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Bax and O'Brien celebrating 15 years of on-air tomfoolery

Date: 4/26/2010

April 26, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW - In radio, on-air personalities, formats and programming can change over-night in the pursuit of better ratings. Michael Baxendale and John O'Brien - better known as Bax and O'Brien - have certainly beaten the odds.

The Rock 102 morning team has now passed their 15th anniversary and Baxendale believes, especially in light of the new opportunities offered by social networking and Web technology, "There's a lot of life left in the show."

"There's a lot left to come," he said, during an interview conducted last week during a show.

The show has held on the top-rated position in this market for years and has survived even when radio powerhouse Howard Stern could be heard in the area. Ask the pair what is the secret to their success and they are unanimous: they don't know.

"We have something, O'Brien said. "We don't know what it is."

All they do know is their brand of irrelevant humor, coupled with interviews, regular features such as Baxendales' daily sport commentaries and newscasts with their producer Steve Nagle, draws a large audience in Western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut.

Like other radio personalities they have had consultants come in to make suggestions, but they both say management has allowed them to develop their teamwork and audience on their own.

The bulk of what they do every morning from 5:30 to 10 a.m. is unscripted. O'Brien said that Nagle will book the majority of guests based on the pair's interests. He then showed a notebook with a short list of topics for the show, which he makes daily.

He doesn't make a copy for Baxendale, who runs with the topics as they are introduced.

The fascinating thing is the two men can barely see each other due to the set-up of the studio. Baxendale is on a slightly raised area, surrounded by three computer screens. O'Brien sits below him.

One might think that as the ad libs flow smoothly back and forth the two would at least have to look at each other for visual cues, but they don't. Not even the noise created by working outside their studio building a new set of steps for their building can throw their timing off.

O'Brien's tenure with the station started seven years before he was teamed with Baxendale. He recalled that in the first two years, he was teamed with three different people. He then left the station for two years and returned to work with John Reynolds for three years. When Reynolds left, Baxendale was brought in.

Baxendale had been working in Milwaukee, Wis., for three years and was transferred by Saga Communications, WAQY's owners, to East Longmeadow.

Since they are on a classic rock station, music plays a key role in their show, but it has changed over the years. Baxendale noted that originally there were five to seven songs played per hour and now there are less than five. He added that after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the talk aspect of the show was increased.

The team has been well known for raucous humor and political analysis that have delighted listeners and undoubtedly ruffled some feathers, but Baxendale said, "I don't perceive us as a 'shock jock' show."

"A lot of people don't know where the line is," Baxendale said.

Although other radio personalities have suffered the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Baxendale and O'Brien haven't.

O'Brien said the management of the station handles the criticism of the show and the most serious complaint made to the FCC was made by former State Rep. Christopher Asselin. The government agency deemed Asselin's complaint had no merit. Interestingly enough, Asselin recently appeared on the show explaining why he, after serving 18 months in prison for bribery, theft and fraud conspiracy, was considering a run for his old seat all must have been forgiven.

O'Brien admitted he really doesn't worry about what to say and what not to say. Baxendale added that because the show attracts a more adult audience, it would "defeat the purpose" to try to talk about sex in between segments on school bullying or the economy.

While elected officials from local mayors to Congressman Richard Neal are frequent guests, area politicians are frequent targets for their sharp wit.

"Some people [in this business] say they wouldn't say anything on the air they wouldn't say to someone's face," O'Brien said. "I don't necessary agree to that."

"Ninety-nine percent of the complaints about someone have come from someone else [rather than the subject of the comments]," he added. "I don't think Richie Neal knows what we're saying."

"If you're a politician you have to have a thick skin," Baxendale said.

Their own personal politics are different. O'Brien doesn't like labels and reluctantly calls himself a "moderate." Baxendale said he "leans more conservative."

"I was raised by liberals, but I broke out of that," he said. "My parents still have Mondale stickers on their cars."

Sen. Scott Brown received a lot of attention on their show during his campaign and when asked if that reflected a political bias, Baxendale said the reason was that Brown was "so damn hunky."

Seriously, he added, the attraction came from Brown "forming a national platform and returning our calls." In the past the pair have interviewed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy as well as Sen. John Kerry. So far, though Gov. Deval Patrick has not accepted the invitations to appear.

"We've interviewed Neil Sedaka," Baxendale said. "We'll talk to anyone."

Baxendale has worked to use elements of social networking such as Facebook to augment the team's loyal listener base.

"It's really transformed the way we interact with the audience," Baxendale said of Facebook.

Although O'Brien admitted he likes the fact the show now can be heard around the world thanks to the podcasts posted on the Web site and is attracting international listeners - he called himself "a dinosaur" when it comes to Facebook and Twitter.

Vowing he would never go on either service, he said, "I patiently awaiting their demise."

Baxendale said the team appreciates what the last 15 years has brought.

"The show is fun. The work is fun. This is a hard business and we are grateful for what we've achieved," he said.