Finney: My morning show with 'the Round Guy' (and why I won't be quitting my day job)
A pesky roundabout nearly derailed my reunion with the Round Guy.
The time was 4:17 a.m. I was parked outside a series of nearly identical duplexes on the southeast side of Des Moines.
Google Maps told me I was outside Steve "Round Guy" Pilchen's residence.
We were driving to Oskaloosa together. I was to be Pilchen’s co-host for a day on his new morning show on KBOE-FM, “Round Guy’s Round-Up.”
I called him. He said he’d be right out. Shortly, my phone buzzed.
“You’re not here, partner,” Pilchen said.
I panicked. It takes an hour to drive to Oskaloosa. Pilchen emphasized we needed to leave the city no later than 4:30 a.m.
I beamed with pride that I’d actually arrived early, a state of being both my editors and mother will assure you is all too rare.
Pilchen asked me to describe my surroundings. He guided me back to the roundabout.
“That roundabout gets everybody,” he said.
I finally arrived at his house, and we were off to Oskaloosa.
Pilchen said he’s still adjusting to the early-to-bed, early-to-rise lifestyle of a morning radio show host.
“When I was working at KGGO, it became second nature,” he said. “But I was out of it for five years. I worked swing shifts and overnights in security. My body isn’t quite there yet. It’s still ticked off at me.”
We stopped at a Casey’s. Pilchen bought two doughnuts, two bottles of milk and a morning paper.
I got a big coffee. I planned to go to bed early the night before the assignment, but that plan failed.
Steve 'the Round Guy' Pilchen will return to Iowa airwaves after a five-year absence. The Register
My backup plan was to be caffeinated to maximum levels.
The truth is I didn’t need much of a push from the coffee. I was excited to do a full morning radio show.
Long ago, when I was a student in Chris Madison’s mass media classes in Winterset, I dreamed of being a radio DJ. I wanted to be the next Dic Youngs or Dr. Johnny Fever.
But after my folks died, and I moved to Des Moines to finish high school at East, I didn’t want to take the extra bus to Central Campus for broadcasting classes.
I drifted into the school newspaper. Aside from a few semesters as a host on the campus radio station at Drake University, my radio dreams remained dusty memories.
In November, I wrote about The Round Guy’s life after his job was cut during programming reshuffling at KGGO-FM in Des Moines. The station’s owners ditched the popular morning show hosted by Pilchen, Lou Sipolt and Heather Burnside in favor of syndicated programming.
Sipolt and Burnside caught on with other media outlets in the metro, but Pilchen faded from public view. He worked security when I wrote about him.
He seemed downtrodden then, but content.
About a week after that column ran, Pilchen called to tell me he’d been hired as the new morning show host at KBOE. He was ecstatic. He pledged to have me on as a guest once he got comfortable in the new gig.
The lights were still off at the KBOE offices when we arrived. A motion-sensor lamp flickered on when we walked into the lobby.
Pilchen took a seat in the corner of the glassed-in booth. He directed me to a chair on the side of the table. Nicholas Livingston, the station’s digital media director, was already on the board.
At 6 a.m., the “ON AIR” light flashed yellow on the sign outside the booth’s door, and the Round Guy was in motion. He introduced me to the audience. We chatted a bit, but only in short bursts.
Lesson No. 1 about real morning show radio work: There’s less chatting than you think. Livingston warned us we ran a little long in the first segment. Typically, segments of 3 minutes to 4 minutes are best, he said. We went almost 5 minutes.
Longer chat segments threw off the schedule for music, farm and weather reports and advertisements.
Right away, I knew I was out of my element. For more than 23 years, I practiced long-form storytelling.
Now, I had to get to the point and get out of the way.
I spent part of the week running up to the show writing comedy bits in a composition book. Most of them were too long for the segments.
But Pilchen was there to guide this rookie through the breaks. He led the discussions.
He deftly interviewed me about the latest in my efforts to recover from morbid obesity. He talked to me about how I get ideas for columns.
It was strange to be on the other side of an interview, but Pilchen is a pro. He’s got the gift of gab that one needs for radio, but he’s also a good listener and thinks quickly in the moment.
I wanted to be good radio. Heck, I wanted to be great at it.
But I remembered the late journalist George Plimpton’s many efforts at experiential journalism, most famously trying out to be the third-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, a spectacular failure he chronicled beautifully in his book “Paper Lion.”
Plimpton took five snaps in training camp and lost yards on every play. I don’t think I was that bad, but Johnny Fever I was not.
The Round Guy, though, was most assuredly in his element. He cracked wise, and he seamlessly segued from banter to live reads of advertisements to introducing various segments. He made the five-hour show pass like minutes.
I might have felt a twinge of sadness for the actual passing of childhood radio star dreams.
Yet I was much happier for Pilchen, my new friend, who found his way back to radio after being out in the cold for so many years.
He once told me he thought he’d never get another shot in the business.
Funny thing about that is that if I’d gone into radio, I wouldn’t have been around to write a column about his life outside radio.
So, sure, a fantasy gig disappeared in the harsh light of reality. But when I dropped off the Round Guy at his home that afternoon, I realized both of us were exactly where we needed to be.
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.