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A smiling, stubbled man known simply as "Toast" lines up Styrofoam cups, uncorks the Patron tequila, and begins dishing out shots. One for the executive producer, Steve "Branzig." One for show stuntman "OMG Mike." One for the studio guest, Christian Finnegan. One for the reporter. One for himself (Toast is the show's associate producer). Then there's one for the man at the center of the action, Paul Castronovo, and a double serving for Young Ron, his sidekick.
The Patron goes down smooth. It's just after 9 a.m.
That's life at the most popular English-language morning radio show in South Florida. (Three Spanish-language shows garner higher ratings.) The Paul and Young Ron Show is designed to sound like a bunch of average guys sitting around cracking wise about everyday things: football, drinking, awkward moments with the family. They take calls, play games, and interview celebrities. They use the "zoo" format (the term originated in the early Eighties at WRBQ-FM in Tampa with a show called the Q Morning Zoo). The segments are sprinkled with soundbytes from TV shows such as Family Guy and movies such as Animal House.
It runs from 6 a.m. to noon on WBGG-FM (105.9) in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and on WKGR-FM (98.7) in West Palm Beach; every week, it reaches an average of 182,000 listeners age 12 and up.
All but Castronovo use pseudonyms on the air. Some radio listeners, Branzig explains, lose track of reality. All the on-air personalities have had strangers approach them, wanting to hang out and chat radio-style. (In full disclosure, Paul and Young Ron cosponsored Beerfest this year with New Times, but this morning they are reading City Link.)
Christian Finnegan, a stand-up comedian who appears on VH1's Best Week Ever and Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, is in the studio promoting his show at the Fort Lauderdale Improv in Hollywood. They ask him how much he gets paid for his appearances and what Olbermann is like in person. Finnegan replies he's done the show 25 times and met the host in person only once.
Discussion moves to the color of Paul's hair. He didn't dye it while on vacation at his house in Maine, he says, and now the sides are gray. Over the course of the morning, they banter about when men should color their hair.
Paul's large, restaurateur-style charisma and neurotic tendencies, along with Ron's dark, jaded take on life, connect with the listeners sitting in morning traffic. "Everybody can identify with at least one of the characters on the show," Paul says. "And everyone knows somebody just like Mike or Toast or Steve."
Ron picks up where Paul leaves off, adding they've built chemistry over almost 20 years of working together.
Paul, age 48, with dark hair, a Tony Soprano-esque belly, and an all-American smile, was born in Brooklyn. He moved to South Florida when he was 11 years old. He says he grew up fishing and surfing in the beautiful, clear water. He was a starting offensive tackle on the Lake Worth High football team. He attended college planning to be a lawyer, but when he first laid eyes on radio equipment, he changed course.
A friend helped him get his first radio gig, giving the General Hospital Report at the University of Florida student radio station. "Back in the day, General Hospital was very popular among college kids, with all the weird plots and turns," he says. "Kids used to skip class to watch GH. I had to get high and watch the show and call in and report what happened." Eventually, they liked his reports so much that a producer asked him to host the morning show.
Ron is 52, with light hair, glasses, and a radio belly of his own. He grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, with an abusive father. He started on the radio as a teenager, honing his smooth vocals and comedic delivery. He's thought about writing, he says, but he's never worked outside of radio. Now he lives in Parkland and spends most of his free time with his kids.
The duo's voices play off each other off the air too, as when they sit at their adjacent desks in the office outside the studio. Even in the most benign conversations, the cadence and tones of their speech ebb and flow together like an unconscious dance.
In the 9 o'clock hour on a recent day, they have author John Austin on the show to discuss his book Cubicle Warfare: 101 Office Traps and Pranks — about high jinks to pull at work. All morning, employees throughout the giant Clear Channel broadcasting building in Miramar have been poking their heads into the studio during breaks, nodding curiously at Paul.
"You wanted to see me?" a woman in a business suit and dark hair asks.
"Um, I don't think so," he says politely.
"I got a note from you on my monitor," she says. "It says, 'See me ASAP — Paul.'"
"Sorry, not me," he says.
A few minutes later, a tall, nervous-looking man repeats the scene.
"What the hell is going on here?" Paul asks his crew. They laugh like schoolboys who've drawn a mustache on a photo of the principal.
Toast and OMG announce they have stuck such Post-Its to the screens of dozens of strangers across the vast corporate office. Paul is to expect a steady stream of confused underlings wondering why the boss has summoned them. It's the prank on page 4 of Austin's book. They've also opened and hidden cans of tuna fish throughout the advertising department in hopes that as the day goes on, the stench will cause mayhem and confusion. It's on page 14.
Another unwitting employee shows up at the door looking expectantly at Paul.
"No, I don't need to see you!" he shouts. "It was a prank. Sorry."
Paul wasn't always the boss. He went to school in Florida but cut his teeth in radio doing morning gigs in Nashville, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama. Ron was a local news and sports guy, an industry veteran. After some badgering, a radio executive put them together in 1989. Like just about everything else, they bicker over when exactly they first met.
"We went out to dinner at ... what's that place on the Intracoastal?" one says.
"No, no. It was at a party at Brian Olsen's house," the other replies.
During a merry-go-round of bosses and a few station jumps, they've worked their way up the charts to a 1.8 rating for men ages 25 to 54. That means more than seven percent of the prime advertising demographic listening to the radio is tuned to Paul and Young Ron.
To keep their on-air discussions fresh, they rarely speak before the show. They each wake up around 4 a.m. and get to the studio about an hour before airtime. They are so comfortable with each other and the crew that they can outline their bits simply by uttering sentence fragments back and forth ("You really want to see Mamma Mia!," Paul might tell Toast before a show).
But the overall direction of the show requires much more forethought. The team attends national morning radio show conferences, mining friends in other markets for new ideas. And they study market research. "It sounds like that Young Ron might actually have a serious drinking problem," a woman in a focus group once said as the team looked on from the other side of a two-way mirror.
Ron doesn't shy away from discussing his drinking. "This is a dark world full of horrible things. Every day I worry about car crashes or cancer. I worry my kids are going to fall off something tall. So I self-medicate."
Paul is the positive, white yang to Ron's black yin. Though his wife recently battled cancer and a family car accident left his mother and wife in the hospital and another woman dead, Paul is constantly smiling.
"He loves the attention," Ron says. "He'll sit and schmooze with listeners for hours."
"That's why I make three times as much as you," Paul shoots back. (He says his contract with Clear Channel has a clause that prevents him from discussing exactly how much money he earns but that he has a lot of toys, has worked hard over the years, and is very comfortable now.) Public records show that in 2007, his Lighthouse Point home was worth more than $900,000.
"He just loves to be loved," Ron says.
"I'm a ham," Paul says. "What can I say? I was student body president three years in a row in high school."
At 10:30, they replay an earlier segment in which they listen to fans who've called in to the Drunk Dial Hotline. They snicker as two young women ponder whether one of their skirts is on backward.
By 11, they retire to their office. Paul is going to get his hair dyed before a charity event later that evening, and Ron is going to pass out. The morning radio schedule requires that the day's sleep come in two sessions — one at night and another in the afternoon.
By noon, Ron is heading out to his sleek Porsche, what's left of the tequila bottle in tow. Paul is not far behind him.
As they pass through the advertising department, the hallways reek of tuna fish.