Rover, the morning-show host for WXTM-FM 92.3 Xtreme Radio, is on all fours, his neck wrapped in a leather collar connected to a leash. Spittle flies from his mouth, and veins bulge in his forehead.
Moments ago, he was an affable guy, quick to smile and a bit shy, showing little trace of his bawdy on-air persona. Now he's completely unhinged.
"I'm gonna rape your girlfriend!" he snarls. "And eat your kids!"
The collar and leash are photo-shoot props, but the anal-rape fantasy is all Rover's. He's so immersed in his role, acted out on a sidewalk outside the station's Huron Road studio, that he barely notices two burly construction workers gawking as they lumber past.
"You just checked out his ass!" yells Duji, Rover's co-host, who is holding the leash like she's Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib.
"I did," one of the construction workers laughs.
Rover strains at the end of the leash, the collar digging into his neck and leaving angry red welts on his skin, as Duji frantically tries to restrain the madman -- the same role she plays on the show. Wide-eyed, teeth flashing, Rover channels Hulk Hogan as he talks smack on his radio competition.
"You can't hold me back, MMS!" he bellows. "Nothing can stop me!"
Rover doesn't look like he sounds on the radio. His voice has a flabby quality that leads listeners to imagine him chubby. "I get that all the time," he says. "Everyone always thinks I'm a big, fat fuck."
In person, he's a skinny 28-year-old with the beginnings of a paunch, largely due to his fondness for chicken wings. He wears a ringer T, cargo shorts, and a Cubs cap to cover his thinning hair. A rusty goatee carpets a slightly weak chin. He's the kind of guy who reminds everyone of someone they knew in high school.
The unremarkable looks seem odd for a man so intent on attracting attention. He is, after all, the same guy who, on Father's Day last year, called dads and asked them to listen to recordings of female orgasms, then identify which ones belonged to their daughters. After kids were arrested for stun-gunning homeless people in August, Rover dispatched Duji to pay vagrants $10 and a hot meal if they agreed to be shocked on air. And when Hillary Clinton was in town to promote her autobiography, Rover sent picketers with signs reading "Cheat on Bill With Rover."
In short, he serves up sacred cows like he's a one-man McDonald's.
So when he gathers a horde of his faithful at the downtown YMCA for a dodgeball tournament, you expect to find him holding court before a rapt audience, or at least signing autographs. Instead, he stands by himself off to the side, bouncing a ball, staring at the basketball hoop, looking less like a celebrity than the kid at the basketball court hoping to join a pickup game.
Rover blends in with his fans -- who are almost universally young, white, and male -- like a real-life Where's Waldo? "He's a guy's guy," says Jeff Miller, who oversees sales for 92.3. "Rover will belly up to the bar with you," adds Program Director Kim Monroe. Of course, this is the image that shock jocks always try to convey to the all-important 18- to 34-year-old male demo.
But in Rover's case, it might actually be true -- at least, it's easy to think that after talking to him for a few minutes. Just ask Greg Perry, a 20-year-old garbageman from North Ridgeville: "I met him at X-Fest. He was really cool. On the radio, he seems like a real guy, and in person, he seems the same. First thing he said to me is 'I have those same shoes.' And I just saw him. He's wearing them."
That goes a long way in the Midwest, where pretentiousness is second only to leprosy among undesirable illnesses. It's why listeners embrace Rover as one of their own, why they so often call to say, "Cleveland loves you!"
As it turns out, the most shocking thing about Rover is how utterly normal he seems. For a guy who gets paid to be an asshole on the radio, he's hard not to like.
Sitting in 92.3's jock's lounge -- a combination of frat house and locker room -- Rover bounces a mini basketball to fend off boredom. He starts playing catch with another deejay who happens to be passing through, but the game isn't challenging enough. So Rover decrees that they can use only their left hands. Which of course turns into a joke about how masturbating left-handed feels like someone else is doing it.
It's Wednesday, and the show is over. It's time to talk about filling next week's Morning Glory, which airs weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m. "You're sitting there, it's like 10 after the hour, and you're like, 'I got 50 more minutes to fill?'" Rover says. "That's where you learn to overprepare and have double the amount to talk about."
Duji (her real first name) dutifully records ideas on a printed spreadsheet. She's the organizer and mother hen, the one who keeps Rover from going too far. "I'm not afraid to stand up to him," she says. "I'm the first to say, 'You're an asshole.'" Think of her as Marge Simpson to Rover's Bart.
Rover stops his game of catch to pitch an idea for a contest: "Miss Hoover 2004," he announces grandly. "It's supposed to be oral, but you can't say that. So it's various sucking tasks, anything that's noisy. Basically, you're rewarding the girl who gives the best blowjob. The prize would be kneepads and a bottle of Scope."
The description invokes images of listeners with their pants around their ankles. It will make great radio, everyone agrees.
Next up is Dieter, a muscled, handsome jock, whom Rover chides for being the archetypal gym rat: vain, stupid, and prone to 'roid rages. Dieter's job is to take listener calls, but he'll do anything to get on the air. (He once smoked his own feces.) He has a suggestion for an on-air conversation: "Guys yank their own lederhosen and it's not considered gay. So if you could suck on your own lederhosen, would you do it?"
"You can't say that!" comes a chorus from those wary of FCC interference.
"Okay, if you could vacuum your own lederhosen," he suggests. "Just the word lederhosen is funny."
These days, the FCC is making it hard for Rover to be Rover. Since Janet Jackson's boob-baring Super Bowl performance, the rules have changed. The station brought in a parade of corporate lawyers to give Rover a refresher course in the Seven Dirty Words. "We can't do the same show we were doing a year ago, for sure," he says. "But it's kind of separating the men from the boys. Anybody can make dick jokes all day. If that's all you can do, you're fucked."
But isn't that Rover's specialty?
"We do make dick jokes a lot," he concedes. "It's funny, I'll get comments from people: 'All they do is talk about sex.' It's maybe 20 percent, if that."
Never mind that earlier that day, he devoted an hour to discussing how often men and women fantasize about other people during sex.
Rover has tangled with the FCC before. Five years ago, he was working at a station in Knoxville when a young woman called in and began masturbating on-air. "While she was doing this, he was asking her certain questions about her vagina, such as how 'moist' it was," wrote a horrified listener who complained to the FCC. Nothing ever came of it, but it was enough to convince Rover that the South wasn't for him. "Knoxville's a completely different place," he says. "You say 'Jesus' on the radio, and they're like 'You're fired.'"
Now, the whole country is Knoxville. Some predict that Rover won't be able to hack the new rules. "Contentwise, he can't have whores in the studio every morning, and he's forced to actually be creative," says Bo Matthews, the program director for hard-rock rival WMMS-FM 100.7, who's looking for a jock to take on Rover head-to-head. "The show is forced to have some talent, and I don't think they have that."
When the pitch meeting ends, Rover sits down at a computer to edit a promo that will play every hour for the rest of the day. He's an admitted computer dork, a whiz with the editing program. "Sometimes I think he just goes home and spends eight hours trying to figure out how to get to a website two seconds quicker," says Lunchbox, Rover's former co-host. When he retires from radio, Rover plans to start a video-editing and multimedia production company. Today, he has a more modest goal: whittling a long phone interview with Mike D of the Beastie Boys into a snappy 45-second gag.
"I had to lay the smack down," Rover says, as he replays the broadcast.
It gets off to a rough start. "I got a call from your management company not to talk about beer and boobies," Rover tells Mike D. The Beastie doesn't respond.
Rover briefly wonders whether he's hung up. He hasn't, so Rover tosses a softball: "What took so long for you guys to put out another record?"
"Um . . . I don't know," says a clearly annoyed Mike D. "Maybe you could answer. You seem to have a lot of answers."
"If I was in the Beastie Boys, I probably could," Rover jokes, then turns serious. "The way this interview is gonna work is, I'll ask the questions, you answer them. Otherwise, I'll just hang up right now."
There's a pregnant pause. Mike D seems taken aback. When he finds his voice, he explains exactly why the new album took so long.
Listening to the playback, Rover smiles. Mike D sounds like a total pussy.
During lunch at Harry Buffalo, Rover talks about fame in Cleveland. At a recent Tribe game, guys a few rows back began chanting, "Cleveland loves you!" But Rover doesn't play the put-out celeb. "It's so infrequent that it's actually pretty cool," he says.
As if on cue, the waiter -- a shaggy-haired Strokes look-alike -- identifies Rover's voice. "What's going on?" the waiter asks jovially. "You must do that radio show at 92.3. It's a good show." He asks about Rover's Cubs hat, and they chat about Chi-town.
Rover, whose real name is Shane French, was born in Chicago but grew up in Las Vegas, the son of a doctor and a nurse. "They wanted me to be a neonatal specialist," he says. "I guess they thought I'd be good with babies." He had other ideas, whiling away afternoons in his bedroom playing deejay. "My mom thought I was crazy," he says. "I would sit in there for eight hours straight, making tapes of me pretending to be on the radio."
He was attracted to radio because the stations had cool vans, and the deejays always sounded like they were having fun. "I was like 'I could get paid to do that,'" he says. "Plus, I thought I would get a lot of chicks."
The latter didn't work out as well as he had hoped. "The novelty wears off with anyone over 19 or 20," he says. "'Hey, I'm on the radio!' That doesn't work with an attorney. They don't give a shit."
Which isn't to say he lives a monastic life. While working at a Denver station, Rover hooked up with a porn star named Raylene. After their first date, she slept in his bed naked, but nothing happened. "Everyone talks about how great it is to sleep with a porn star. Then you get one in bed, and you're like, 'How many guys have waded through this forest?'" Rover explains.
They dated for a year, during which she continued to do porn shoots. "It didn't bother me at all, as weird as that sounds," he says. Rover even escorted her to the Adult Video News Awards -- the Oscars of porn -- where she was nominated for Best Anal Scene. "That was cool, being with a girl who was up for Best Anal. I liked that." At one point, Rover wired his home with webcams so that listeners could watch him 24/7, including when he had sex with Raylene.
Now Rover keeps his private life more discreet. Sure, he talks about his girlfriend on the radio. When she instituted a "no-farting policy" at home, he told listeners, "That's why you have a long-term girlfriend, so you can fart in front of her and not worry about it." But he shields her from the spotlight. Rover will say only that her name is Susan, she's 33, works as a talent coach for on-air personalities, and they've been dating for four years.
Rover broke into the radio business on the heels of a botched lie. At 20, he auditioned in Las Vegas with a sample tape purporting to be from a Milwaukee station. Program Director Mike Stern, who was familiar with the station, called his bluff. Rover confessed; Stern hired him anyway. "He obviously had some talent," Stern says.
Stern was further impressed with Rover's work ethic. "He was pretty driven," Stern says. "What I think people don't realize -- and this may be a peek under the hood that maybe Rover doesn't want people to have -- is how much work and preparation and thought go into that show. A lot of the best shows convey that we just walked in here and we're having fun all morning."
Stern hired Rover a second time in Denver, but Rover lost the job when the station switched formats. He went to Los Angeles to do a syndicated talk show, where he met Duji, who remembers the general manager telling her that Rover was bound for the big time. "This is the kid," he told her. "This is the one. He's gonna be a shining star."
It didn't seem a sure thing at the time. Rover left L.A. for Seattle, where he was shit-canned in just six months. The station had a no-nudity policy, which Rover had no intention of following. He says he was told to lie if asked about it. So when the general manager asked about a gimmick called "the Tuna Tank" -- which had nude women writhing in a window facing the street -- Rover claimed the girls wore bathing suits. The station's general manager learned the truth and fired him for lying. "It amazes me, especially in the corporate world, how they'll smile at you, and you can be fucked the next day," he says.
Rover spent the next few months editing video presentations for lawyers. Then 92.3 called.
The station had switched formats in May 2001, abandoning jammin' oldies to join the ever-growing ranks of the Xtreme. It built an audience of young males with Opie and Anthony's syndicated afternoon show. But when the jocks got fired for broadcasting a live account of a couple playing hide-the-bishop during a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, 92.3 needed someone to pick up the bawdy baton. Program Director Kim Monroe settled on Rover. "I want you to get out there and make some noise," she told him.
Rover's Morning Glory -- named, appropriately, after the first erection of the day -- debuted in March of last year. The crew wanted to make an immediate impact. "We needed something big," says Duji. "Something to say, 'Wake up, Cleveland!'"
They decided to deploy a floating cat.
The setup was a game called "Helium for Headbangers," in which listeners guessed how high balloons would lift household objects, including a sponge, a set of car keys, and a light bulb. Then came Jinxy, the station intern's cat. That's when the stunt went out the window.
"Oh, no! Grab him!" Duji yelled as a horrified audience hung on her every word. "Grab him! Quick! Somebody help me, please! Oh my goodness. Oh no. Oh no. This is truly awful . . . Quick! He's floating away. Quick, you guys! Oh no. Too late."
For the next several hours, listeners freaked for the flying feline. They reported aerial sightings, beseeching police and firefighters to do something. "People were furious," Duji says. "Listeners were calling in crying."
The drama finally ended with the announcement that a listener had shot the balloons one by one and brought the puss in for a gentle landing. Then, at the urging of the police, Rover admitted that he had made the whole thing up.
That night, Rover and crew watched themselves on the TV news. Word of the prank spread. The Los Angeles Times described it on its front page. The London Independent mentioned it in a wrap-up of the wackiest stories of 2003. A Denver station copied the prank with similar success. For Lunchbox, it was a sign that the show had arrived: "That's the first time I saw what we could actually accomplish in the city."
The clock shows 6:02 in glowing orange numerals. The show is scheduled to go live any minute, but Rover is nowhere to be found.
No one's worried. "If he showed up now, he'd be early," says an intern.
Rover preps for each show the night before by surfing the internet and jotting down interesting stories. He lives a short walk from the station, which means that the man paid to make other people's commutes tolerable has no commute at all. Minutes after leaving home, he glides into the studio, hits a button, and suddenly he's on the air.
For the next four hours, Rover is a louder, brasher, more boorish version of himself. He jokes about how funny it would have been if the pallbearers had dropped Ronald Reagan's coffin down the Capitol steps. He coaxes Dieter into making himself pass out, even after a listener says her brother almost died doing the same thing. He calls women "dirty little sluts" as casually as most people call cabs and tells one 19-year-old Paris Hilton replica, "If I were with you, your bedroom would be like Abu Ghraib. I would beat you worse than those Iraqi prisoners."
It's the kind of joke people make when they're drunk, only to regret it the next day. But Rover says he never feels guilty. The closest he came was when he speculated about whether a guy he works with is gay. "The first thing you say when you see him is 'We were just joking,'" Rover explains. "But I'm saying things that everybody's thinking, so they can't fault you for that."
Lunchbox occasionally worried what Rover might expose on the air. "I'm pretty sure my mom doesn't like hearing about what I did to what girl last weekend," he says. But Duji suffered the most lasting damage.
It started when she told Rover that her sister-in-law suspected her husband of cheating. Rover called the woman up and coaxed her to give him a phone number, written in feminine handwriting, that she had found in her husband's luggage. Rover then called the mistress, pretending to be Duji's brother, and outed the affair to all of Cleveland.
Duji's brother managed to repair the damage to his marriage, but Duji remains ostracized from her family. Still, she says it was worth it. "When you do radio, your personal life is everyone's business," she explains. "The second you walk in there and think, So-and-so is listening, you're doomed, because you're censoring yourself."
If Rover's show rings familiar, it may be because it sounds so much like Howard Stern's, which airs against him on sister station WNCX-FM 98.5. Some say that the comparison is inevitable. "Anyone who makes sexual jokes and talks more than they play music is going to be accused of being a Howard Stern wannabe," says Monroe, 92.3's program director.
Yet Rover's show bears an uncanny resemblance. Even the cast could be mistaken for Stern clones: Duji as Robin Quivers, reading the news and keeping the rowdy boys in check, and Dieter as Stern producer KC Armstrong, the weight-lifting numbskull.
Rover doesn't deny the obvious. "Anyone in radio who says they don't like Howard Stern is fucking lying to you," he says. But though he shrugs off the association, those who work with him say that he goes out of his way to differentiate his show. "He's very conscious of not wanting to be in the shadow of him," says sales manager Miller, who remembers Rover resisting a promotion because he'd heard that Stern planned something similar.
Monroe argues that Rover's localism blunts comparisons: "The main difference is, Howard isn't spending a lot of time talking about Cleveland, now is he?"
Being likened to Stern may not be such a bad thing. He remains the undisputed king of morning radio, though he's talked about relinquishing his throne at the end of 2005, when his contract expires. He's fed up with the FCC, worried about million-dollar fines, and eager to try something new, perhaps satellite radio.
If Stern makes a move, he'll leave behind a huge audience hungry for raunchy radio. Monroe thinks that Rover can fill that hole. "I think we'll pick up a huge chunk of his listeners," she says. "My goal and Rover's goal is to be waiting in the wings. When the time comes, we're ready to take Howard's audience."
Curled up on the couch at his apartment, Rover doesn't look like radio royalty. His loft is modestly furnished; the only Cribs-style trapping is a Centipede arcade game, a gift from a Denver listener. Rover shares this space with his girlfriend and two cats, neither of which has ever been attached to helium balloons. In the background, a flat-screen TV blares Fox News, which Rover listens to all day long, even though he thinks it's "full of shit."
Rover's still amazed by the warm reception he's received in Cleveland. "Every other city I've worked in, people will just send you e-mails that rip into you," he says. "We get some of that here, but the vast majority of the e-mails are positive. I don't know if it's just Cleveland and their radio has just sucked so long, or what."
Rover takes none of it for granted. He says Lunchbox used to call up bars and restaurants before he arrived, in the hope that they'd roll out the red carpet. "God bless him," Rover laughs, but it's not his style.
"I know so many guys, it just goes to their heads," Rover says. "You can have 50 people call up and say how great you are, and you'll start believing it. Shit, I was probably guilty of that five years ago. Then you get fired, or the radio station switches formats, and you realize you're out on the street and no one misses you."
That's what has endeared him to Cleveland -- or the young, white, male part of it, at least. It's why Rover can rest assured that, if he were taken off the air, he would indeed be missed.
Oh, and lest you think Rover's too normal, he has a bombshell to announce: "I have a third testicle."
He's just kidding . . . we think.