Creme de la Krenn
Jim Krenn is sitting pretty as the lead DJ on WDVE. This month marks his 20th anniversary as king of morning drive time on the region’s No. 1 radio station.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
You hear it over and over: “Jim’s a great guy.” “Jim’s real nice.” “We love Jim.”
Jim, Jimmy Krenn, Jimmy K., Jimmy, Jim-Jim. His name is on the tip of every tongue; the name seems to bounce around rooms. Jim isn’t just a disc jockey; he’s a personality, a presence. Among fans, the name alone makes them chuckle and shake their heads. “Jimmy Krenn! Ha! That guy! ”The inventor of “Malkin’s Diary,” mocker of the “Pikksburgh Diesel Institute,” impersonator of presidents, celebrities, terrorists—the man who sang Christmas carols in the electronic voice of Stephen Hawking. The star of the “DVE Morning Show” on 102.5 FM. The stand-up comic who narrates your car ride with his posse of goofballs—Randy the co-host, Val the news anchor and Mike the sports guy.Jim, the two-decade wonder. Leading DJ for Pittsburgh’s leading radio station. One of the “Major Market Personalities of the Year,” according to Billboard Magazine. And now, on Feb. 22, his anniversary will draw 300 of his closest friends to the Home Plate Club at PNC Park for a brass knuckles Jim Krenn roast. Comedians will lambaste him. Friends will chide him. In the house, laughter will erupt from a crowd of “Pittsburgh luminaries”—comics, producers, Steelers, politicians. Granted, the idea of a roast didn’t come from Krenn or even from his comedian buddies. Rather, it was dreamed up by John Rohm, the market manager and vice president of Clear Channel Pittsburgh (WDVE’s owner), which will help sponsor the event. The party is exclusive, but the content is not—soundbites from the event will air on Comcast to the delight of Krenn fanatics everywhere.
But with so many personalities—Ralph the Cat, Stinky Diver, Al Gore, President Bush—who is Jim Krenn? Any Pittsburgher with a working car stereo knows his on-air jocularity, which gushes from this 48-year-old comic. But what is this comedian about? How famous is he, and how famous does he really want to be? After getting photographed for Pittsburgh magazine, after recording and marketing multiple comedy albums, opening for Tim Allen and Jerry Seinfeld; after 288 consecutive months of DJing, what’s his deal anyway?
First there’s the rock star Jimmy. The bad-boy Jimmy. The morning-radio DJ. The reason that the station’s slogan is “WDVE Rocks.”
Every morning, Jim Krenn wakes up at 4:30 a.m. This is a cruel joke, of course—Krenn is genetically a night person. “I don’t like the hours,” he says. “It was God’s cruel joke, his giving me this gig. I’m a night person working a morning gig. You gotta wake up at 4:30 in the frickin’ morning and be to work by 6.” Nevertheless, he rolls out of bed in the glum darkness only a few hours after most night owls have gone to bed. From his home in the South Hills, Jim drives to Green Tree, a suburb known more for its drive-through Starbucks and Olive Garden than for trees or greenness; and at the top of Green Tree Hill, two monuments emerge: a giant blue water-tower and a cubic, copper-colored, glass-and-steel high-rise, the home of Pittsburgh’s Clear Channel headquarters and the studios of DVE. Officially, this impersonal structure is called the Jacob Building; but, thanks to an enormous “102.5 WDVE” sign that hangs from the upper stories, most people know it as the “DVE Building.”
On the fourth floor, the receptionist doesn’t start work until 8:30 a.m.—2 1/2 hours after the morning show begins. The third floor is where the magic happens—it’s a narrow maze of offices and broadcasting booths.
The corridors are decked with framed billboards advertising DVE. The walls are plastered with bumper stickers, posters, sticky notes, American flags, ads for Sean Hannity’s talk show and framed quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Vince Lombardi. A reminder of the studio’s zero-alcohol policy is posted in the conference room; the storage lockers are packed with cases of soda and Brisk iced tea. In the bathroom, a portable radio is plugged into the wall and plays DVE all day long. Coffee percolates in the kitchen—the office has the slightly cluttered feel of an upstanding fraternity house.
Krenn enters the studio through an innocuous door—you wouldn’t know it led to a studio, except that a red “On the Air” sign blinks outside. Wearing his gold Steelers sweatshirt, armed with a blue mug of strong coffee, Krenn sits and leans into his microphone—a heavy mike nearly the size of a Nalgene bottle. He sits across from Randy Baumann, Jim’s on-air comedy partner; Randy is a skinny guy with dark hair and a Red Sox cap who looms over the mixing board like a master keyboardist over a church organ. Throughout the broadcast, Randy records callers and tinkers with sound levels, doubling as DJ and sound engineer. To Jim’s left sits Val Porter, a news-hound and brassy, sparkly-eyed commentator. To Jim’s right there’s Mike Prisuta, the graying, huckstering sports guy.
This is their world—about 250 square feet of room with two windows that look over the freeway, a floor-to-ceiling library of CDs, three flat-screen computer monitors for mixing and two screens for news-gathering, and a framed, platinum Metallica album hanging on the wall. When he wakes up, Krenn claims he is the “walking dead,” but here they are all bright-eyed, frenetic, hilarious. Typical of morning talk shows, their on-air conversation is random and absurd.
On music: “Is the necrophilia song OK for the Super Bowl? You know that song, ‘Last dance with Mary Jane….’”
On sports: “The Steelers are 12 and freakin’ O!”
On local eats: “We’ve got the best restaurants right here in Pittsburgh!”
On particular eats: “I could use a good ham-and-bean soup.”
On travel: “Can you get a direct flight from Vietnam to Georgia?”
On politics: “That sounds like total B.S.!”
On gender roles: “Would you give your 8-year-old boy, let’s say your nephew, a kitchen set?”
Breaking news: “Hanukkah is bad for global warming. We’ll tell you why in a minute….”
They talk about Dave Chappelle’s performing a record-long stand-up show for six hours; they agree that that’s way too long to be “consistently funny.” They talk with the former NFLer Merril Hoge on speakerphone and get a score prediction for the next Steelers game (32-28 Steelers, he portends). They get a call from comedian Bill Burr, a New York stand-up comedian and friend of the “Morning Show” gang; Burr is currently in California, and they trade a few volleys of sports insults. Baumann asks whether Burr is worried that the Patriots might suffer a “steroid-induced stroke.” Burr retorts: “Are you worried that Roethlisberger is going to fall off his moped again?”
“Ouch!” Baumann exclaims, laughing hard.
Any little joke could catch on, morphing and growing into some years-old super-gag. Take Donnie Iris: Krenn wrote a sketch about seeing the musician at a grocery store, dubbing the moment a “brush with greatness.” The sketch was repeated, with broader variations and an increasingly epic plot; this has led to the invention of Pants An’At, a fictional store associated with Iris. Iris has delighted in his caricature; eventually, he was invited to play himself in the sketch.
You almost can’t tell when Krenn and company are on the air and when they’re just messing around—when the commercials start, they remove their headphones and immediately use coarser language forbidden by the FCC. When fans call in, the voices descend from the ceiling, where additional speakers are placed. Baumann records every call, but the calls are rarely aired—so many callers are inarticulate or loony. But when Jim, Randy, Val and Mike talk, or when Post-Gazette humorist Gene Collier visits, or when guests appear in the studio, every word is recorded in the studio and carried through the region.
Krenn is always smiling because he clearly loves every moment. His eyes are alight, but his body is relaxed. This is his job, but it’s also just small talk among friends, unusually boisterous, with a seven-second delay. This is what Krenn calls his “dream team.” Together, they are pundits, Penguins fanatics, class clowns, confidants. Thousands of morning commutes are made bearable by their antics. Strangers call in, and they use Krenn’s and Baumann’s first names: “Hey, Jim; hey, Randy!” they begin. Here, in this 250-square-foot world, everybody’s cool.
And this is the Jim Krenn whom everybody knows—the comedic rock star, the celebrity. This is the man who puffs Punch and Ashton cigars, sips cognac, flies to Las Vegas for vacation; he’s the gambler who loves slots and blackjack and roulette. This is the man who got married in the Little White Chapel and paid an Elvis impersonator 50 bucks to sing “Viva Las Vegas” after the ceremony. This is the man who loves boxing at the Martial Arts Sports Complex.
How nasty does his comedy get? On-air, his language is restricted; but onstage, anything goes. Stand-up is a versatile art form, and for many comics, crassness is key. Krenn has one big existential rule, borrowed from his friend Mike Lange, “the voice of the Pittsburgh Penguins.” “If it’s funny, it’s not dirty. If it’s dirty, it’s not funny.” That is, if the audience laughs, they’re not offended. If they’re truly offended, they won’t laugh. And for a comic, laughter is everything.
“I never want to lose that rock ‘n’ roll edge,” Krenn says. “We’re goofballs. We cannot take ourselves seriously.” He adds: “You can’t fake it and make it in morning radio. It is a raw medium. People know you. You cannot hide for long in radio. They will see who you are.”
But there is another Jim Krenn—Jim, the middle-aged man. Forty-eight years old, graying along his sideburns, Krenn sees his stubble and jokes that he should shave more often. He’s a husband of 14 years to Hedy, a yoga instructor. The Krenns have no children, but they care for several dogs and cats. Krenn, the background singer of “Camel Toe,” is a church-going Roman Catholic. He doesn’t give details; he doesn’t volunteer any explanation. He just says, with a glimmer of defensive pride, “I’m Catholic.”
Nothing about Jim Krenn’s life seems fake—he is uncomplicatedly honest—but there are some surprises. When he leaves the zaniness of the DVE studio, he spends hours at Barnes & Noble or Starbucks quietly writing. Krenn loves to drink and smoke, but he also has a personal trainer, Dee Barker, at the Center for Specialized Exercise; for nearly two hours a day, three times a week, he does elliptical and weight-training. Since he began a couple of years ago, he’s lost 35 pounds. “My ideal weight would be 200 to 210,” he says in the voice of a life-improving suburbanite.
The first time we meet, Krenn wears suede shoes, straight jeans and a plaid shirt. He sits cross-legged on a studio couch. And he winks.
Nobody mentions the wink, but it’s an endearing habit—not quite paternal, not quite buddy-buddy, it’s the wink of a wacky uncle. It’s symbolic of a familial personality. His colleagues are also his friends, and when they sit around and joke, thousands of listeners stuck in gridlock traffic get to join in the fun.
Krenn loves Pittsburgh, and he is an expert on its people and culture—even its uglier, dimmer sides. Growing up an only child in the Strip District, Krenn lived with his family “in an alley,” located just behind what’s the Heinz History Center today. “It was a tough place,” he recalls—a neighborhood of immigrant workers, shipping agents, laborers, haulers. Growing up in a neighborhood that included the hustle and bustle of shipping and receiving and the cacophony that accompanies wholesale marketing proved to be an inspiration for later life. Tough as the people were, the community was strong. “People were unbelievably nice,” he says. “We were tight-knit. This is where I found all my characters. I was always the observer. I was always a quiet kid. The Strip was true Pittsburgh.”
For many years, Krenn’s career was an exponential climb—starting with impersonations at his family’s dinner table, then jokes at school talent shows, then gong shows at bars (he was underage, but nobody ever asked). Who gave him his big break? None other than Dennis Miller. For a while the two were fairly close. Since then, Miller and Krenn have quietly grown apart, but Krenn has opened for Miller’s act—a vote of confidence for any comic. Krenn started playing local clubs—some comedy clubs, like The Funny Bone, and other venues that hosted occasional comedy, like Graffiti, which has since closed. He started visiting other cities and taking official tours across the country, sometimes hitting two or three stages per town. He was tireless, playing stage after stage.
Krenn might have been a star in New York, Los Angeles or Hollywood. Instead, he got a guest spot on DVE in 1988, and he jived so well with the DJs and producers, DVE decided to keep him. Integral to this transition was Gene Romano, vice president of the station. “These voices were perfect for radio,” Krenn recalls. “And I actually didn’t know that. He was like a coach. [Working at DVE] is like having a tremendous coaching staff. They always put me in a position to win.”
Since 1990, DVE has dominated the airwaves of western Pennsylvania. The classic-rock station has long ruled as the most popular among listeners ages 25 to 54—the most coveted demographic in broadcasting, rivaled only by KDKA. This success has little to do with the station’s relentless playing of Doors and Led Zeppelin songs. It has everything to do with the cult of Krenn—DVE’s massive “Morning Show” personality.
Krenn’s affection for the DVE management is almost mind-boggling in the world of commercial radio. Hearing stories about Howard Stern and Ralph “Petey” Greene, we imagine that DJs routinely despise their producers. Producers are often perceived as humorless censors obsessed with ratings and FCC regulations. Not so at DVE: “We have a lot of mutual respect,” Krenn says. “They respect what I do. They give me the space to do comedy.”
As his 20-year radio milestone approaches and his fellow comics prepare their roast, Krenn entertains questions about the future: What is his next project? Is there a next step? Does he hope to expand his circuit? He would consider writing a book, but he offers no specifics as to its potential content. He can imagine being a regular commentator for the NFL or some other TV programs. But Krenn doesn’t seem to yearn for national fame. He loves his morning show. “I’ll keep at it as long as they want me,” he says earnestly. “I could go another 10 years at least.” Krenn doesn’t volunteer his salary, but he does offer the old artist’s adage: “None of us get into it for money. You get into because you love the art of it.”
For now, it’s enough to keep on keeping on—playing a few stand-up shows a year at the Improv, doing some boxing with his friend (and ex-Steeler) Craig Wolfley. He’s become a mentor for up-and-coming comics. He is welcome at every local game of every sport. He’s involved in the community—his 2005 stand-up show at the Improv, “Laughter From the Heart,” benefited Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund. And to give credit where it’s due, Krenn has gone national—doing voices for “Action League Now!” a Nickelodeon animated series, back in the late-1990s. The show was short-lived, but it also aired in Britain and Poland.
And what hurry could there be? Krenn still remembers, with great fondness, the experience of seeing his face on a billboard for the first time—the strangeness, the ego-boost, the hint of fear. The commonness of DVE billboards hasn’t ruined their novelty for him.
“This is a great town to have your face on a billboard,” Krenn says with a laugh.
Robert Isenberg, Pittsburgh magazine’s theater editor, is a writer and actor who teaches playwriting at Duquesne University.