Finney: Whatever happened to the Round Guy?
Steve Pilchen remembers being in his office at KGGO-FM on Dec. 1 five years ago.
It was about 9:30 a.m. Steve, better known as “the Round Guy” to scores of central Iowa radio listeners, and his on-air partners Heather Burnside and Lou Sipolt had just finished their popular morning show.
The station general manager wanted to see Steve in his office.
“This is never good,” Steve remembered thinking. He walked down the hall to the boss’s office. A representative from human resources was already in the room.
“They said, ‘We’re letting you go,’” Steve told me in a recent interview. “I was shocked. We had the No. 1 morning show in the market. We were making them millions of dollars a year. And just like that, I was done.”
Cumulus Broadcasting bought KGGO in September 2011, the latest in a series ownership changes for the station.
Cumulus went on a buying spree in the early 2010s and followed the same pattern in each market: Dump local morning shows in favor of the syndicated “Bob & Tom Show” to reduce costs and earn the favor of investors.
Local management broke up the “Lou, Round Guy & Heather” morning show. They fired Steve. They shifted Lou and Heather to a talk format on another local station. The two soon quit.
Lou caught on as a morning show host at KCWI-TV. Heather worked on the morning show at KIOA-FM before settling in as a sports talk host on KXNO-AM and DJ on KDRB-FM.
But Steve couldn’t find a spot anywhere in town. His comedy gigs evaporated. He received two weeks’ severance.
“I went from making a pretty good salary to almost nothing,” Steve said.
These are tough times for the 62-year-old Round Guy to be sure. But Steve is nothing if not a survivor.
Steve grew up in Sherrill, N.Y., a city of about 3,100 some 40 minutes east of Syracuse, N.Y. Steve describes his parents as “abusive alcoholics.”
He endured bullies in school, but he used the experience to develop his sense of humor.
“I would try to make jokes about myself to crack up a guy before he beat on me,” Steve said. “Eventually, I learned how to fight. Then people stopped picking on me because there was a good chance you’d get whooped and then have me making sarcastic comments about you the whole time.”
Steve worked for a year after he graduated high school in 1971. A coach recruited Steve to come to Oskaloosa and play baseball at William Penn University, then a college. Steve played catcher for the team and studied physical education. He planned to be a P.E. teacher and coach.
At William Penn, Steve met Diane Moore, “a farmer’s daughter with beautiful red hair,” he said. They fell in love and got married in summer 1975.
Diane got a teaching job in Emmetsburg. Steve worked at a junior college overseeing student activities and women’s athletics.
Then Diane got sick. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 25. She went to the Mayo Clinic and underwent a mastectomy. Things seemed to right themselves.
The couple moved to Iowa City. Steve pursued his master’s degree at the University of Iowa. He wanted to work in college residence life. Diane worked in food service. A year of checkups and exams passed. Everything seemed fine.
Then Diane collapsed at work. Doctors discovered her cancer returned and had spread to her lungs and brain. Steve remained optimistic despite the dire prognosis.
“She had so much fight in her,” Steve said.
Steve and Diana's parents from Fremont, Ia., alternated looking after her while Steve worked part-time and studied. During a break one Monday, he called to check up on his wife. His in-laws told him Diane suffered a bad weekend. Steve asked to talk to her.
Her voice was weak. She could barely speak. They took her to the hospital in Iowa City that day. At first, she shared a room with another patient. By Thursday, staff moved her to a private room.
Steve thanked the nurses for the special treatment. The nurse stared back at him but said nothing. And then Steve knew.
“I realized they moved her to her own room because she wasn’t going to make it,” Steve said. “Up until that point, I honestly thought this was going to turn around, that she was going to get better.”
Steve never left her side until she died Jan. 27, 1983. She was 30 years old. Steve was 29 and a widower. He would never remarry.
After Diane’s death, Steve moved back east for a few months and spent time with his family. Eventually, he returned to Iowa City to finish his master’s degree in student development.
A friend suggested he apply for a job in Davenport managing a halfway house for parolees. It wasn’t really the kind of work Steve intended to do, but he took the interview and got the job.
He worked at the halfway house for three years and as a pre-sentence investigator for another four years. While he was working, he and a few buddies went to a new comedy club that opened in Davenport.
They had a good time and went often, but each time Steve’s pals said, “You’re funnier than that guy.” The club offered an amateur night. Steve decided to see if he could make people laugh.
“It didn’t go well,” Steve said. “I kept going back and kept getting a little better each time. Comedy became a passion.”
Eventually, the club owner asked him to emcee shows. Along the way, someone asked Steve if he wanted a stage name. Steve had gained a lot of weight after Diane died.
“I thought, well, if I stink at this, I don’t want it to be associated with my name,” Steve said. “So I picked the Round Guy.”
Soon, Steve started traveling for comedy gigs, working in bars in Grinnell and a comedy club at Okoboji. He relocated to Des Moines. He was an emcee at the Funny Bone.
WHO-TV sports director Keith Murphy saw the Round Guy one night. He invited him to co-host “Sound Off” on Sunday nights as a representative for the average fan.
Around the same time, Larry Morgan, a longtime co-host of KGGO’s morning show, decided to leave the show and focus on sports broadcasting.
The Round Guy had been making regular appearances on the show for years. He joined Lou Sipolt as a full-time co-host. Soon, Heather Burnside joined them in the booth.
“There was a real chemistry between the three of us,” Heather said. “We had great back-and-forth and listeners really loved it.”
Then came Dec. 1, 2011.
The Round Guy suddenly became discarded in a small media market and struggled to find work.
“When I interviewed at one station, they said, ‘We don’t want to sound like KGGO,’” Steve said. “It was almost like I was blackballed.”
Steve admits he’s not a tech-savvy guy. He isn’t interested in social media, trappings, for better or worse, required of the modern media personality.
He sold his collection of sports memorabilia to stay afloat for a while but soon fell behind on his house and car payments.
One day, a man knocked on his door. He was there to repossess Steve’s car. The repo man recognized Steve’s voice. He gave Steve a card and told him to call the number on it to make payment arrangements.
“At the time, I only owed a couple of grand on the car, so I was able to work something out and at least have a car,” Steve said.
He was less fortunate with his house. Eventually, the bank foreclosed. Steve moved into a duplex earlier this year. He finally found work for a security company. He works a night shift at a local insurance company.
“It’s a very good job,” he said. “It doesn’t pay what I used to make, but people are very friendly. I’m happy to have the work and they’ve been great to me.”
The Round Guy is not as round as he used to be. He’s lost about 60 pounds. Despite being a staple of the metro entertainment landscape for more than 20 years, hardly anyone recognizes the Round Guy anymore.
But Steve Pilchen lives on.
Steve talks about the variety of struggles in his life with a kind of detached sadness. The hurt is obvious in his clear, blue eyes. But there is no hint of misery or self-pity.
“I’m alive,” he said. “I’m content with my solitude.”
Daniel P. Finney, The Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.