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.
Marlowe: Let me ask you a question. If you were to have someone walk into your life tomorrow that you fell madly in love with, do you think you'd really care?
Marlowe: All right, there's my point. Honey, what's the song?
With an affectionate bluntness that rivals Auntie Mame, Marlowe won't hesitate to call some men on the carpet, albeit in the most buttery of tones. "You get a guy who calls me and has really been deceiving or dishonest to his loved one. Oooh," she bristles, "I love getting ahold of those. It's the callers who come over the line and confront me with something that I can't resist because I've either been there, done that, or know someone who has. The whole affair thing I'm very against, because I've had guys leave me for other women, and that's bad karma, first of all. And I'm going to say something about it, because I have the microphone."
At the same time, she acknowledges that "not every call is going to be in your face. Sometimes it's being happy for somebody I don't even know. I'm such a cornball sometimes." Indeed, only the rare fellow needs dressing down; more often than not, Marlowe trafficks in four-star romantics whose proclamations fan her coals vicariously. "There are some men--my God!" she exclaims. "I want to, like, build this huge warehouse and manufacture some of the men who I've had call my show. Why couldn't I meet someone like this?
"I don't think I've ever truly fallen in love," she confides. "I've thought I was, but when you hear some of these callers, you just know that it still exists in its purest form."
Although she plays the role of Cupid's FM facilitator, the host makes no bones about being single herself. As a result, she strongly appeals to the lonely-hearts contingent, many of whom would like nothing more than to wrap themselves in her furred and beguiling radio voice. "I get men who send me photographs all the time and letters asking me out to dinner, and men who call me asking me out. I always say, 'You can come to my public events, but, no, I'm not going to meet up with you. Are you crazy?'
"I'm not that desperate!" she crows, comically. "And I would never do that, because it's dangerous. With the more heavy listeners, you get them really, truly believing that you're their best friend."
The snatches of banter aired amid programmed slabs of Celine Dion and Bette Midler constitute a mere fraction of the conversations the host entertains on the average night. Sitting at the center of a dark labyrinth of towering equipment, Marlowe, in Birkenstocks and chipped red nail polish, fields between 75 and 100 calls a night in addition to editing, producing and manning the mike. "I'm pretty much a one-woman show over here," she reveals, and proves it by chatting amicably with the next caller, recording a portion of the parley, then seamlessly introducing the segment after programming it and the song into the computer in front of her--all in a matter of minutes. "Some people are really shocked that I can be so immediate," she remarks. "They bought this $10,000 editing machine, and I don't even use it."
The unedited spots, even when accompanied by John Tesh's soporific piano tinkling, reek of candor and humanity and hint at what transpires in the studio while Lionel Richie is relaxing the masses. "I'm keeping a journal," Marlowe says, flipping through a pad of yellow legal paper heavy with print. "I have about thirteen of them, and I'll write about the show night after night and about my life--because someday I'm going to write one hell of a book. There's a lot of stuff that I do not air--a guy who's dying of cancer and he calls and tells me about his pain and he has no one else to talk to. That kind of stuff I'm not going to put on, because I'm not exploiting him. I would never get someone on who was in a dire situation. The most exploiting I'll do is give someone guff for their choices."
Caller: I love him with all my heart as my best friend and my lover. I love him so much; I want to grow old with him.
Marlowe: I hope it all works out for you, and both of you can figure out what it is that's blocking you and making you go back and forth, which isn't real functional.
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There's another important line Marlowe has drawn in the sand: She refuses to broadcast letters and faxes from abused women who wish to dedicate love songs to their batterers. Furthermore, she insists on honoring the requests of same-sex lovebirds. "I don't hesitate putting on gay and lesbian relationships," she says. "I cringe every time that I do it because I think somebody's going to call and complain. But nobody ever has."
Nor has she received any grief for subtly spiking Cozy After Dark with spiritual content, such as readings from the Cherokee Feast of Days. "For some people, that spirituality stuff is way over their heads, so talk about limitations: I can't go to the nth degree. Oprah has credibility; she's been on the air forever, and she gradually took that path. I'm not an expert in it--I'm only talking about my own life experiences, and I don't want to blow away too many people."
So far, the balance she has struck between playing it safe and going out on a limb has garnered Marlowe plenty of validation. The Colorado Broadcasting Association voted Cozy After Dark the best evening show in Denver, and stations from Seattle and San Francisco have tried to woo her to larger markets on the coast--not too shabby for a dyslexic who was canned from a local country station where she mangled the names in the news every morning. But for now, she's staying put and dreaming of syndication while keeping an eye out for the man of her dreams. "I've had to walk in here with my heart severed in half after breaking up two hours before coming on the air," she discloses. "And I've cried a couple of times on the air--just broken down." The irony of her current position is not lost on Marlowe, yet she believes that over time, her career has rendered her more discerning: "I've heard a lot of people compromise. Over years of doing love songs, you hear a lot of stories--and in a way, it makes me want to wait for the real creme de la creme." Her ideal mate, she purrs, would be "a man who's in this business or has a good philosophy and a good voice, so that we could be teammates."
In the meantime, Marlowe's doing fine flying solo, modernizing a format that's nearly as old as radio itself. "A lot of people thought that specialty shows like this love-song show would be the dying dinosaurs of the Nineties," she maintains. "But they've only gotten stronger and stronger, because people are wanting to reach out more.