A Bunch of Donkeys

After 11 Years Yakking About Sports, Pop Culture and Bikini Contests, Can Radio’s Junkies Keep It Up?

By Buzz McClain / Photography by Jonathan Timmes

It could be any rec room in the country. Four guys sitting around a table, ESPNHD showing highlights on the flat screen as they jaw about yesterday’s game, today’s celebrity scandal and the weekend’s poker party.

Except this session of off-the-cuff, innuendo-laden repartee is overheard by 15,000 listeners a day, most of them driving their cars to work as the morning sun rises over the traffic in front of them. It’s not easy to get out of bed, into your clothes and into your car at such an hour, but the Junkies make the torturous time between 5 and 10 a.m. weekdays just a little less odious for listeners, mostly men between ages 25 to 54.

The Junkies can relate because they, too, have to get up at ungodly hours to be in the WJFK-FM (106.7) studios, when they would rather be, in Junkie lingo, back in bed “roughing up a suspect.” (It’s not what you think. Well, maybe it is.) But each day they drive in the morning darkness, three from Montgomery County, Md., and one from Ashburn, to Fairfax City not to be the first at the station, but definitely not to be the last.
Because there’s “the breakfast rule.”

“If you’re late you have to buy breakfast for all the guys, and I don’t want to [expletive] with it at all,” said Eric Bickel, who is usually the first to arrive. “I leave my house about 4:30 a.m. from Kensington. It’s not so bad.”

E.B., Bickel’s on-air tag, means the traffic isn’t so bad. Getting up is bad, always. “I go to bed late, that’s the problem,” he said, his ball cap hiding a silvery coif that’s a nasty combination of hat hair and bed head. “Late” is 10:30 p.m.

“Jason’s the only one who’s militant and goes to bed at, like, 8:30 p.m.,” added John-Paul Flaim, a.k.a. J.P., indicating Jason Bishop, who, at 6-foot-6 is nicknamed Lurch, after “The Addams Family’s” towering, deep-voiced zombie servant.

“You never get used to waking up at 4:30 in the morning,” Bishop said. “Never.”

“So I don’t—and any of us don’t—sound like ingrates, I realize there are tons of people who get up earlier than us for jobs they despise,” added John Auville, the Junkie with the shaved head who goes by his childhood nickname of Cakes. “So I’m not going to complain about waking up early for a job I love.”

“We are selling out to the Man,” Bickel mockingly pointed out.

Still, he’s not complaining either.

From TV to Radio
The Junkies’ story of how affable boyhood pals from suburban Maryland came to be regional media donkeys (affectionate Junkie speak for a fool) and easily take over morning drive-time for the immensely popular Howard Stern is as inspirational as it is unlikely.

It started with Bickel’s then-future mother-in-law. She thought the boys could do a public access television show about sports. In an “Aw, why not?” moment, Flaim, Bickel and Auville took the required broadcast training at Bowie Community Television and launched “The Sports Junkies,” not knowing when it would air or who would see it.

Kick-off didn’t go exactly as planned. The day they were to tape their first show, “Cakes was at Geoffrey Giraffe doing a double shift,” Flaim remembered. Indeed, Auville, then manager at a Toys “R” Us store, couldn’t get away. Instead of debuting with a two-person show, Flaim and Bickel called another friend, Bishop, who they knew didn’t have much going on, and who just happened to be available. As usual.

“He did the first show, and we said we can’t fire anybody for a stupid show we’re not paying anybody for, so that’s how Jason got in the mix,” Flaim explained. “I’m not sure anyone knows that. Jason wasn’t part of the original plan.”

The program proceeded as a quartet, and while it was fun venting about sports on TV, “I think it’s fair to say that at the time we were all searching for what we wanted to do professionally,” Bickel said in a moment of retrospection. “In the back of our minds we were dreamers. We said, Hey maybe we’ll do this cable access show and who knows, maybe somebody will like it and we won’t have to get a real job.”

A “real job” for Bickel, who has a master’s degree in education, was going to be the position of a high school counselor or basketball coach. Today, he still dresses the part of the latter: Sweatpants and a hoodie compose a typical day’s attire.

Bishop was in the marketing department for the NFL Philadelphia Eagles, commuting to Bowie on weekends to tape the TV show. “His title was peon,” Auville said. “I was,” Bishop quickly concurred. “I was a nothing. I barely got paid anything.” Other than that occupational dalliance, he’s never had a “regular” job.

Flaim finished law school at Temple, a serious educational commitment, while the Junkies were doing weekend radio. “We opened my bar results on the air,” he said. He failed. As a consolation, “It was good live radio,” Bickel said. Flaim passed the bar the second time, but to this day he’s never practiced law.

Auville is the only one who had a real career to abandon at the start of the Junkies’ take-off. He had four and a half years as a manager with the Toys “R” Us chain, a job that taught him, among other things, that “retail sucks,” as he’s wont to put it. He willingly left $25,000 in unvested 401(k) funds to quit and be a full-time Junkie, “which was a pretty penny when you’re 26 and your wife is pregnant,” he said.

A decade later, any regrets? This got a big laugh from all four. “Are you kidding?” Bickel said. “You’re looking at the four luckiest guys in town.”

The Promotion
In 1995, after some 16 episodes of their television show, the self-promotional Junkies sent a tape to The Washington Times, where it was favorably reviewed. That caught the attention of WJFK, who put them on the radio on weekend nights in 1996. They got a raise from their $50 per shift fee the next year, when they went full time and assumed the 7 to 11 p.m. slot. In 1999 the show became syndicated, bringing the Junkies to national attention.

Frequent promotional events, ranging from bikini contests to a tackle football game against the D.C. Divas women’s team (8,300 came to see the Junkies win 28 to 6) to a professional boxing match (5,457 saw Flaim—a.k.a. “The Latin Donkey”—get knocked out in the first round at the Patriot Center by Jay “The American Dream” Watts), raised their profile and assured an audience of young adult men willing to live vicariously through them. The added presence of the Junkettes, their team of scantily clad boosters of considerable feminine pulchritude, didn’t hurt either.

In 2002 they flipped to mornings at WHFS-FM (99.1); three years later they returned to WJFK at midday until they were sucked into the morning vacuum left behind when Stern famously blasted off for Sirius Satellite Radio. The pressure to even come close to Stern’s ratings was on. With caution, Flaim asserted they’ve now exceeded the King of All Media’s numbers.

They don’t come close to Stern’s $500 million, five-year deal Sirius contract, but Bickel said, “There’s lots of money in local radio.”

Like how much?

“Aw, come on man, I can’t go into that,” Auville said, addressing the one topic the otherwise bluntly candid Junkies never, ever discuss. Ironic, considering it’s one of the first questions they ask of their on-air celebrity guests. “Not us. We’re not into flaunting our W-2’s. I’ll just say we make a nice living. We’re regular guys who got a great opportunity and we realize how lucky and blessed we are to do what we’re doing.”
Flaim echoed the refreshing attitude: “I will say we are very happy and lucky to be doing something that we love with great friends. And we’re lucky that we get paid for it.”

Bickel admitted that the show sometimes has a chaotic frat boy sound, but each Junkie is a 37-year-old married suburban father. Auville has three kids, Bickel two, Bishop two, and Flaim has one.

“In the end, we’re just family guys,” Flaim said.

There’s nothing particularly dangerous about the Junkies’ stream-of-consciousness, generally inane, occasionally hilarious carpool-ish patter, unless the odd discussion of fellatio, fornication and various body functions offends you. But such frank content—with its graphic nature denatured by Federal Communications Commission-safe, coded language—is to be expected in today’s ever-coarsening broadcast market. Anyone shocked by descriptions of “ducks,” “swallows” and “spotted owls,” all Junkie slang for unprintable activities, can listen to a less offensive station.

“There’s an edge to it, but an innocence, too,” Bickel said. “We have our moments, but even when we’re at our most outrageous there’s a naivete. I think we can get away with a lot of stuff because people know we’re doing it in a spirit of fun. That’s always been a theme we try to push.

“I think people get that.”

Men Only
Most women do not. The Junkies’ cumulative audience is overwhelmingly men, and one look at their testosterone-driven website, www.junkiesradio.com, with its prominent female derrieres and bursting bikini tops, shows they know their audience.

“It’s a male-skewing station, which is hugely important” when considering their audience, Auville said. Women don’t typically tune to 106.7 for the other shows, which include “The Opie and Anthony Show,” twice fined by the FCC for indecency, sports talker Jim Rome, and “The Don and Mike Show” and “The Big O and Dukes,” both of whose hosts are virtually estrogen-free.

“It’s not that we’re hating on women,” Bickel said, “but you are what you are. We had a lot more women listening to us when we were on HFS, which was a rock station.”

Added Flaim, “There’s a perception that it’s a sports show, and sports might be 25 to 40 percent of a show, depending on the day. But a 35-year-old chick in her car doesn’t want to hear that [sports content].”
They might not want to hear women referred to as chicks, either.

The Final Sign Off
None of the Junkies has considered a future beyond the radio gig. In fact, it seems to frighten them to consider there’s a caboose on the gravy train.

“I’ll be a professional blackjack player,” Bishop offered, and you wonder if he’s kidding.

“We’re tainted,” Bickel said, no doubt speaking for the group. “I could never work a real job again. Once you work four hours a day, you’re tainted for life.”

(April 2008)

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