aaron davidson
Of course, in order to get to a place where he held enough cultural capital to help break new acts, Duran first had to find his footing in the relatively rough-and-tumble world of New York broadcasting, establishing a report with some of the country’s toughest listeners. Though he’s since come to consider himself an adopted New Yorker, he discovered early on that his own outsider status was a boon.
“If you’re born and raised a New Yorker, you’re probably pretty to-the-point, and you don’t care so much about hurting people’s feelings as you do about saying what’s on your mind, because you assume they’ll get over it. And a typical New Yorker would get over it pretty quickly. But being from the genteel South, I’m a little more sensitive. And being a gay guy [Duran came out publicly in 2010], I’m a little more sensitive to women and the feminine side of the world. And I think that played to my advantage, because there weren’t a lot of radio broadcasters in New York who were like that. When we started doing our morning show, a lot of the competitors may have wanted to go after a female audience, but they were talking about golf and wet T-shirt contests. I was like, ‘you can’t win doing that.’ It didn’t take me long to figure that out.”
Duran says his gentler approach was validated during an interview with Pharrell Williams, who lauded him for establishing a safe space for women in the oft-macho world of morning zoo radio. And that commitment to sensitivity isn’t just limited to female guests.
“When artists come in and you can get them to relax, they drop that ‘I’m an artist’ façade and just become real people, and that really is a gift for the audience to hear,” he says. “Not over-thinking it is a big thing. I don’t like to always be over-prepped with statistics, like what sort of streaming numbers they’ve done over the past 24 hours, where they’re gonna be on TV soon … I would rather talk about a song they’ve written for their album, how they write their music and where they have to go in their head, what their passions are.
“I’d rather do that than get into questions like, ‘who are you dating?’ and ‘why did you break up with her?,’ which totally puts people on a defensive mode. … We have a reputation for being a show where people can feel like they’re safe. I’m never looking to embarrass anyone or make them feel uncomfortable, or to try and get a headline from them. So even if they’re going through some ‘headline problems,’ rather than have me ask about them, they’ll sometimes just start talking about them, because they’re comfortable. There’s a lot to be said for that. If you make them feel safe and warm and protected, they’ll go where you need to go.”
That isn’t to say that there aren’t difficult moments, and Duran confesses: “Sometimes artists aren’t in the mood to be interviewed, but come here anyway. You can hear it. And so we’ll be polite, but end the interview early.”
Perhaps no balance he’s tried to strike has been more difficult than his recent decision to make “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show” a politically neutral program, even as the presidency of Donald Trump dominates a larger and larger percentage of the daily discourse.
“I happen to personally be right in the middle,” Duran says of his own politics. “And I felt that with most people in media either going far left or far right, I decided that we would not do that. And that was very difficult.
|“I’m never looking to embarrass anyone or make them feel uncomfortable.”
“It can be difficult to give your opinions and have to be right about everything and get beaten up by the opposite side, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as it is trying to remain neutral and understand that there are people, like me, who don’t wanna hear it. I’m tired of hearing from people who have to be right in their opinions about politics. I would rather have a place I could go to be free of that, even if just for 25 or 30 minutes. That’s what we have tried to do, and since the election it has been like pulling teeth.
“Uncomfortable moments come up when people start assuming things. I can have a listener on the air calling in about peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches or whatever, and all the sudden they’ll start going in about either ‘obviously you’re a Trump fan’ or ‘obviously you hate Trump.’ And it’s uncomfortable, because I have to stop and go, ‘no, you’re wrong. And I’m not gonna let this be a part of my show.’ On the whole I think we’ve actually avoided more uncomfortable moments because of our stance. But it’s been rough. And it’s not over.”
Can he see himself ever being pushed to the point where he has to publicly take a side? “There may one day be an issue or two that I want to take a stand on, and I will at that time,” he says. “But having a place to go to that tries to be as neutral as possible, I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
And yet even without the fallback of politics, and after managing to fill thousands of hours of airtime over the past three-plus decades, Duran claims he’s still never been at a loss for something to say on his show.
“It’s really just like when you go out with your friends, maybe have a few drinks, and just start talking,” he says. “But you understand that no one’s going to judge you if you start to act stupid – that’s what our show is about. It’s always about throwing something against the wall and seeing what sticks, and usually something does.
“For instance, the other day we were going on about, ‘if Abraham Lincoln were alive, what would he sound like?’ Someone brought it up, and the first thing you think is, ‘Huh? Who cares?’ But then you start thinking about it, and you start doing voices out-loud, ‘well, what if he sounded like this…?’ And it somehow turns into this 10-minute discussion and debate, and it actually gets kind of entertaining for some reason. We can talk a lot about nothing, or a little about a lot. And especially these days, we can rely a lot on the music, and talk about the artist. With artists always just throwing singles out online, not necessarily through albums, it always gives you something to talk about. We find ourselves having to throw away content we’d planned for the show just to talk about new music that’s exciting. So I walk into the show every day with enough material for a week’s worth of shows.”
Not bad for a kid from Texas with no ambitions.