It was a typical evening on Too Beautiful to Live, the Seattle radio show that has been happily predicting its own demise since it launched 11 months ago, and host Luke Burbank was getting ready to share a special bit of audio he'd come across online. People had been trying to suppress this audio file, forcing its deletion from websites that were hosting it, but as fast as it came down it would pop back up somewhere else, and now Burbank was going to play it for the world. "What it is, is a tape of George Brett, longtime Kansas City Royal third baseman, and he's... it's right before a baseball game, and he's mic'd up, they're going to interview him for some reason, you know, probably during the game, but they have the microphone turned on early, and he's telling a fellow player named Tony Peña, longtime catcher in the major leagues, a story about a time when, well, uh, he pooped his pants."
Burbank, whose voice has the wry tone and mellow cadence of that cool-kid charmer you might have known in high school, advised his listeners that the quality of the audio would be a little bad. He warned people who were driving to pull over. He gave them a minute to do so. While he waited for the minute to pass, he tried to make this about something bigger than poop. "I'm going to put forward the question: Why are stories about people pooping their pants so, so funny? Why is it? I don't care how old you are. Why is it so funny? It strikes at some kind of basic human evolutionary thing. I have a story, not too much unlike this, that maybe I'll tell if we have time tonight...."
Oh, he will tell it. Not that the only thing Burbank does is on-air poop jokes. Other segments of the show that night included Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers calling in to discuss the intense reaction to a negative review she'd recently written about a Tina Turner stadium performance, and an ensuing discussion of why Turner's fans can't bear to read anything negative about her ("I think it's because of that scene in the movie when Ike beat her with a shoe," said Burbank's producer and longtime friend, Jen Andrews); some musings on the discontinuation of the clear, carbonated malt-liquor Zima ("It's not a world of men," Burbank said, making a Glengarry Glen Ross reference); and talk about a scientific study of whether the overuse of Purell can raise a person's blood-alcohol level (a New York congressman had recently used this idea as a defense against a DUI charge, and Burbank thought it urgent to examine the scientific literature on the subject). In other shows, Burbank will frequently explore the finer points of English grammar with regular guest the Grammar Lady or, say, channel the ghost of John Steinbeck via newly released tapes from the British Library.
He's highbrow. But that's not all he is, and he's definitely not above a good poop anecdote. So when Brett's confessional—involving bad crab, the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, and an unfortunate decision not to wear socks that night—was over, Burbank decided, after a brief on-air deliberation, that it was indeed time for him to share too. First he spoke admiringly of Brett's sense of pride about the incident ("I feel like George Brett would come on this show tonight and tell that story again without even the least bit of shame") and talked at some length about the great lesson of Brett's pants-fouling, which was to always have a "poop brother," someone who is on notice to come rescue you in such a situation. For Brett, this brother had ended up being a man with an extremely large waist who was summoned via cell phone and happily gave Brett his pants. Burbank announced he had arranged several potential poop brothers of his own since hearing this.
"Now," he said, "there is the story of when it happened to me... We'll take a break, and we'll come back, and then I'll lay that little story on you in just a few minutes. This, by the way, is News Talk 97.3 KIRO FM. It's where Seattle stays in touch."
That was, in a way, the funniest part of the whole segment—the station identification. KIRO FM is owned by Bonneville International, a broadcasting company controlled by the Mormon Church. At almost every hour of every day, KIRO's on-air programming consists of sports jabber, political shouting matches, and the same old traffic reports—except for during three very odd hours each weekday evening when Too Beautiful to Live is on.
All of this—the George Brett story, the Tina Turner talk, the Zima nostalgia—came mixed in with clips of songs like Andrew Bird's "Heretics," the Knife's "Heartbeats," and Jay-Z's "Lost One." Somewhere out there, "the tens," a relatively small but highly devoted group of Too Beautiful to Live fans who take their name from Burbank's boasts about his "tens of listeners," were tuning in, as usual.
In the same time slot over on Seattle's "Warm" 106.9 FM was Delilah, the velvet-voiced empath whose far more successful commercial-radio show is an object of ambivalent obsession for Burbank; he admires the size of her audience, but he doesn't want to be her. Syndicated on hundreds of stations nationally, Delilah does dedications of cheesy love songs and hopeful advice for the alone and heartbroken. Burbank, who is syndicated nowhere, does something very different.
The on-air conversations he leads tend to have a snowed-in, cabin-fever quality in the way that they meander—giddily, time-passingly—from inconsequential fascinations (how to make cake in a cup) to topical fixations (how to find designer clothes at Goodwill during a recession). Beyond this, though, the show is hard to describe, even for its promoters and cast—a cast that, in addition to Burbank and producer Andrews, includes soundman and nerd heartthrob Sean De Tore plus a rotating crop of nicknamed interns, "Silent Nick" for example.
The main difficulty in verbally encapsulating TBTL, as it's known by fans, is that it doesn't have an easily defined subject matter so much as it has a sensibility: eclectic, arch, highly literate, and committed to exploring everything that comes to mind—from Beyoncé to the troubled banking system. Some have said, likely out of a mix of disgust and descriptive frustration, that TBTL is, basically, a cult that has somehow tricked the Mormons of Bonneville International into allowing a bunch of questionably talented pied pipers on-air. The initial response to this from Burbank—a former standup comedian and proud NPR dropout—was to try to raise money for buying some land in Central America in order to really make the cult thing happen. He had a country picked out (El Salvador), three of "the tens" were offering to be his "sister-wives," and Andrews helpfully noted that "there's more money in cults."
But then they got distracted with a prom they were throwing at Sole Repair on Capitol Hill to celebrate their 150th show. This was in August. At the Sole Repair prom, there was a balloon drop, Burbank wore a white tuxedo with deep blue frills on his dress shirt, Kanye West's "Stronger" played, and many tens of "the tens" danced. About two months later, NPR's Ira Glass, after airing a piece Burbank had done for This American Life, declared that Burbank, from his unglamorous commercial-radio studio on Eastlake Avenue, is in the process of trying to "reinvent news-talk radio."
Something is certainly happening. KIRO program director Rod Arquette told me that there's been a measurable uptick in 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. listeners since TBTL began airing. It's a modest uptick, yes, but measurable: from January 2008, when TBTL first launched, through this summer, its share of listeners in its time slot grew from 2 percent to 2.2 percent, bumping it from 17th to 15th in the market. (Delilah, by contrast, was ranked 5th in the market this summer.) On Facebook, there is an organized group of over 350 self-identified "tens"—with an additional 450 more "tens" on an official Facebook page set up by the show. Many of them listen via the show's podcast, which had roughly 100,000 downloads in November, far more than any other show on KIRO. This pleases Burbank, who says the podcast is better than the show anyway.
He means that while as an on-air show TBTL clocks in at three hours because of station breaks and advertising spots, as a podcast it's only an hour and a half of pure, noncommercial, somewhat NPR-like radio. Plus, it's not interrupted, and tonally undermined, by KIRO's carnival-barker promos and questionably newsworthy news updates (a recent one featured an urgent report on spaghetti-sauce-throwing vandals in a suburban community). Those are cut out on the podcast.
The podcast audience is dispersed all over the country, in places such as Saint Louis, Missouri; Rochester, New York; and Charlottesville, Virginia. In Manhattan, listeners download the show each morning and tune in via their iPods while on the subway. In D.C. and many other cities, listeners tune in at their desks during the workday. While TBTL is far from KIRO's highest-rated program (that honor is shared by The Dori Monson Show and Seattle's Morning News with Gregg and Jane), it is quite certainly the only KIRO offering with a national cheering section filled with young people. "I really love this show," writes Travis Broyles, one of the Facebook "tens," whose online picture shows him wearing a curly blond wig, a princess crown, and black-rimmed glasses. "I would give my left everything to have you guys on Atlanta radio."
In this sense, TBTL provides a vision of one possible future for radio as it becomes something increasingly transmitted in bytes running through cords rather than by waves floating through the air. The show works for a highly fragmented audience that sprawls far beyond the reach of KIRO's terrestrial radio transmitters. Its multiplatform presentation includes a regularly updated blog, a changing iTunes playlist, and offline events such as the prom and the show's new book club. And its personality-driven concept is sticky enough to draw fickle young listeners back, repeatedly.
Which is why KIRO, with its mostly older audience and otherwise cookie-cutter programming, keeps such a weird, boutique offering on the air.
It's safe to say that Burbank did not spend many of his earlier years aspiring to work in the dingy offices of a commercial-radio station on Eastlake Avenue and hold cast meetings in the bar of a nearby Azteca. He was born in 1976 near Eureka, California, and raised on a religious commune called The Lighthouse Ranch. "You know, Jesus Camp, healing, speaking in tongues—that was totally my life," he told me on a recent afternoon over drinks. At Azteca.
Nights on the commune, fearful of falling asleep with unconfessed sins in his soul that would damn him to hell were he to die during slumber, the young Burbank stayed up listening to the radio. Simulcasts of Larry King Live. Radio replays of Sally Jesse Raphael. Financial advice for the elderly. In the early 1980s, his parents moved the family up to Seattle to help start a satellite branch of the church. "Like most things like that, it was pretty poorly conceived," he told me. Meaning, the new church was being built by the fallen-and-supposedly-redeemed for the fallen-but-not-yet-redeemed. "Who would come join an operation like that? It's not the best and brightest, generally."
For high school, he was sent to North Seattle Christian, now defunct, where he met Jen Andrews, who would become a lifelong friend and, in some ways, a career guardian angel. While there, he also, to his lasting chagrin and joy, became a poster boy for the failures of abstinence-only education.
"Ironically, we had an all-school debate contest that year," Burbank explained. "And the topic was 'Should there be birth control provided in this school?' And, because I thought it would be more challenging, I took the 'Yes, there should be birth control provided in this school' position, purely as a sort of rhetorical, or I guess forensic, challenge... I wore suspenders. It was kind of a bad Clarence Darrow kind of thing. And, um, like about a month later I got my girlfriend pregnant, which I think was the ultimate commitment to winning that debate."
I laughed and imagined out-loud the young Luke Burbank saying, "For my final point...."
"Yes, exactly," he said, smiling and humping the table while intoning: "And in closing...."
He sat down and continued, explaining that he was not alone in upping Seattle's teenage pregnancy rate. "Really, they just need to take that school, do a major study of it, and just present that as the final, irrefutable proof that abstinence education does not work."
His girlfriend took early graduation. He transferred to Nathan Hale, a North Seattle public school. "The day that my daughter was born, February 17, 1994, I went to the hospital, I held her, I brought her mom some flowers, and then I went to take a Spanish test, and I didn't tell anyone at school that I had just become a father." Burbank was 17. At the time, Nathan Hale offered students a chance to learn radio through the high-school station, C89.5, but Burbank wasn't allowed on-air because he hadn't been at the school long enough to take the requisite training classes. He hasn't forgotten that.
"I always say that the two motivating factors in my life are revenge and vanity," he told me.
For college, Burbank went to the University of Washington so he could be near his daughter. In his spare time, he tried to intern at KEXP. He didn't get in, but he did land an internship at KUOW, the university-owned NPR affiliate. He worked for the morning show Weekday and, through a little trickery and over-the-phone résumé inflating, landed a piece on the national NPR show Marketplace. He pushed limits, trying to make KUOW funnier at a time when it didn't really want to be. Steve Scher, the current host for Weekday, remembers Burbank as someone who was clearly bound for bigger things. "He was always a guy who had a lot of talent and a lot of energy," Scher said. (In September, Scher was on TBTL talking about his tinnitus, a condition that causes him to hear a semipermanent, high-pitched whine. For the occasion, Burbank repeatedly played a grating approximation of the whine, as well as clips from a soothing "Jungle River" download—mostly crickets and water sounds—that Scher pipes almost constantly into one ear, via MP3 player earphone, in order to neutralize the tinnitus whine.) Others at KUOW were not so fond of Burbank's boundary testing. They still grumble, for example, about how he allegedly stole office furniture on his way out. (I recently asked Burbank for comment on this charge via e-mail. "Scurrilous allegations," he wrote back, via iPhone, from a Lucinda Williams concert where, he added, he was drunk.)
After graduation, Burbank took over a producer job that Andrews was leaving at the conservative talk-radio station KVI. One day, the principal from Burbank's evangelical high school called, pimping a new self-published book. Burbank told him that the next time he was yelling at a ninth grader he should remember this: "Fuck you," he said and then hung up. After a couple of years, he was back at KUOW, producing The Conversation for Ross Reynolds. From there to Rewind, a satire show that lived briefly in Seattle and then died, and then onward to Los Angeles, where Burbank worked as a booker for an NPR show called Day to Day—and, once again, weaseled his way into any opportunity in which he might prove he could do more. Eventually, he was being called in to sub for NPR personalities around the country who were pregnant or on book leave. He briefly covered Congress (with the help of Congress for Dummies). He did some turns on the news-and-humor show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.
Then, early in 2007, he was offered a job cohosting a new morning show that NPR was launching in an effort to hook younger listeners. It was called The Bryant Park Project, it was based in Brooklyn, it was supposed to be centered around the hosts' personalities, and it was meant to be multiplatform and edgy. "It was a lousy radio show and, like, a decent website," Burbank said.
Though The Bryant Park Project had been launched as a bold new radio experiment, memos quickly went out from on-high setting limits on what Burbank and cohost Alison Stewart, formerly of MTV News, could say and do. Burbank says he saw one e-mail from then-CEO of NPR Ken Stern that read: "Luke Burbank cannot talk about his armpits anymore on this show. That can never happen again." (Stern did not respond to a request for comment.)
Burbank quit The Bryant Park Project in December of 2007. The show shut down soon after. If you search Google for it, you quickly arrive at a now-lifeless NPR blog on which all the most recent posts, from the first half of 2008, are tagged "Too Beautiful to Live." Burbank doesn't know what that's supposed to mean, but the name of his KIRO show predates the tags on the NPR blog.
"To be honest with you, it wasn't too beautiful to live, that was the problem," Burbank told me. "It was exactly what these lame bosses wanted it to be. If it had been too beautiful to live, it would have still been there."
After quitting The Bryant Park Project, Burbank moved back to Seattle. He missed his daughter. He wasn't sure what was next. Andrews, who was working at KIRO producing the Holiday Magic Charity Radiothon, convinced her bosses to give her a new evening gig that involved Burbank as the host.
Thus Burbank arrived where he is now, sitting happily atop two giant ironies. Irony number one: The NPR golden boy, who was tapped to help that institution reach the younger generation, has now found that commercial radio is actually a better perch from which to do just that. Irony number two: The evangelical escapee, who still mocks the backwardness of his rigid religious upbringing, has now been thrown a career lifeline by the Mormon Church, which is paying him six figures to essentially let his mouth and mind run wild on the air.
"They're smart enough to realize that in 10 years, all their listeners are going to be dead," Burbank told me. "They're just willing to say, 'This is a spot where you hang out and do this thing that sounds totally weird to us.' And there's no way that these bosses listen to the show and go, like, 'Oh, good, another hour on Kanye West's girlfriend.' But I just think they're smart enough to leave it alone. Basically we're like a transplanted organ, and KIRO is just doubling down on the antirejection drugs every day."
(Arquette, the program director, put the high tolerance in somewhat different terms. "A show like this takes time to go," he told me.)
One night in late October, I sat in on a three-hour TBTL broadcast. Each hour opened, as always, with the song "Catch My Disease" by Ben Lee—and, during one hour, with a version of the song that was recorded by the marching band of Tacoma's Curtis High School as part of a recent TBTL competition. Soundman Sean De Tore, who's known on the show as Japan's Number One Mixer (a long story that dates back to the days when TBTL's main claim to fame was its one ardent fan in Japan), kept watch over the levels. From the other side of some soundproof glass, Jen "Flash" Andrews was in her usual, intense eye-lock with Burbank. ("I'm mostly just trying to make her laugh. If she's reacting and laughing then I'm like, 'Okay, this is working.'") Burbank was wearing a green-and-white gingham shirt, which he would later mock as a bad tablecloth, the sleeves rolled up to show a tattoo of a red star on the inside of his right arm.
They announced their weight for the day, another tradition.
Burbank: 184 pounds.
Andrews: 133 pounds, "pre-Azteca."
De Tore: 151 pounds.
Topics to be discussed included Burbank's plans to, with the help of TBTL listeners, manufacture and market a "malt-based beverage" called DemonSpit; what John Steinbeck's words can teach Americans about living through a financial crisis; stirrup pants, whether they're making a comeback, and how Burbank wore them to gym class in seventh grade; the upcoming 30 Rock premiere and whether it was wise to watch it online first; and, based on a recent piece on the website of the New Yorker, the relationship advice contained in Beyoncé songs.
It was their 199th episode—a pretty long life for a show that was supposed to be dead by now.