Z100's Elvis Duran Talks 20 Years of Superstars, Project With Dr. Oz and His Place as a Gay Media Figure
It's a mid-September day at WHTZ (Z100) New York, the flagship pop-radio powerhouse of iHeartMedia, and Calvin Harris is maneuvering his 6-foot-6-inch frame into the studio of Elvis Duran and the Morning Show, where the host, standing a full head shorter than his guest, gives Harris an enthusiastic bro hug.
"Look at you! You've grown!" jokes Duran, introducing the superstar DJ to his co-hosts, Bethany Watson and Danielle Monaro, and to his "killer dog, Max [a miniature schnauzer], in case we have any security problems."
For the 52-year-old Duran, who has been on the airwaves since he was a 14-year-old rookie announcer at KMMK McKinney, Texas, the encounter is another chance to give one of today's hottest artists -- who make Duran's Morning Show an essential promotional stop -- the perfect radio podium without any potentially uncomfortable subjects, such as Harris' much-publicized breakup with Taylor Swift.
The easy rapport between the two helps explain why the morning program has become a habit for 10 million listeners in more than 80 markets (according to iHeartMedia), and why Duran has been behind the breakfast-hour microphone at Z100 for an incredible 20 years.
The native Texan, who does not reveal his birth name, retains no accent from his Lone Star State youth. He lives in Tribeca within walking distance of the Z100 studios with his partner of six years, Alex Carr -- "my boyfriend," says Duran, who came out on the air in 2010 -- and Max. En route to work, he'll listen to Coldplay or Beyoncé or "let the iHeartRadio app build playlists for me." In a multiplatform era, Duran has constantly expanded his media presence. He hosts podcasts, a blog, video clips and the Elvis Duran's Artist of the Month segment on NBC's Today.
Through his Today appearances, his presence at major televised music events and the video feeds of his radio show, fans in 2015 discovered that Duran, while broadening the scope of his audience, dramatically decreased his own physical size. In December 2014 he underwent gastric sleeve surgery, which enabled him to lose 105 pounds in eight months, slimming down from 265 to 160 pounds.
Fresh from hosting the iHeartRadio Music Festival, held in Las Vegas in September, Duran talked about his surgery, his place as a gay media personality, the tricks to keeping his morning show fresh after two decades and how he deals with all those superstars. Says Duran: "I'm still learning how to be a good interviewer."
How did you feel about the attention paid to your weight loss?
What makes my physical transformation important is why I did it: I needed to save my life. I hoped that through leading by example, other people would think that was interesting. So I made it very public, about the way I look and the surgery I went through. And now a lot of people are exploring this journey to see if it's right for them as well. I think it's a great thing.
For a radio host, looks may not matter. But Today viewers saw the change. How did you and your producers begin doing your Today segment?
After my going on Today as an "entertainment expert," we suggested a regularly scheduled segment with up-and-coming artists. When it started, they gave us just 45 seconds; now it's up to two four- to five-minute segments. With hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb involved and NBC behind it, we've introduced their audience to such new artists as Alessia Cara and Daya, interviewing them and letting them perform. The music companies love the exposure.
Let's go back to your early days. When did you know what you wanted to do with your life?
Radio seduced me at an early age. When I was a little kid, Ron Chapman at KVIL in Dallas let me come in and watch him do his morning show, and I was hooked.
You chose radio over college?
I never graduated from college. While I was in a mass communication class at North Texas State University, I was on the air weekends in Dallas and knew more about major-market radio than the guy teaching. When I told him that, he failed me. Eventually, when I had the option to either continue my college education or do a full-time night shift in San Antonio, I chose radio.
How did you land at Z100?
I moved around a lot. After Texas, there were stops in Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia. I was very lucky that Steve Kingston, who was the program director at Z100, wanted me to do afternoons. I never really had New York City radio in my sights; it was just where the job was.
Was the move to mornings a natural one for you?
I knew I wanted to do mornings, but not at Z100, which was not doing well in the ratings at that time. When new owners and a new program director, Tom Poleman, came in, I told Tom I had an offer to do mornings at WKTU, across the street. He reminded me that I had a legally binding contract and said, "Tell you what: We're going to put you on the morning show here at Z100." At the time I was disappointed, but luckily it was the best thing that has ever happened to me in my career. [Poleman is now president of national programming platforms for iHeartMedia.]
Why are artists so comfortable on Elvis Duran and the Morning Show?
It's pretty simple: Artists love to talk about the passion they have within them that makes this music come out. I've learned from the best, like Charlie Rose, and Howard Stern, who looks his guests in the eye and goes into their souls to find out what makes them tick. I love taking time with an interview. Time with an artist relaxes them; it makes them want to be there and answer all your questions. If an artist is going through a lot of bad publicity, I don't want to ask them about that. If they want to talk about it, I'll make them comfortable enough where they can bring that up on their own. Not only do I want them to feel comfortable, I want them to come back.
How do you feel about the current state of the music scene?
Totally excited. The tried-and-true stars are releasing fantastic [songs] and strong collaborations. New artists are proving deep and innovative, which is why I love to introduce them to our listeners.
How many hours a day do you work?
It's not really a "clock in/clock out" workday for me. I'm constantly checking up on news, email, social media and other show members, between hours of TV, naps and washing dishes.
After 20 years, how do you keep the show fresh?
What keeps it together is the camaraderie [with co-hosts Watson and Monaro, regularly featured sidekicks Greg T. Skeery Jones and Froggy, and executive producer David Brody]. We love coming to work with each other every day. If I can take credit for anything, it's that I've done a great job in surrounding myself with fantastic people who are the best at what they do.
Would you want to do more TV?
If it were with the right people, absolutely I'd want to do more. I'd love to have a one-on-one interview show; I think I'd be pretty good at that. But what I do every morning here is my foundation. Whatever I do on TV has to be an extension of that.
What other ventures are in the works?
There's a project we're working on with Dr. Oz called "In Search of Happy," where I'd be asking artists what they do, when they're out on the road or in the studio, when they need to pull back and de-stress a little bit.
Has your decision to come out on the air in 2010 made a difference in the show? Do you feel you've done a lot for your gay audience?
It has made a big difference. I was never hiding from being gay; I just never talked about it. When I got out of a relationship, I realized I had an opportunity to talk about my private life on the air because I thought it could be relatable. I was blown away by the fact that my being gay was, and still is, a nonissue. There are so many things that define who I am other than being gay. While I'm not really here every day to save lives, I am here to be an example of someone who's OK with himself. Be OK with who you are, and it really can open a lot of doors.
When you leave the studio, are you still focused on radio?
Not at all. There was a time in my career when I would read the radio gossip columns and do everything I could to plant my name in there in case I wanted a better deal. These days I couldn't even tell you who's on the radio where. I love my show and what iHeart allows us to do. I don't consider this work at all. But when I walk out of here, I'm just a guy in New York walking down the street, wondering what's for lunch.
When it comes to Elvis Duran and the Morning Show, what are you most proud of?
The ability to give every listener a voice. We may be a big, nationally syndicated show, but we're still a community of people; we're still trying to be a hometown. On live radio [you work in the moment]; you can't do that anywhere else. The rule of thumb is -- and I got this from my mother -- whatever crawls across the front yard, we'll pick it up and cook it for dinner. That's what we do.
This article was originally published in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.