In a morning radio show universe where many of the biggest players are deliberately obnoxious shock jocks, the most popular Top 40 host breaks the mold of the stereotypical morning DJ entirely.
He’s a 50-year-old openly gay man named Elvis Duran.
Duran’s show, “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show,” is the No. 1 Top 40 show across men, women, young people and even celebrities. The comfortable atmosphere Duran creates on his morning show, which he hosts with two women, has made it a magnet for the biggest stars on Earth. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are just a few celebrities who have professed their love for “Elvis Duran and The Morning Show.”
“One of our rules for the show, I guess the filter we try to pass everything through, is it’s a safe place for women to be,” Duran said. “It’s not a show for women, because we’re basically 50/50 men/women in our audience, but it’s a safe place where women win. Women never lose on our show. I think that’s very important. It’s very unusual.”
Just this past weekend, Duran was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Taylor Swift, Adam Levine and Iggy Azalea at Jingle Ball in New York City's Madison Square Garden -- one of the biggest nights in music.
“Elvis Duran and the Morning Show” doesn’t shy away from provocative topics, but Duran’s approach is to make the show seem more like joking around with his best buds, rather than being cruel.
“When Kim Kardashian’s rear-end pictures came out, rather than going on the air, [as] I’m assuming other shows did, and making fun of it, I came on the air and said, ‘Hey, you know what, this is a great time for us to celebrate the booty,” Duran said.
“We are living in a day and age now where Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian and all these celebrities, Jennifer Lopez, they’re showing that the female form in any shape or size is beautiful,” he added. “So we actually celebrate the booty. I invited all the big-bootied women to call up and talk about how much they love their butts that day. It was a great opportunity to show that side of us, the backside.”
Duran invited “Nightline” to spend some time behind the scenes with his whole cast, including mother of two Danielle Monaro, new girl Bethany Watson, and a menagerie of merry characters with names like Froggy, Skeery Jones, Greg T and Carla Marie -- all familiar voices to the show’s seven million listeners each day.
They play music and yak for four hours every morning. Sometimes, they go on the air with no plan at all. Duran jokingly said he and his cast really don’t know what they’re doing, “and that’s the magic of our show.”
“If we know what we’re doing, we wouldn’t be the same show,” he said. “We spiked the ball and then we do to the locker room and pat each other on the butt.”
Things are slightly more organized when a big star arrives in the studio. Even though A-listers love Duran because he’s both respectful and wildly popular, he’s not afraid to give his candid take on them. He thinks Mariah Carey is “fun, interesting, complex, beautiful” and also “lonely.” He called Lady Gaga, who grew up listening to his show, someone who “always gives everything” she’s got. Katy Perry is “fun” but “a little guarded,” Duran said, and said he had no problem telling her to show up on time.
“She was late for our show one day. ... In radio, sometimes, the stars think they can be a little late,” he said. “I sent my assistant downstairs [and said], ‘just tell her not to come up. Tell her when she’s on time, she can be on our show.’ The next day, she showed up early, and she gave us a great interview. She’s fantastic. Love her.”
And when it came to dishing one of his worst interviews ever, Duran didn’t hold back.
“Usher,” he said. “One of the most talented people in music. I mean, beyond talented. He was just in a bad mood one day when we were interviewing him. ... I was watching the text messages from our listeners roll by as we were talking to him, and they were not being very kind. They’re just like, ‘Get this guy off the air. He’s very insulting.’ ... We politely thanked him, and we ended the interview.”
While his professional life is undeniably fabulous, off-air, Duran is decidedly down-to-earth. His longtime boyfriend is a zookeeper and, on most nights, Duran is more comfortable at home on the couch than out at a club.
“I wash my own dishes, I do my own laundry, I’m not a glamorous person at all, not at all,” Duran said. “When we are invited to these glamorous events, I just don’t fit in, I feel really weird, and it’s uncomfortable.”
“I’ll have a couple of cocktails and I’ll relax a bit, but to be with, hanging around with superstars and stuff like that, I’m very nervous about that unless I’m interviewing them,” he added. “If we’re interviewing them, then we’re in control of the situation a little more.”
Born and raised in suburban Dallas, Duran described himself as being a shy “loner kid” who used the radio for solace.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends that I hung out with on a day-to-day basis, and I turned to the radio as my friend,” he said.
He got his first DJ gig at age 15. “My voice was awkward. I had a deep Texan accent.”
“But no one listened to this radio station,” Duran said, laughing. “As a matter of fact, I actually went on the air one day and said, ‘If you’re the second caller, I’ll give you $50.’ No one called.”
Duran started “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show” 18 years ago, but the ratings remained lackluster until he and his co-hosts began opening up and talking about their personal lives.
“The magic to our show, and I think any successful show, be it on the radio or TV, is every person being true to themselves,” Duran said. “Rather than be just going on the air every day and just say, ‘Hey the temperature is 45 degrees and here’s another song’ ... we need to learn how to show people who we are so they’re comfortable with us. They trust us. People listen to us every day because they trust us.”
That trust grew even deeper after Duran’s famous marathon broadcast on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he spent the entire show just taking calls from stunned New Yorkers.
“I just sat down at the board, out on my headphones, and started taking phone calls live on the air, ‘Hello, Z-100, who is this?,’ ‘Elvis, are you guys OK?’ ‘Yeah buddy, we’re fine, we’re good,’ ‘OK, just making sure, thank you,’ Boom. ‘Hello, Z-100,’ ‘My dad didn’t come home last night. He worked in World Trade Center, and if you hear from him, let him know we’re waiting for him at home,’ ‘Alright, you know, the message is out there,’ Boom. ... That’s when I learned the radio is very important, and I decided to stick with it that day,” Duran said.
Despite his insistence on authenticity on the air, it wasn’t until 2010 that Duran decided to reveal one of the most personal aspects of his life.
“I was on the air every day expecting everyone on my team and everyone on my phone calls coming in to be honest about who they were and tell their story, and I never did,” Duran said. “I never was closeted, but I just never wanted it to be the ‘Elvis Duran is gay’ show. I didn’t want it to go down that road because at the time I really felt like it would have detracted from me being the host and hosting the party.”
Duran said eventually he realized that he needed to talk openly about his private life, including his dating life, as part of his show, and one day he decided to publicly come out to his listeners.
“It’s really funny because it was so unremarkable,” he said. “There was no big fanfare. There was no hate mail. There was no anything. It was like, ‘Oh you’re gay, great. What else?’ which I think is where we needed to be.”
So what’s next for Duran? He said he’s thinking about doing more TV, maybe even a reality show, although he readily admitted he’s not a Ryan Seacrest.
“Ryan is very polished, which is great, especially for that scripted TV thing, and for ‘American Idol’ and all the other shows he does,” Duran said. “He’s so smooth. That’s something. I don’t know if I could ever be that smooth. We’re different there.”