Business

Z100 DJ Elvis Duran on Justin Bieber's Comeback and Why There's No Rivalry With Ryan Seacrest

Elvis Duran Z100, From the Desk Of bb27 2015
Dustin Cohen

Elvis Duran, Z100 DJ and host of Elvis Duran and the Morning Show, photographed in Z100's New York studio on Aug. 25, 2015.

Little Mix and Regis Philbin would seem to have little in common, but on a Thursday morning in August, both the X Factor-spawned British girl group and the 84-year-old TV icon are on Elvis Duran's agenda. First, Little Mix visits the New York offices of iHeartMedia's WHTZ-FM -- better-known as Z100 -- to appear on the veteran DJ's Elvis Duran and The Morning Show, which is -syndicated in more than 80 markets through Premiere Radio Networks. He conducts a characteristically analytical and borderline fatherly interview with the quartet, advising the group to "slow down and take stock of what you've [accomplished] so far; let it hit you in the heart and soul." Following the show, Duran heads uptown for a taping of his new-talent-based "Artist of the Month" segment on NBC's Today, where Philbin joins him and co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb for a performance by 16-year-old pop singer Daya.

Working with a wide variety of celebrities is nothing new for the 51-year-old Duran, although the extremes are wider than usual on this particular morning. Atypically for the pop-radio format, he has made his mark with a thoughtful approach to interviews that both celebrates the pop-culture circus and is, thanks to a longview informed by 30-plus years of on-air experience, often slightly above it. Celebrities from Katy Perry and Justin Bieber to Shaquille O'Neal and Donald Trump have appeared on the show through the years.

Dustin Cohen
"Lady Gaga grew up listening to Z100 and dreamed of one day hearing us play her music. We always have fun when she visits. I loved the day she tongue-kissed Max, my dog and best friend." 

The McKinney, Texas, native got his start at a suburban Dallas station as a 14-year-old and was hooked: Stints in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston followed before he joined Z100 in 1992. There, he hosted an afternoon show until April 1996, when Tom Poleman (then program director and now iHeartMedia president of national programming platforms) moved him to mornings. And with his two-dozen-member team (including on-air personalities Danielle Monaro, Bethany WatsonFroggy, Greg T. and Skeery), he has served as MC of the morning show on the top 40 station with the largest -audience in the United States -- 4.5 million in weekly listeners ages 6 and older in August, according to Nielsen Audio -- ever since. Duran talked with Billboard about becoming the newest member of the National Radio Hall of Fame, the upcoming iHeartRadio Music Festival (Sept. 18 and 19 in Las Vegas) and why he considers his daily life "boring."

What first drew you to radio?

I was sort of a loner as a kid, so radio was where I turned for companionship. I loved the music and how the DJs talked about the artists and used words to paint pictures to evoke emotion. I was seduced by radio at a very early age -- I still am.

Do you think kids are still as fascinated with it as you were at that age?

Statistically, we still have a very massive share of the entertainment pie. [According to Nielsen, 91 percent of all Americans 12 and older -- 243 million people -- listen to radio on a weekly basis.] But people use radio extremely differently than I did back then -- kids especially, because they're so quick to adapt to emerging technology. Our show is conversation-based, thought-based, emotion-based, and it tends to keep bringing people in. As long as we can keep a live element -- it could be on-demand and distributed in different ways -- it still works. Live energy, live thought ... that's what radio has always been.

Dustin Cohen
Right: A WWE wresting belt gifted to Duran by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Left: The full bar in Z100 and Duran's New York office.

What radio do you listen to?

Z100, or the iHeartRadio [app], when I'm driving or in the house, but I don't listen to other radio stations.

They don't interest you?

No. I have no desire to spend my off-hours listening to other shows. Unless it's Howard Stern, of course.

It might surprise some people to hear that he has been a big influence on you.

Howard is incredible, he's one of a kind. To try to be Howard would be stupid, but to not thank him for the road that he has paved for the rest of us is silly. We still live in a world of people who are on the radio just to hear words come out of their mouths and not really say anything. Howard was the first person who became successful by being honest and saying what's on his mind. That's what we try to do here.

Do you ever get star-struck on the air?

I don't. I'm more impressed with someone who calls up and says her husband has been serving in the military for two years and she hasn't seen him and he's coming home tomorrow. My favorite calls, emails and texts are from people who are on their way to chemotherapy, or on their way to a dead-end job, or leaving the house early to go to work because they hate the relationship they're in, and they love listening to us as a way to get away from that.

Dustin Cohen
A framed photo of Elvis Duran with Clive Davis in Duran's New York office.

You recently had Justin Bieber on your show. How do you rate his comeback so far?

Through it all, even when he was out having naughty fun and being beaten up by the press, I have maintained that Justin's talent will win out in the end. This new album is more than just a collection of songs; it's the beginning of a new chapter in his life. Our [Aug. 28] interview with him showed a humble guy who is maneuvering through life with a new sense of caution. He really wants to be loved and do the right thing.

What exactly will you be doing at the iHeartRadio Music Festival?

It's my favorite event of the year and it's a lot of work -- rewarding work. Hosting the national radio show, interviewing the artists for radio and TV, I love it. It's the most beautiful example of what our business has become: full-throttle, multilevel entertainment.

On Sept. 1, fans voted you into the National Radio Hall of Fame. How does it feel?

It's hard to believe, actually. But you know, if I was an outsider looking in, I guess I would be impressed by this show and its accomplishments. But when you're in it every day ... I'm not as overwhelmingly impressed, which I think is a good thing. It keeps us all in line.

In December, you underwent bariatric sleeve surgery and lost 100 lbs. How did that go?

It has changed my life. Having that added weight was difficult -- I just felt sleepy and sluggish. I still am ... but at least I look great being sleepy and sluggish.

Dustin Cohen
"This is the 'heads across America' map of our station affiliates. It's becoming more and more obsolete because many listeners hear us on iHeartRadio and satellite."

You came out publicly in 2010 in response to a caller on the show. Was that planned or spontaneous?

I don't think of me as, quote, "coming out," because I was never "in." I rarely, if ever, spoke about my private life and remain as neutral as possible. I don't even remember what happened with that caller to make people believe I came out.

You and Ryan Seacrest, who hosts mornings on iHeart's KIIS Los Angeles, are two of the biggest personalities in pop radio. Is there competition between the two of you?

Not at all. iHeartMedia is so smart in aligning with Ryan's drive and desires to be a media titan, on and off the mic and camera. I'm more solely focused on our morning show and enjoy a life of picking and choosing fun projects that don't interrupt my leisure time. I have no deep desire to hit the pavement and audition for TV projects or raise money to produce a show. If something juicy comes my way and it's fun, I'm in.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.