Pirate Radio

By Bill Gerdes

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Posted December 2, 2010 in Feature Story

The Poorman is not bitter, nor angry.

Or so he tells me as we nurse lattes at the Starbucks across from the deserted Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino. He’s not bitter about driving from Newport Beach to Berdoo to do his new radio show on 1050 AM on your radio dial. And he’s not bitter about having to fight like hell to attract sponsors for his television show Poorman’s Bikini Beach. He’s not even mad about being fired from Loveline and KROQ, missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars because of said firing and spending the last decade in limbo, hunting for a station and a new identity—okay, maybe he’s a tad pissed about that last one.

From surf reporter to DJ

Jim Trenton, a.k.a., The Poorman didn’t go looking for a career in radio You might say radio found him. Always a creative guy, Trenton had self-published a book called The Poorman’s Guide to Gourmet Dining for Under Six Dollars and was out trying to hustle up some sales one day when he was spotted by some executives from KROQ. Originally, they wanted to simply discuss the dining guide on the air, but Trenton, knowing an opportunity to self-promote when he saw one, convinced them to put him on the air. As he was about to go live, they asked him what they should call him. “Just call me the Poorman,” he responded and radio history was made.

One of Trenton’s first jobs for the station was as a surf reporter, and it was in this role that many Southern Californians first heard of the Poorman as he delivered his always humorous, but usually accurate surf reports back to the morning DJs who would mock him unmercifully, a ribbing he took good-naturedly. He quickly became popular amongst listeners, his rise in many ways coinciding with the popularity of the station. Much of KROQ’s initial success had to do with the music they were playing; Depeche Mode, X and The Clash, while older stodgier stations were still pumping out the Foghat, but certainly some of it also was due to their on-air personalities. And the Poorman was one of their earliest and brightest stars.

The Loveline Years

He became even more famous when he helped found Loveline, a program started by KROQ to meet their public-service requirement, but taken in a direction no one thought possible. The talk show became wildly popular on FM radio, mainly due to Poorman’s hilarious advice to callers. His success on Loveline made all kinds of sense. It was never, he says, about the music for him. He has, in much the same way as Howard Stern, an innate love for the medium of radio itself, a love that was to be tested again and again over the following decade.

At first, the world must have seemed there for the taking for the Poorman. On Loveline, he quickly realized he needed help dispensing medical advice on the show and so he turned to Dr. Drew Pinsky. The pair clicked immediately and raised awareness of the show to new heights.

Thus, on some level, we have the Poorman to blame for Celebrity Rehab. With success, though, came tension. Trenton was starting to make serious money from his appearances, which were mostly at night and conflicted with the grueling schedule he was putting in for KROQ. Trenton felt like he was being abused by management, something that, according to him, was rampant in radio at the time. On-air talent, even popular on-air talent, was considered expendable.

Even a disc jockey as renowned in SoCal as the Poorman could be cut loose.

“Nobody would hire me”

And so Poorman was. After being pranked by the Kevin and Bean morning show—according to Trenton, they broke into his house and woke him up on the air—Trenton decided it would be great revenge to lead 300 KROQ listeners to Bean’s house for his birthday. Bean, along with KROQ management, didn’t agree, and the Poorman was suspended with pay for 16 months and then released.

Sixteen months is an eternity in radio. By the time Trenton was free to go back on the air, his mojo was gone. What was worse, in many people’s minds, is that he became considered by some as a walking symbol of the 1980s—along with Reagan, Men Without Hats and parachute pants. He sued KROQ for stealing the idea of Loveline and lost.

For the next almost two decades he would wander the radio wilderness. As he puts it, “Nobody would hire me.”

The Poorman Cometh

I’m waiting for the Poorman at the offices of 1050 AM, quirkily located in the San Bernardino Carousel Mall, a quasi-deserted, semi-abandoned hulk of a once-thriving shopping center. Trenton had referred to it as the “Dawn of the Dead Mall,” on the phone earlier and the name is apt. The place is an eerie, shambling wreck of a mall. But there are shoppers as I walk in. There seems to be a functioning Chinese fast food joint, a key maker and, if you turn to the right as you walk in, the offices of 1050 AM, the Poorman’s current home on the dial. Before landing the Poorman, 1050 was best known for being the only station in the States to keep running Don Imus after he was canned for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hoes.” They simply ran reruns of old shows.

Whether this was due to a lack of empathy for the girls, a brave stand for the First Amendment or simply a lack of other programming was never made clear to me.

The Poorman hasn’t arrived, but the producer of his show, Trevor Garner has. Garner fits my image of what a radio guy should look and act like: slightly overweight, coolly professional yet nervously focused. It was Garner’s idea to bring the Poorman to the station. This must give him some sleepless nights as KROQ hasn’t been the only station to terminate Trenton. KIIS-FM, KPWR and others have all gotten in on the act. Still, Garner is convinced this time will be different. He’s still trying to convince me when the Poorman walks through the door.

A typical day of Invasion

Now, my first thought is: this guy has aged; he’s clearly in his late 50s and is slightly wizened—even walking with what seems at first to be a tentative, ambling gait. He seems to even be slightly confused as he walks up to us. But remember that scene in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where Gene Wilder is creakily walking out to greet the kids and then rips off a somersault? Poorman does his best verbal imitation of Wilder, greets me and then tells me we’re going on the air and that we’re going to give away some medical marijuana. And within five minutes, we’re live.

Let me backtrack once more and say the level of planning I witness for that day’s hour is minimal, no more than a few “I thought we might talk about Hemet,” suggestions and a “Yeah, and don’t forget to mention we’re looking for a few replacement DJs while you’re gone over Thanksgiving,” from Trevor. It all seems so terrifyingly unplanned. I’m nervous for them and I have nothing to do with it. “What would he talk about for an hour?” I wondered.

I needn’t have worried. As the music for Poorman’s Radio Invasion starts, a striking transformation takes place. It would be a cliché to say I witnessed Jim Trenton become the Poorman. No, it was more akin to seeing the slightly disheveled guy you had a few whiskies with at the airport lounge stroll by you in the cockpit and calmly announce he’s your pilot. In short, Trenton is a born radio performer, taking frankly un-scintillating material and making it interesting.

Pot trivia questions

Up first on the agenda is the subject of the economy and what the recession has done to towns like Hemet, but Trenton apparently tires of that quickly and picks up a phone call from Dave. Dave, from Vegas, wants to host the show when the Poorman is in New York visiting his son for the holidays. Dave says he’d be a great host. Dave talks for a long time. Trenton is unfailingly polite to Dave and tells him to call back in 10 minutes. Dave does. Trenton talks to him for awhile longer. I can’t imagine another radio station letting an exchange like this continue; there would be a producer in someone’s ear saying, “End that call.”

This sense of relaxed fun, hell, just relaxation, is one of the real joys of Poorman’s Radio Invasion. Not many shows have callers audition for a spot as guest announcer on the air. Not many include their sponsors in ad hoc conversations as this show does; Erik from CWCR, a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverside, asks the cannabis-themed trivia questions for the medical giveaway. Derrick and his lovely assistant “Bubbles” from Cash for Cars answer questions about Blue Book value. Normally, product placement is annoying as hell; here it rings of the early days of television.

And not many radio hosts leave themselves as vulnerable and open as the Poorman does. Dave from Vegas asks him why he hasn’t spoken to his parents for over a year, the sort of question that might send many a disk jockey into a rage (imagine Rush Limbaugh dealing with such a query) or cause them to simply hang up. Trenton obviously doesn’t want to answer, eventually teasing his response as coming later on in the show, but answer he does.

His parents, he tells the listeners, simply didn’t support him in his career when he needed them most. The angst in his voice is genuine, and only slightly lessened by the fact that he then invites callers to give advice on whether or not he should start talking to them again.

Reaching an audience

The finale of every day’s show is the medical marijuana giveaway. It’s the focal point of the show, and the “wow” factor both Trevor and the Poorman feel they need to gather attention on a small station in an increasingly dismal radio environment. Winners must have a medical marijuana card, be 18 years old and answer a pot-related trivia question to win. It’s an amusing but limited gimmick. One wonders if they’ll be devoting this much of the show to free weed a year from now. One hopes not. The winner on this day was Jesse, who answered the question correctly (How many grams in an ounce of marijuana? It’s 28-and-a-half grams for those of you scoring at home). Jesse seemed quite happy to have won. The Poorman seemed happy just to be on the radio.

That’s the message I get from the man as we sit down after the show. Jim Trenton needs radio, craves it and is somewhat haunted by the vagaries of the business. Adam Carolla replaces Trenton on Loveline and winds up on MTV’s version of the show (and later The Man Show for Comedy Central) and the host of a successful podcast. Through bad decisions and ill-fortune Trenton missed out on those opportunities. Yet he’s stoked—that’s ’80s-speak kiddies—about his new chance to reach an audience.

I went into the day assuming I’d feel sorry for the Poorman. I left feeling sorry for all of us who missed out on wherever his disturbed and creative mind would have taken us. And excited for where he’s going to go next. Don’t pity the Poorman.

The Poorman’s Radio Invasion airs from 1PM-2PM. Mon-Fri on KCAA 1050.

www.kcaaradio.com, www.poorman.com.


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