Bax and O'Brien's 20-year run a rarity in radio

Date: 4/9/2015

EAST LONGMEADOW – Michael Baxendale, the “Bax” of “The Bax and O’Brien Show” on Rock 102, admitted, “I didn’t think it was going to last six months, much less 20 years.”

Baxendale and John O’Brien recently celebrated what is a rarity in the broadcasting industry: a 20-year run. With the recent signing of a five-year contract, the dominant radio personalities in the Springfield market will eventually be celebrating their 25th anniversary.

The pair were the subject of a recent celebratory roast that included remarks made by Mayor Domenic Sarno and Congressman Richard Neal among others.

In an interview with Reminder Publications, O’Brien noted that he was already a veteran at the station when Baxendale was flown in for an interview and tryout in 1995.

Like many pairings in radio, one might see the creation of this team as almost accidental.

Baxendale said it is common in the industry to take a chance that a working relationship would blossom between two performers.

“When you pair two strangers up people think chemistry will develop over time. Sometimes it works but many times it doesn’t,” he said.

O’Brien had started at the station doing weekend and fill-in shifts in the mid-1980s. His morning show gig came about through his habit of staying a half-hour or hour later when he worked the overnight shift. He would appear informally with the morning man at the time and station management liked the chemistry between the two. He was moved to the coveted morning shift.

O’Brien would work with three partners over the next 23 months. He was fired in 1989 but was rehired 18 months later and restarted his career; eventually once again working the morning shift with a partner.

When that co-host turned in his notice, Baxendale, who was then working at a station in Springfield, IL, was suggested. He was flown here, interviewed and filled in for O’Brien who was having some throat surgery.

“It was my job to take,” Baxendale recalled. “I don’t believe they entertained anyone else.”

Despite the differences in their personalities – O’Brien described himself as “abrasive” – the two broadcasters fit together.

“The difference [between us] is what made it work,” Baxendale said.     

 O’Brien said the two never had a conversation in which they attempted to define their roles on the show. Originally the only real distinction is the O’Brien served as “the news guy.”

Much of what people hear on the show is ad lib. Baxendale said they know in advance of guests and their regular features such as the newscasts with Steve Nagle and features such “Hollywood Trash.”

O’Brien does a lot of reading for each show and keeps notes of topics he can bring up at spos in their schedule at the five minute and 50 minute mark of the hour. Not all of the topics are ever used, but he doesn’t carry them over for a new show.

He wants a spontaneous reaction from Baxendale.

Baxendale said they pair relies on their “basic chemistry” to get through some of the segments.

In the past the show featured a woman doing the newsbreaks the result of what O’Brien said was the concern of management there was  “a locker room” feel to the show that might affect the female audience. He said the pair had “burnt through every female in radio” over the years filling that position and finally the producer of the show Steve Nagle, a broadcaster and stand up comic, was given the job.

O’Brien believes the show has retained its female listeners without a woman on the staff.

While the show may be known for its outrageous humor and commentary, it is also a venue for local political discussion. Area mayors, city councilors, state representatives and others are regular part of the show and they seem to be willing to take some abuse from the two in order to reach their large audience.

“There are certain politicians that get it and certain politicians that don’t,” Baxendale said.

He recalled how during the Mayflower Marathon – one of, if not, the largest food collection programs in New England – former Attorney General Martha Coakley was at the nearby Hilton Garden Hotel near the Basketball Hall of Fame – the site of the food drive. The marathon broadcast is well know for a parade of guests either in person or on the phone and Coakley, who was then running against Scott Brown for the Senate, was asked if she wanted to come over for an appearance.

Coakley or her campaign officials declined the offer. This was in contrast to the four of five times that Brown had appeared.

Baxendale said that considering the venue – the food drive – they would have gone easy on her. Instead, “we went ballistic on her,” he said.

“We destroyed her," O’Brien added.

Although politics and social issues are prime fodder for the show, the pair’s own political beliefs are not necessarily apparent.

“I personally do it,” O’Brien joked of obscuring his own beliefs. “I’m extremely naïve in the realm of politics. I cloak it to hide my stupidity.”

He added there is no roleplaying between them in their on-air personalities. What listeners hear is genuine.

Baxendale explained political talk radio has proven to be very polarizing and for their show they try to broaden the conversation.

Although Rock 102 is a classic music station, the Bax and O’Brien Show is know for everything other than music. O’Brien said it has been “a long battle” with station management to ease up on the number of songs. They are now only obligated to play one per hour.  The concern has been there is a “different station at 10 a.m.” when the following shows don’t have the talk element their show does.

He added they would like to see all music removed from 6 to 9 a.m.

“That decision won’t be our decision,” Baxendale said.

One advantage to their show, O’Brien noted is that is it local, something that has become more and more rare in radio. Baxendale added the large corporations that own many radio stations can’t “get beyond the debt of expansion” and use syndicated shows to save money.

“They simply can’t invest in local shows anymore,” he said.

Baxendale added, “I think competition make you better. We’ve seen a lot of competitors evaporate over the years.”

He called the status of radio “a tragedy.”

With their track record, one wonders why they have stayed in Springfield, instead of moving to a larger and more lucrative market. O’Brien said, “There is nothing wrong in being a king fish in a small pond.”

Baxendale said there have been offers, but ultimately the team turned them down.

“What we have here is pretty unique,” he said.

They have become local celebrities and despite being on radio, their faces are well known to their fans.

O’Brien said they are recognized a lot and Baxendale said people generally respect their privacy.  

How many more years will they continue their on-air partnership? Citing broadcasters such as the late Bob Steele – who ended his radio career at age 91 when he died – O’Brien said the team would “stay working as long as they keep having us.”