By Christopher A. Pape
Selena Gomez’s song, “Love you Like a Love Song,” might be the perfect title for describing America’s top radio host, Elvis Duran. Elvis, who is intimately aware of Selena’s song, would probably agree that it’s fitting that I should equate him to a Top 40 song. After all, he is the arbitrator and tastemaker of pop songs for a whole generation of Americans.
Based here in New York, in the AT&T building in Tribeca, he is the immensely successful host of Elvis Duran and The Morning Show on Z100 (100.3 on the dial). Elvis sat down with us (our longest interview to date) to discuss what it means to be a New Yorker, his charitable work, the radio business and what makes him tick.
From the moment I stepped into his office to the moment I left, Elvis was nothing but gracious, honest, charming and, best of all, hilarious. It is my fervent hope you enjoy the piece as much as I enjoyed interviewing him, or more.
New York Resident (NYR): I know you’re originally from Texas, but tell us what it means to be a New Yorker.
Elvis Duran (ED): Well, I feel like I’m a New Yorker because I’ve lived here for twenty-three years. And I find some of my best friends who are New Yorkers are not originally from here either. But moving from Texas to New York is quite a learning experience. You learn about different cultures that you would never ever have the opportunity to be exposed to. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. When you’re a New Yorker, you know everything. You are at the center of the world. Everything happens here, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. There is New York and there is the rest of the world. When I first moved here, I would meet a New Yorker and they would have the same attitude. I’d be like, “I don’t think so. You need to get out of New York.” But I truly believe it. That’s what being a New Yorker is about.
NYR: What section of the city do you live in?
ED: I live downtown, in Tribeca.
NYR: And what do you like about Tribeca?
ED:Tribeca and everything below Fourteenth Street is what I’m all about. I’ll use all the clichés: I need a passport, I get a nose bleed, everything. I found that everything below Fourteenth Street is just easier. It’s easier to navigate, it is a lot less crowded… even in rush hour there is a lot less traffic. It’s faster to get to Staten Island during rush hour than to get to Thirtieth Street. The restaurants here are my favorite; the people that live here are a little bit more chilled and relaxed, less uptight in my opinion. I love it down here.
NYR: Since you mentioned restaurants, what’s your favorite restaurant, place in the city, and thing to do?
ED: I’ve got a thousand restaurants… I don’t even know where to start!
NYR: Top three or five?
ED: Oh, God. Isn’t it funny because it’s hard to remember them all? I love Walker’s. Walker’s is a great example of being a true Tribeca gem. It’s a pub at the corner of North Moore and Varick. I’m a regular, and go at least twice a week. I’m great friends with the people who run it. It’s a neighborhood place. Everyone knows your name. It’s fabulous. Then there are places that I don’t go to as much, like The Odeon. The original Tribeca restaurant, however, is Tribeca Grill. It was the big restaurant in Tribeca before anyone else moved to Tribeca. I still love to walk around the corner and go to dinner there.
NYR: How do you give back to New York?
ED: Robin Hood Foundation, which is all about taking care of the poor in New York City. Robin Hood was started by a bunch of very wealthy guys, mainly from the hedge fund industry. They decided to take from the rich and give to the poor, so naming it the Robin Hood Foundation was perfect. One hundred percent of the money raised goes to the foundation with no administration cost. Every year they have a huge Robin Hood dinner. Last year Lady Gaga performed. This year Rihanna performed. We raised seventy million dollars in one night. Robin Hood Foundation is one of those large foundations in New York that isn’t talked about enough. I believe in what they do. They hand pick the best charities in New York that help people.
We also work with The Rosie’s Theater Kids. The program takes kids to a Broadway show every year. Now we have our own after-school facilities where kids will come and we help them with their studies, teach them about theater arts. They learn from actors and actresses, they learn how to dance and sing. It’s an amazing program. It’s very New York centric.
There is a new one that I’m on the board called Rock and Roll Hyde, started by some friends of mine who found a kitten but they couldn’t keep it, so they took the kitten to a New York City shelter. They found the decibel level was so high that it made all the animals agitated to a point that they are not adoptable. So their theory is let’s raise money and buy chew toys and blankets for the animals to play with. It will quiet down the shelter sound and they will be adopted. These are kill shelters. So now we’re raising money and it’s great fun.
NYR: What do you like to do in the city?
ED: I like to walk around and watch people. New York City is a museum. You just sit there and watch the exhibit. I love just watching people walking along the Hudson River, the park. They are renovating the pier, and you can go out there and play miniature golf. I love the Highland. Everyone’s enjoying it instead of tearing it down. I think it’s fantastic.
NYR: Tell us about how you got started. Why did you get into radio?
ED: As a little boy, I was sort of a loner. And I always turned to the radio for company. Not only would I hear these happy disc jockeys talking about singers and artists, I just loved how they painted pictures with words. And then I got into music. It started when I was fourteen years old, at a dull suburban radio station that no one listened to. I did the around the world DJ tour through Texas and Atlanta, from Atlanta to Philadelphia, then to New York. I never planned on moving to New York in my career. Radio just kind of led me. You just went to where the jobs were. But now I’m here. I can’t imagine doing radio anywhere else.
NYR: What does it mean to have a radio voice? Do I have one?
ED: You do have a radio voice because I don’t think people can identify and connect with a perfectly polished sounding announcer’s voice, because it isn’t real. I think (…) as long as what’s coming out of your mouth - what you’re saying - connects, that’s where it matters. I’ve got a stuttering problem; every once in a while I just start stuttering over my words, but I’m not going to fix it because it’s me. I think that’s how you connect with someone, you just be you.
NYR: Do you think your radio personality is your real life personality?
ED: Yes. Well, from 6 to 10 a.m., I’m given license to go further than I would after 10, as far as giving my opinion and loudly screaming it. We sometimes pump up the volume just to make it interesting, but it’s honest.
NYR: How did you come up with phone tap?
ED: The phone tap is nothing new. We didn’t invent that; we just perfected it. The process is we find someone who has a friend or a family member who they feel is gullible; who believes in anything and will go to the end of the Earth to prove they are correct, while not hanging up the phone. And so the phone tap gives us a view of someone losing it on the phone. And sometimes we get permission to play it. Some of the best phones tap we have, we don’t have permission to play. A lot of the times people recognize their voices and a lot of times they will say it’s funny, but they won’t allow us to run it.
NYR: Do you have a favorite celebrity?
ED: I’m in love with Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna is always a great interview. But you never want to interview your idols. You’ll be disappointed every time. I love Madonna, but when we interviewed her, she was just not there and it was a terrible time.
NYR: And tell us about your cast members. How do you come about them?
ED: Well, I’ve said this, I’ve said it in several interviews: I’m sort of like Dorothy skipping down the yellow brick road; I just keep collecting all these characters. We have a lot of people in this cast. Danielle Monaro, and Greg T, and Skeery, the producer, these three have been with us since we started the morning show. They started as interns; they never worked anywhere else. They never want to work anywhere else. Caroline Bermudez moved from Miami and joined us about eight years ago. She’s a huge name on the show. The list goes on and on. We got tons of people on the show.
NYR: What do you see as the future of radio? Are you concerned about it?
ED: No, I think if you have a good show, they will find you. Whether it’s over traditional radio station or on the Internet, which is where it’s going. We’re on two different streaming channels everyday.
NYR: I saw you on your Internet channel and you were actually physically doing the instrumentation. I was so surprised!
ED: You know what? That’s the old school radio guy in me. In the old days you ran your own board, you played your own songs, played your own commercial, you picked up the phone and you hung up the phone. I’m still in need of being in control of that. I really am. Because in my mind I know where we’re going and when we need to move. It’s probably a matter of time until they make me stop.
NYR: Tell me more about Staten Island and your association with the zoo there?
ED: I fell in love with the zoo. It just happened. It’s all Staten Island. And through my association with the zoo I came to love Staten Island. I have a lot of friends there. My partner is from Staten Island.
The Staten Island Zoo is such a New York City Treasure. It’s set in this beautiful New York City Park and has been there since the early 1900s. They have beautiful exhibits, fantastic gardens. We’re always bringing in new animals. I actually fly around the country from time to time to help them choose and adopt animals. It truly is a beautiful place to visit.
NYR: Tell us about the building that Z100 is in.
ED: For a moment, when I was studying architecture in Texas, I did a paper on this building. I came to New York and actually met with the building management. They took me on tour. That was back in the 1980s. Here it is twenty some years later: I’m working in it. It’s a beautiful building. It’s a cylinder. It’s great to be able to work, live, and play downtown in Tribeca. The energy just being in the city is so needed.
NYR: Who’s the personality that you respect most in the industry?
ED: I’ll tell you, Howard Stern. Howard Stern was the first to demand that they allow him to be honest on the air. He fought the management and told them to trust him, let him use his gut, and go on there and be honest. Howard Stern, in my opinion, was the originator of honesty in radio.
NYR: On a personal note, how was it to be gay and make it into the business?
ED: I think it’s always important for me to be honest with the audience about who I am and what I’m all about. But I’ve never wanted the show to be the Elvis’ gay show. We’re a collection of different personalities from different walks of life. I happen to be gay, I happen to be in a relationship. But I was a single gay for a while. I talked about what it’s like dating. It was never a problem.