Radio Reunion

'80s shock jocks grab a spot on the Baltimore dial, but can Brian and O'Brien turn back the clock?

January 13, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

The thing about a reunion is, there's no telling if it's going to work until you actually try it, feel the vibe, see if you end up hugging the other person or wanting to kill him.

This current reunion of Simon and Garfunkel, for instance, seems to be working out so far, at least at the box office.

But history is littered with reunions that went up in flames: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie Osmond, that whole ugly business in the '90s when they tried to round up the cast of Gilligan's Island and it turned into the Reunion Tour From Hell.

Yesterday, it was Brian Wilson and Don "Big Don" O'Brien, the famous Brian and O'Brien bad boys of morning drive-time radio in the mid-'80s, teaming up again to launch a new afternoon show (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) on WQSR-FM (102.7).

Reports of a possible Brian and O'Brien reunion have cropped up several times over the years. But this time it was official, although how long the reunion will last is anyone's guess, because the two basically couldn't stand each other when they were Baltimore's most popular, and most controversial, DJs - from 1984-1988 on now-defunct WSBR-FM (B-104.)

"We're calling this our 20th anniversary, and we haven't spoken in 16 years," O'Brien, 48, said jokingly in a chat at WQSR.

Back in the mid-'80s, Brian and O'Brien had an on-air act that went way beyond playing popular tunes. Among other things, it included funny horoscopes, scathing put-downs of listeners who called in, and sarcastic calls to local celebrities, politicians and other public figures.

Wilson, who gives his age as "I'll never see 49 again," was also famous - or infamous - for his constant put-downs of Dundalk.

"There's a shortage of pharmacists in Dundalk," Wilson once told his listening audience. "Apparently, they can't figure out how to get those little bottles in the typewriter."

"It's 7:48," he said on another occasion. "Time for all you people in Dundalk to move your El Caminos to the other side of the street."

Although their act was frequently criticized as tasteless and sophomoric, they weren't like the "shock jocks" of today who pepper their rants with four-letter words and all manner of sexual innuendo. Instead, they were more like edgy, bemused chroniclers of the '80s zeitgeist, alternately angry and flabbergasted at events unfolding before them.

"One of the things we did back then was raise the comedic bar," Wilson said. "[We] tried to craft it so the kids who were listening to the music could listen and the parents driving them to school could laugh [at the comedy bits]."

Since their breakup in May 1988 - Wilson left B-104 that month and O'Brien was fired the following March - both men have taken a number of jobs in the industry.

Wilson did "morning zoo" radio in New York, TV and radio talk shows in Atlanta, radio talk shows in Washington and on WCBM in Baltimore, and a short-lived morning-show stint on now-defunct WOCT-FM. He's also filled in as a talk-radio host on WBAL-AM and on numerous stations throughout the country.

O'Brien has been a TV weatherman on WJZ and WMAR, a morning DJ here in Baltimore and co-host of Good Morning Washington, a TV show in Washington.

They didn't speak to each for years - until O'Brien broke the ice five years ago with a phone call. The two met for lunch; it was then that the idea of resurrecting their old show began to germinate.

Recapturing the magic of an earlier era is tricky business in any entertainment medium, never mind radio, where stations seem to change formats every five minutes and watch them tank with alarming regularity.

Still, Wilson and O'Brien think a lot of their old bits will play well today, and that the freewheeling nature of their old show can be duplicated for a new audience.

This new show, said O'Brien, "is going to be basically the same thing, but 20 years later. Updated. You wouldn't want to see Regis and Kathie Lee from 1985 right now."

Wilson agreed that some of their old stuff can be dusted off for New Millennium listeners. "We have a special new program designed for the issue that is Dundalk," he says mysteriously.

But overall, he said, this new Brian and O'Brien show "is going to have to be a little more sophisticated."

Which means this won't be the mid-'80s show frozen in amber; no harking back to the glory days of No. 1 ratings, no picking on the same poor politicians and sad-sack savings-and-loan crooks.

"While there are a fair number of people who remember us," said Wilson, "there are a fair amount of people out there who have no clue who we are."

Although to listen to both men, the latter may be about to change.

"Baltimore radio right now is just as boring, predictable, homogenous, mundane and nice as it was back in July 1984," said Wilson. "And we're going to change it."

Providing, of course, that they can stay together for more than the next five minutes.

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