It's 12:02 pm Monday, March 13, and the three radio talents crowding the small, unfinished studio on the third floor of the KOIN Center in downtown Portland are almost completely silent. As The Rick Emerson Show's opening theme plays, the only other sound in the studio comes from Emerson, the talk jock who, in under a minute, will be making his return to the Portland airwaves after nearly a year of radio silence. But he isn't talking.
Rather Emerson's motor mouth is embracing a large coffee cup, a great gulping sound fills the room while he tips the cup bottom up. A prerecorded explosion—a tip of the hat to his genre's current king, Howard Stern—interrupts the theme, and suddenly Emerson's voice is being beamed across the city with a relatively meager 5,000 watts of power.
"Coming to you from the plushly appointed, yet not ostentatious studios of KCMD-AM The Johnson, this is The Rick Emerson Show." The 33-year-old laughs maniacally, then declares, "I feel like I just took a bunch of drugs."
In the next hour Emerson will skewer Saddam Hussein, Michael Jackson, President Bush, the clergy and suicide bombers, as well as the recently deceased actress Maureen Stapleton. Not the most original material, but Emerson's delivery is brash, uncompromisingly geeky, smart, occasionally completely off the mark and funny. His on-air conversation bounces from his newsman Tim Riley to his producer Sarah Dylan and back. Then Emerson calls a station break. "Well, that wasn't too much of an abortion," he says as he heads to the break room for a refill.
Just two months ago, Emerson thought his days on broadcast were over. His last gig in Portland was as host of The Rick Emerson Show on MAX 910, where the 18-year radio vet (he started as a teen in Kennewick, Wash.) was also flanked by Dylan and Riley. His show was essentially the same but he was working for a different radio conglomerate, broadcasting from Entercom's studios until April 21, 2005.
That day, Emerson was told that MAX 910 would be going off the air. Within the next hour, the talk-radio station Emerson had filled with his pop-culture prattle since 1998 was playing the Mamas and the Papas. In the shifting world of broadcast radio, MAX 910 had been reformatted into an oldies station, KISN-AM.
"There is NOTHING on the radio in Portland anymore," wrote Mike Noe to Emerson. "I may have to learn Spanish and tune into one of those stations. Not fare [sic]!"
"What in the hemorraging [sic] fuck are they thinking????" wrote David Lockman. "I am in real shock and grief here."
Emerson and his loyal fanbase call this incident—and the year of Emersonless radio that followed—"the Unpleasantness." During the Unpleasantness, Emerson's fanbase stuck with its midmorning icon. They launched the Coffee Cup Crusade, sending hundreds of coffee cups to the Entercom studios, each with a note that read, "I need my morning fix." More than 1,500 fans attended a late-June filming of Bigger Than Jesus, Emerson's moving one-man-play about his salvation at the hands of rock and radio. An early-December DVD release party at Sabala's at Mount Tabor attracted hundreds more, eventually turning a $14,000 profit. It was enough to gain the attention of CBS Radio's programmers.
"I owe everything to my audience," says Emerson while sitting in one of CBS Radio's CD-storage closets, recently converted into his new office. "The first thing the [CBS exec] asked me was, how do I explain my audience's loyalty?"
The fact that Emerson had been able to retain that audience was a testament to his appeal. Emerson is the type of talk jock who is more interested in entertaining listeners with snide remarks and absurdist rants than spouting political dogma or sports stats. It's an approach that is rare in today's talk radio universe, and it's one that puts Emerson in the same category, if not class, as Howard Stern.
In fact, last year, after Stern signed a contract with satellite radio provider Sirius for $500 million, Emerson says he was contacted about filling the vacated spot at KUFO. Eventually CBS Radio, known then as Infinity Radio, passed, opting for the syndicated Adam Carolla show.
But the radio conglomerate kept Emerson in mind, granting him the only non-syndicated spot on its Portland-area Comedy radio station, the Johnson, and also making him that station's program manager. It's a rare opportunity in the struggling broadcast radio game.
Returning to the studio with a full cup of coffee, Emerson takes his first call of his new show. The fan offers support and a warning shot to broadcast radio: "I haven't been listening to anything but Sirius since you went off the air," he says. "Glad you're back."
broadcasts from noon to 3 pm Monday-Friday on 970 AM.