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A smiling, stubbled man known simply as "Toast" lines up styrofoam cups, uncorks the Patron tequila, and begins dishing out shots. One for the executive producer, Steve "Branzig." One for show stuntman "OMG Mike." One for the studio guest, Christian Finnegan. One for the reporter. One for himself (Toast is the show's associate producer). Then there's one for the man at the center of the action, Paul Castronovo, and a double serving for Young Ron, his sidekick.
The Patron goes down smooth. It's just after 9 a.m.
That's life at the most popular English-language morning radio show in South Florida. (Three Spanish-language stations garner larger ratings.) The Paul and Young Ron Show is designed to sound like a bunch of average guys sitting around cracking wise about everyday things: football, drinking, awkward moments with the family. They take calls, play games, and interview celebrities. They use the "zoo" format (the term originated in the early 1980s at WRBQ-FM in Tampa with a show called the Q Morning Zoo). The segments are sprinkled with soundbytes from TV shows like Family Guy and movies like Animal House.
It runs from 6 a.m. to noon on WBGG-FM (105.9) in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and on WKGR-FM (98.7) in West Palm Beach; every week, it reaches an average of 182,000 listeners age 12 and up.
All but Castronovo use pseudonyms on the air. Some radio listeners, Branzig explains, lose track of reality. All the on-air personalities have had strangers approach them, wanting to hang out and chat radio-style. (In full disclosure, Paul and Young Ron cosponsored Beerfest this year with New Times, but on this morning they are reading City Link.)
Christian Finnegan, a standup who appears on VH1's Best Week Ever and Countdown With Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, is in the studio promoting his show at the Fort Lauderdale Improv in Hollywood. They ask him what Olbermann is like in person and how much he gets paid for his appearances. Finnegan replies that he's done the show 25 times and met the host in person only once.
Discussion moves to the color of Paul's hair. He didn't dye it while on vacation at his house in Maine, he says, and now the sides are gray. Over the course of the morning, they banter about when men should color their hair.
Paul's large, restaurateur-style charisma and his neurotic tendencies, along with Ron's dark, jaded take on life, connect with the listeners sitting in morning traffic. "Everybody can identify with at least one of the characters on the show," Paul says. "And everyone knows somebody just like Mike or Toast or Steve."
Ron picks up where Paul leaves off, adding that they've built chemistry over almost 20 years of working together.
Paul, 48, with dark hair, a Tony Soprano-esque belly and an all-American smile, was born in Brooklyn. He moved to South Florida when he was 11 years old. He says he grew up fishing and surfing in the beautiful, clear water. He was a starting offensive tackle on the Lake Worth High football team. He attended college planning to be a lawyer, but when he first laid eyes on radio equipment, he changed course.
A friend helped him get his first radio gig, giving the General Hospital Report at the University of Florida student radio station. "Back in the day, General Hospital was very popular among college kids, with all the weird plots and turns," he says. "Kids used to skip class to watch GH. I had to get high and watch the show and call in and report what happened." Eventually, they liked his reports so much that a producer asked him to host the morning show.
Ron is 52, with light hair, glasses, and a radio belly of his own. He grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, with an abusive father. He started on the radio as a teenager, honing his smooth vocals and comedic delivery. He's thought about writing, he says, but he's never worked outside of radio. Now he lives in Parkland and spends most of his free time with his kids.
The duo's voices play off each other off the air too, as when they sit at their adjacent desks in the office outside the studio. Even in the most benign conversations, the cadence and tones of their speech ebb and flow together like an unconscious dance.
In the 9 o'clock hour on a recent day, they have author John Austin on the show to discuss his book Cubicle Warfare: 101 Office Traps and Pranks – about high jinks to pull at work. All morning, employees throughout the giant Clear Channel broadcasting building in Miramar have been poking their heads into the studio during breaks, nodding curiously at Paul.
"You wanted to see me?" a woman in a business suit and dark hair asks.
"Um, I don't think so," he says politely.
"I got a note from you on my monitor," she says. "It says, 'See me ASAP — Paul.' "
"Sorry, not me," he says.
A few minutes later, a tall, nervous-looking man repeats the scene.
"What the hell is going on here?" Paul asks his crew. They laugh like schoolboys who've drawn a mustache on a photo of the principal.