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Shaking Up the Airwaves: Early on, David Lee Roth shows potential as a radio host

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There is no easy way to take over for a legitimate icon. Constant comparisons, skepticism and the public’s reluctance for change ultimately are too much pressure for mere mortals to handle.

Now imagine that the icon in question is Howard Stern and the challenge is taking over his 6-10 a.m. national radio throne. Most successors would have borrowed liberally from Stern’s “shock jock” formula, but following Stern’s departure for Sirius Satellite Radio, David Lee Roth, the new sheriff in town (his words), is looking to change the face of terrestrial radio in the morning.

With roughly two weeks as an on-air personality under his belt, the former Van Halen singer has been trying to and set himself apart from other hosts, and the result so far is clearly a different kind of talk radio.

When word came down that Roth was tapped to be one of Stern’s successors (the show is syndicated in such major markets as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Dallas), the obvious thought was that the Diamond Dave character would be set free and that Roth would be a fountain of carnal knowledge and raunch. The truth is that Roth is well-read and a smart guy after all — at least, so far, that’s what he wants listeners to believe. Does he have stories about debauchery? Sure he does, but he’s also a licensed emergency medical technician and an experienced helicopter pilot who can share those experiences, too.
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Roth’s show comes off like a cross between a “morning zoo” and an NPR program. He introduces a topic for discussion, shines it up with his opinions and stories and then sets the phone lines free so that callers may interact. Some of these discussions take off and are really interesting, such as the recent topic of plastic surgery that continued through a few commercial breaks and featured some great back-and-forth banter between Roth and his audience.

On the flip side, Roth’s discussion of porn addiction led to several listeners merely calling in to share ordinary stories about their viewing habits instead of juicy tales about how porn grossed out their wives and impacted their marriages, which is what Roth was shooting for. But that’s the way a new show can be, and not every topic is a slam-dunk.

Weak supporting cast, poor guests
One thing that has hampered the show in its early stages is a lack of good supporting talent. Roth’s on-air cohorts are bland hangers-on who chime in on his topics and never seem to disagree with him, and it’s clear that none of these people have worked in this type of radio environment before. Roth is the only one who moves the discussions forward or ends them with one of his signature catchphrases or punch lines, among them “No metaphysics before happy hour.”

If the rest of his crew started some rants of their own, it might take the pressure off the host, and there may be a personality behind one of these folks that people can look forward to hearing from each day. Right now, they’re filler — and poor filler at that.

Another drawback of the show is bad guests. Roth’s first day started with his uncle Manny Roth, a former New York City club owner who operated some of the city’s biggest jazz and folk clubs in the ’60s. Uncle Manny had a few good stories about the music business at that time, but Roth let the segment run entirely too long (roughly an hour).

On top of that, Roth didn’t take calls during the segment. He just kept peppering Uncle Manny for his first impressions of famous people he knew and/or worked with, and he only had kind words. Roth didn’t fair better with a recent guest who had visited 1,000 bars in a year. This guy brought nothing to the table. He was never thrown out of a bar, didn’t seem to get too drunk and claimed to never get hangovers. Roth tried his best with this guest, who just came off as a regular guy, and that’s why regular guys are members of the audience, not the guests.

Good with callers
Roth does mix it up a bit with the callers, though. Some of them have come on the air just to rip him for being terrible; Roth lets them get it all out and fires back in a spirited way. He also has let loose on a few fellow celebrities. His early targets have included Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen (no surprises there). He’s taken a swing or two at Steven Spielberg for being too overprotective of young actress Dakota Fanning and Spielberg’s strong comments against comics who have been making jokes about her. Roth defended any public figure’s right to say what they want about another celebrity because they are seeking the spotlight and should deal with the consequences. He even punctuated his rant with the appropriate line “You’ve got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real,” a lyric from the Van Halen hit “Jump.”

Time will tell if Roth can capture an audience for this type of morning show. He’s shown a willingness to buck conventional formats and take an approach that’s unlike Stern’s. He should be commended for that, but he needs to work out a few kinks before he can make the true connection that turns listeners into fans.

— By Mike Madden

Sounding Off, a music opinion column, appears regularly on