Most stories you'll read about Rock 102's popular morning team Bax and O'Brien play on the notion that the reader either loves them or hates them. Apparently, there's no consideration that you might not care one way or the other or, for heaven's sake, not know who the hell Bax and O'Brien are. While it may be hard for even the staunchest B&O'B fan to say they "know" the caustically witty duo, however, their longevity as a top-rated, big station morning show, as well as their penchant for finding their way continually to at least the edge of the most controversial topics churning in the Valley's mediascape, make it nearly impossible for them to go unnoticed except among the most cloistered media consumers.
For 15 years, the usually reasonable, often gentle Bax and the dependably unreasonable, often grumpy John O'Brien have been lifting WAQY well above its otherwise largely played-out classic rock repertoire. For 15 years, the pair of career radio jocks have been building and sustaining a loyal following, winning the morning drive-time ratings war and keeping radios in offices and warehouses within 50 square miles of WAQY's East Longmeadow studios pinned to 102-FM. For 15 years, Bax and O'Brien have been winning or at least showing in our annual Best of the Valley poll (or demanding to know why they didn't).
Advocate editor Tom Vannah, who met the radio stars 15 years ago at his and their first Best of the Valley awards ceremony, recently interviewed Bax and O'Brien, using email to avoid any unnecessary physical contact. Here's a taste:
Tom Vannah: On Sept. 11, 2001, my family and I were just pulling out of our driveway to take a week's vacation in Maine when we heard you talking about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Since it was you guys we were listening to, we thought it was a gag at first, but from your tone, we figured out pretty quickly it was no joke. What do you remember about that morning?
Bax: The thing that I remember was how quickly we switched gears. One minute we were a radio show whose primary function was to entertain. The next minute we both felt an obligation to report and inform on an event of such unimaginable historical significance. We stayed on the air much later than usual that day. We dropped all of the music and scrambled for whatever bits of information we could scrape together. It was the most bracing and physically exhausting broadcast that I had ever been a part of.
O'Brien: I remember it being the most difficult day in my broadcasting career. At first we thought it was only a small plane that crashed into one of the buildings and, frankly, we didn't take it as seriously nor talk about it as seriously as we should have. We stayed on the air until close to noon that day and it didn't get any easier. I think it changed the nature of the show from that day forward as well. I think it proved we were not only capable of talking about chicks and sex, but could do a serious, issues-driven talk show that was still forced to include the same three Hendrix songs we had been playing for years leading up to it. It also thankfully allowed us to never again have to end our show by saying "Have a crappy day, enjoy your crummy job," which we never liked, either.
TV: In your 15 years together, what issue has caused the most conflict between the two of you?
Bax: Most of our major conflicts center on how much John O'Brien needs to be held. He can be very needy.
O'B: The toilet paper over or under thing is tied with the seat up or seat down issue. Other than that there is no way I could narrow the hundreds of things we argue about down to one.
TV: The show has always had lots of good production value and seems to be more carefully formatted than any other radio show in these parts. How much planning do you do for each show?
Bax: That's the funny part. We operate with a very loose outline—very, very loose. In fact, the only thing that is scripted is my View from the Couch. But that's because the lyrical flow of my high-brow presentation requires it. Other than that, we're totally winging it.
O'B: The only things written are the "View From The Couch" and "John OBrien's America." I like to think the other 20 hours not on the air is preparation for the 4.5 hours the next day. Mostly we talk about our lives, the places we go, the things we do, the people we know, so every minute is prep for our show. (I say that to justify leaving work at 10:15 every day, but that's off the record.)
TV: Recently, you guys have done a lot on the latest Springfield Police controversy involving Jeffrey Asher, a cop accused repeatedly of brutality. What do you say to critics who accuse you of being biased in favor of the police and unsympathetic to the minority community's concern about police brutality?
Bax: I don't think that we're unsympathetic to the minority community at all. In fact, I think we are very mindful of when legitimate racism is taking place. But when you have a suspect fleeing the scene, refusing to comply, and grabbing at an officer's gun, you leave the cop with little choice but to use force to subdue that suspect.
O'B: Having graduated from the Reserve Police Academy and working now as an auxiliary officer in a local town, I have to say that my pro-police stance is based on my knowledge of police work and how it is conducted, including the Use Of Force criteria that we are all trained in, which the general public doesn't have a clue about. That doesn't mean there aren't some cops out there who may cross the line and hopefully they are found and weeded out because, frankly, it gives the good cops who are trying to do their job properly a bad name. But police work is not pretty.
TV: Who have been your favorite regular guests?
Bax: Tough question. But if I had to choose just one, my personal favorite is probably comedian Lisa Lampanelli. Forget the tenor of her material for a moment. Lisa is not only one of the funniest women that I know, she is also one of the most generous. She's been a great friend to the show and has been for years. We met her several years ago in Montreal. And it's been a completely reciprocal relationship. She appeared at the Bax and O'Brien Roast in 2006 and has donated thousands of dollars to our annual Mayflower Marathon. That broad's got a lot of class!
O'B: After this long it's hard to remember the best, but very easy to remember the worst. Those would be George Thorogood, and Chris Rock. Two of the most monosyllabic people we've ever spoken to. I would like to point out I have never used the word monosyllabic ever in either the written or spoken form.
TV: How many more years do you think you'll be doing this?
Bax: Years? Are you kidding me? I'm not even sure we'll last the rest of the week!
OB: We've been doing it for 15 years, and personally I don't see how I can last another week. So thank you for this award; it will be the last time we're eligible. I hope Dan and Kim can keep it together.