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The sun is hanging low in the sky, softening the asphalt parking lot beyond the air-conditioned studio of KOSI-FM/101.1 as a phone line lights up. Mary Marlowe, host of Cozy After Dark, a weeknight call-in show, rolls her chair across the black lacquer tiles to the quivering button. Alone, surrounded by myriad monitors, flashing equalizers and more gadgets than an Airbus cockpit, the buoyant blonde lowers her voice to its most honeyed register to gab with a woman eager to dedicate a song to the one she loves.
Marlowe: You've been married for how long?
Caller: Nine years.
Marlowe: So does it still seem like you all are newlyweds?
Caller: Yeah, actually, it does.
Marlowe: How do you keep the passion there, then?
Caller: It's hard sometimes, but we're more into the friendship and lovers, not just lovers. We've worked really hard for the last nine years. Our anniversary is coming up.
Marlowe: Congratulations. What would you like to tell him?
Caller: That I love him very much and I miss him. I've been in the penitentiary for the last four years...
Exchanges like these have helped Marlowe, 33, navigate Cozy After Dark to most-listened-to status in its 7 p.m.-to-midnight time period among members of the age 25-54 demographic. An eight-year veteran of the love-song business, she's spent half that time in her current slot, honing a formula that injects Hallmark molasses with a sobering dose of Dr. Laura. "Once I had a guy call and say, 'You know, Mary, people just want to call and make a dedication, and you make them jump through hoops. Or they just want to hear a song, and you're making them dance for it,'" she notes. "And I put it on the air, because it's probably what 30 or 40 percent of the listeners sometimes think." But that doesn't mean Marlowe has lowered her standards. The hapless listener making the first request of the night--for the theme from General Hospital--has no one to whom she'd like to devote the track; she just likes it. Marlowe, who's poised to record the woman's suggestion for use on her program, allows her fingers to drop from her handy DAT. Clearly, she knows which side her bread is buttered on.
Marlowe ascended to the romance throne after her popular predecessor, Rashke, took a job elsewhere. "She had a huge following and was a great host, and I had to fill her shoes, which was very scary," Marlowe recalls. "I did it very traditionally when I first came, and the numbers were sort of mainline. They were all right--I hung in there in the top five." Before long, however, Marlowe started digging deeper into the stories behind the dedications with genuine curiosity and offering unsolicited editorials on some of the relationships her callers were describing. "There are some who want to easily get by with, 'I just wanna tell John that I love him,'" she offers. "Well, why do you love him? Every time I pry--and it's not because I get a huge kick out of prying--I always get to something more meaty."
KOSI management subsequently invited an all-female focus group to assess the show's strengths and weaknesses. The participants promptly ripped Marlowe a new one. "These women who really didn't listen to the show all that much just hammered me," she exclaims. "They said they didn't like all the psychobabble, and they didn't like me talking all that much. They said, you know, 'What does she think she is, an expert? We just want to hear the music.'"
In response to this harsh critique, KOSI's program director advised Marlowe to process the phone-ins expediently and guide the show back to a more conventional format. "My bosses liked it the other way, but they have to abide by certain opinions from the public, because, after all, we're here for them," she grants. Soon, though, listenership began to fall. Ruffled by the dipping numbers, the higher-ups at the station disposed of a Friday-night psychic and the interviews that cluttered the show, allowing Marlowe to slowly remove her muzzle and return to doing what she does best.
Since then, Cozy After Dark has sailed in the Arbitron ratings, biting off the lion's share of listeners in the Denver metro area. During a typical week, around 50,000 people tune in to Marlowe's land-mined velveteen lovespeak, the vast majority of them women. But men are dialing in significant numbers and dedicating the most mawkish love songs imaginable to their squeezes and kinfolk. "I was tied at night with KBPI among men, and it baffles me," Marlowe concedes. "I think it's because some men are really reaching back to the whole sensitive love thing and their girlfriends, wives, sisters and mothers listen. And the mixture of the fact that there's a soothing voice on the radio and a woman who is actually being more real. This is real radio, not your syrupy, sappy love-song show."
This style is exemplified by Marlowe's conversation with a shy young man who calls the studio to dedicate a Babyface number to the girl who dumped him two months earlier. Before long, he's sharing the details of the split.