Paul and Phil: Air Pair No More
By Dayna Dunteman
Posted on May 30
Photography by Rudy Meyers
On a cold morning this past December, Sacramento resident Jean Winchell heard an announcement on the radio. She immediately phoned her friend Debbie Soto and soberly, without preamble, asked, “What do you think?”
“What do I think about what?” Soto asked.
“Haven’t you heard? Paul & Phil are breaking up,” Winchell announced, bracing herself for the inevitable “Nooooooooooo!”
The echo reverberated throughout Northern California that day as fans of “The Paul & Phil Show” on KGBY FM Y92.5 struggled to absorb a reality they never saw coming. Paul Robins and Phil Cowan—“the nicest guys in radio” who’d ruled the local morning airwaves for almost two decades—splitting up? Why, they were like peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, peas and carrots. It didn’t matter which food analogy you went with, as far as fans were concerned, Paul & Phil were one word: PaulandPhil.
“This is the biggest thing to hit show biz since Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis split up,” laments longtime fan Bill Fisher.
If a shred of silver lining could be found within this disconcerting piece of news, it was that the breakup wouldn’t occur right away. “The Paul & Phil Show” would continue through the end of their employment contract, June 15, 2006. And nobody’s voice would be vaporizing into frequencies unknown: Robins would keep doing the 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. show solo on Y92.5, and Cowan would continue to indulge his conservative/libertarian leanings on his eponymous talk show from 10 a.m. to noon on sister station Talk 650 KSTE AM, a short walk down the hall from the Y92.5 studios. (Both stations are owned by Clear Channel Communications.)
But still. The phone calls and e-mails came pouring in—mournful, yes, but also supportive.
“Why?” was the question on everybody’s mind.
Short answer: because Phil is tired.
“Part of it was, for crying out loud, we’ve been doing the same show for 18 years, and I just really felt the need to change,” Cowan says. “Man, I’m almost 50. I don’t want to keep playing Celine Dion records.”
Nonetheless, the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could be applied here. For at least 15 years, Arbitron ratings have consistently placed “The Paul & Phil Show” at the top in its time slot among area female listeners ages 25 to 54. And Sacramento magazine subscribers have chosen Paul & Phil as the Best Morning Drive Radio Team for nine consecutive years. Robins’ and Cowan’s sphere of influence extends beyond radio to include television (they won a couple of Emmys as “The Answer Guys” on the Discovery Channel), theater (The Good Guy, written by Robins, played at the B Street Theatre to record audiences and rave reviews, as did their earlier performance of A Couple of Blaguards) and the community at large, for which they’ve helped raise millions of dollars for charity.
“Obviously, what they were doing worked, because no one lasts that long in radio unless it’s working,” says radio industry analyst and former Sacramento DJ Alex Cosper of KNGY FM 92.7 in San Francisco. “Paul & Phil’s humor is family-oriented, and Sacramento is a family town.”
Much of the Paul & Phil mystique boils down to who they are as individuals: funny, decent, loving men who’ve stayed true to their morals and values, the era of shock jocks and wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding. Parents could be assured of never having to cover their children’s ears as long as the radio was tuned to Y92.5 in the morning.
But it’s more than that. Robins and Cowan share that inexplicable property called chemistry, which you either have or you don’t. Fans know it by many different names—yin and yang, good cop/bad cop, angel and devil—but all agree that Paul is the optimistic, happy-go-lucky one, and Phil is the curmudgeon or, as longtime fan Soto likes to put it, “a big ol’ bear.”
As for the show itself, outrageous stunts and contests came and went, but one thing has remained constant: Robins’ and Cowan’s devotion to their families. It’s been a huge draw for fans, who saw their favorite DJs go from three daughters and one son (ages 2 to 5) to six daughters, one son and a son-in-law (ages 12 through 25). Paul and his wife, Bridget, are celebrating their 27th anniversary in June, and Phil and his wife, Kathleen, just marked 24 years of wedded bliss. No matter what happened at home—births, adoptions (the Robinses’ youngest daughter, 12-year-old Faith, was adopted from Russia), illnesses, minor household calamities, Paul’s oldest daughter’s wedding—virtually all of it was fodder for radio chatter.
Robins says, “No doubt about it, our unusual career has impacted [our families]. Bridget had her appendix taken out, and everybody knew it.”
It’s never been a secret that Robins, an incurable romantic, is crazy about his wife. Bridget accepts the publicity—along with her husband’s many creative gifts—graciously, never for a moment taking any of it for granted.
“One person told me one time that she divorced her husband because of Paul and me,” Bridget says. “She said that after listening to how Paul spoke about me and treated me, she decided she deserved to be loved and treated like that, too.
“Paul and Phil have both always said wonderful things about their families, so I’ve never had to worry about being complained about or belittled. Who they are on the radio is who they are at home,” Bridget says.
Robins and Cowan say they have no plans to do anything together after their final broadcast, except maybe have lunch once in a while. That means no Christmas specials, no tandem Sleep Train commercials, no Paul & Phil cookbooks, no radio shows.
“Phil is welcome to pop into the Y92 studios any time he wants, if he gets to work early,” Robins says.
Phil grumbles. Like that’ll ever happen.
So fans, don’t hold your breath. Here’s what you do: Stockpile boxes of Kleenex for June 15, and in the meantime, practice eating peanut butter without jelly so you’ll get used to the idea of enjoying a good thing on its own. And take heart. You’ll still have Paul & Phil—just not at the same time.
Paul & Phil Timeline
> Mid-1970s: Paul Robins and Phil Cowan cross paths as “speech geeks” at rival Santa Rosa high schools. Both attend Santa Rosa Junior College and California State University, Sacramento.
> 1984: Paul and Phil start their radio career together at KPOP in Roseville. Subsequent jobs in Detroit and Dallas are short-lived, and the pair land back in Sacramento on KAER FM 92.5, predecessor to KGBY.
> 1987: Paul and Phil are hired to host the late show (replacing Arsenio Hall) on the FOX TV Network. The disastrous gig lasts only four weeks. But that’s OK—in a few years they’ll be winning Emmys as “The Answer Guys” on the Discovery Channel.
> 1988: Paul and Phil—who professionally go by Robins & Cowan—take over morning-show duties at 92.5, where they’ve been ever since. Theirs is the longest-running radio show in town.
> 1991: After a few years of mediocre ratings, the station changes its call letters to KGBY, and Robins & Cowan start calling themselves Paul & Phil. This must have been the problem all along, they figure, because ratings take off—and so do all kinds of crazy contests, stunts, tours and fan fests.
> 2004: In addition to their morning FM show, Paul & Phil tackle a new format on sister station Talk 650 KSTE AM with “Paul & Phil Unplugged,” which is simulcast on KQCA TV 58.
> Late 2005: Phil decides he prefers the talk radio format on Talk 650 and is tired of getting up at 4 a.m., while Paul is happy to keep playing tunes on the morning-drive show. The two announce on the radio that soon it’ll be splitsville.
> Jan. 1, 2006: Phil goes solo on Talk 650.
> June 15, 2006: Paul & Phil’s last broadcast as a team.
The Paul & Phil Show: Highlights and Memorable Broadcasts
“Bowling for Breakfast”: Doughnuts with Paul & Phil at the bowling alley—what better way to start the day? Attending events like this was how 48-year-old mother of six Kimmy DePaola crossed over from fan to chum. “They made us feel so special, like we were celebrities. They did that with everybody,” DePaola says about her favorite radio announcers. “And their memories (for names) were incredible.”
Matchmaking feats: Bachelors and bachelorettes had a ball with “Car Phone Dating” and “The Greatest Blind Date on Earth,” in which Paul & Phil paired 50 singles at a local showing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Some of these encounters led to matrimony.
“Cookin’ With Paul & Phil”: The Sacramento Bee prints recipes in its “Taste” section on Wednesdays. Paul & Phil prepare one of them on the air every Thursday. (And, yes, contrary to a popular misconception, they actually do cook.) Favorite recipes, including those submitted by fans, can be found in the Paul & Phil collection of cookbooks (there are nine total), which have become indispensable in many a household. “The kids ask me to make their caramel popcorn every single week,” says Heidi Kakudo, mother of four and a huge fan of the show.
“Honey Do”: If you wrote the winning essay on why your home needed improvement, Paul & Phil would appear at your doorstep, power tools in hand.
Paul & Phil’s Midlife Crisis Tour: A Harley ride from Sacramento to New York in 1996 wasn’t the youth-affirming trip the pair thought it would be.
“We had numb butts and numb hands, and we were freezing and getting hailed on, on the freeway. I thought we were going to die,” Paul says. Phil adds, “It was no fun at all. I haven’t been on a motorcycle since then.”
The 9/11 broadcast: “These two gentlemen handled themselves in the most professional manner anyone could have imagined,” says Paul Reyes, a fan. “They reported the incident with genuine concern, and you could tell that they were as stunned as we were.”
The broadcast from Sacramento, Ky.: “It was as delightful an experience as we’ve ever had broadcasting,” Paul says of the time several years ago that he and Phil did the show from Sacramento, Ky., a Civil War battle site (population 517, give or take a few). “They’ve got one restaurant in town, Molly’s on Main Street. We did our radio show from Molly’s, and all morning long we had wonderful conversations with people who are different from us in a town called Sacramento.”
“The Paul & Phil Show” never was only about Paul Robins and Phil Cowan. If it weren’t so darned cumbersome to write and say, the names of the following regular guests, wacky characters and friends of the show might well have appeared in the title:
* KCRA and KOVR television news legend Stan Atkinson, who goes waaaaay back to the radio pair’s comedy club days when they were trying to make a buck any way they could. “I asked Paul to write me some jokes for some speeches I was doing. They were really good jokes that really worked. I used ‘em ‘til they grew hair,” says Atkinson, who credits his favorite masters of ceremonies (Paul & Phil, of course) for helping to raise more than $300,000 for children’s charities at the annual Stan Atkinson Golf Classic.
* Elmo Shropshire, aka Dr. Elmo, best-known for his recording of the Christmas classic “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and a staple of the Paul & Phil Christmas Special. “I’ve played on some pretty big-time Christmas shows,” says the Marin County-based Dr. Elmo, “but their show was by far the best—bar none.”
* Marv Broyles, local fan and inventor of the fruitcake cannon, which was used during several Christmas specials to fire that most underappreciated of holiday desserts at various targets—including Paul in Sacramento River Cats catcher’s gear.
* Sweet-voiced Betty Gordon, who provided weekly restaurant reviews— “everything from really expensive restaurants to Burger King,” she says—for “The Paul & Phil Show” when she was 8 (she’s now 14). Betty coined the terms “cluck-a-licious” (for chicken) and “moo-licious” (for hamburgers), and always signed off with “Betty says check it out.”
* Accordionist Steve Stizzo, who, according to local family-humor author Tim Herrera (also a fan and an occasional guest on the show), “could play any song you could think of—even ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ by Iron Butterfly.”
* Bob Nannini, “Top 5 Bob,” a fan with a penchant for Lettermanlike lists that regularly made the airwaves.
* Sacramento Kings television color commentator Jerry Reynolds, who used to furnish “The Paul & Phil Show” with basketball reports. “I’d call in once a week to talk about the Kings, and we’d end up talking about life in general,” Reynolds says. “Those were good times.”
For 18 years, legions of listeners synchronized their morning routines to adult contemporary music and the heartwarming, hilarious banter of Paul Robins and Phil Cowan. But if they really wanted to call themselves fans and not just listeners, they did a lot more than that, and they’ve got the T-shirts and cookbooks to prove it.
Just who can claim membership in this unofficial fan club dedicated to two middle-aged men who play songs by Sarah McLachlan and gab about their kids? And to what lengths have they gone for the love of Paul & Phil?
Debbie Soto just might be the archetypical fan. She’s 49, works for the state controller’s office and has a grown daughter, Julie, who grew up listening to Paul & Phil. “Delightful Debbie” has appeared on the show and in the Paul & Phil cookbook with her triple-chocolate bundt cake recipe. She and her daughter have won several prizes on the show, including a television, a recliner and a “pretty obnoxious” Christmas poinsettia napkin holder reportedly handcrafted by Robins as a joke. Soto has battled sleep deprivation and crowds to stand in line at 5 a.m. to buy tickets to the Paul & Phil Christmas Special and sheepishly admits to having purchased a mattress at Sleep Train, for which Robins and Cowan are well-known pitchmen. Her redial button is worn from years of trying to enter radio contests such as “Beat the Bullhorn” and “Guess the Phony Tabloid Headline.” She cried when Paul’s oldest daughter, Emily, went away to college.
“Paul & Phil have given our family a lot of joy and a lot of fond memories,” Soto says. “The world and work—everything is so hard every day. [Their show] is just such a nice place to go and be for a few hours a day.”
Not all Paul & Phil fans fall within the show’s target demographic of adult women. Case in point: 58-year-old SBC retiree Bill Fisher, aka “The Fish” and a self-proclaimed “old groupie.” A resident of Sacramento since 1950, he’s lent his knowledge of local lore to the show on more than one occasion. And his is the only nonfood entry in one of the Paul & Phil cookbooks: a tip for removing the smell of fish from your hands. (Use toothpaste.) Like Soto, The Fish occupies a special place in the hearts of Robins and Cowan, as do many longtime fans.
“There are a number of fans who are really dear friends of ours now, whom we hang out with,” Robins says.
Patrick and Heidi Kakudo and their four children are members of Paul & Phil’s posse.
“We follow them wherever they go,” says Heidi, 39. “Every time you meet them, they offer you a big hug. In person, they’re exactly like they are on the show—funny, outgoing and genuine.”