Two years ago this month, popular Denver radio personality Michael Floorwax formally announced that he wouldn't be returning to Lewis & Floorwax , the 103.5/The Fox morning program on which he'd co-starred with Rick Lewis since July 1990.
In a letter read by Lewis during an early October 2014 program, Floorwax, who'd been off the air since the previous January, revealed that he was suffering from unspecified health problems. "This past year has been the biggest battle of my life as I continue to seek relief," he wrote.
Floorwax's departure put the pressure on his former partner, who had served as something of a straight man for the veteran standup comedian — and Lewis admits that he feared the Fox's audience wouldn't embrace him on his own. Indeed, he actively explored options that would have resulted in his leaving the station and possibly the Denver market.
But a funny thing happened on the way out the door. Lewis held on to the lion's share of the Lewis & Floorwax audience, and with the assistance of longtime producer turned supporting player Kathy Lee, he broadened listenership beyond the dude-centric demographic drawn by the pair's trademark ribald humor. Suddenly, women were listening to The Rick Lewis Show in substantial numbers, too.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Westword, Lewis talks about his time of transition, which also included his band; he shelved the Groove Hawgs, a blues-rock outfit that co-starred Floorwax, in favor of the Rick Lewis Project, whose growing popularity has led to high-profile opening gigs and an increasing number of headlining slots. He also discusses the Fox program's shift in tone, the continuing viability of old-fashioned morning radio in a digital world, sports-talk ambitions tied to The Truth, a Broncos-oriented show that teams him with ex-player Matt McChesney, and a broadcasting future that could reach beyond the Mile High City.
Westword: It's been two years this month since Michael Floorwax announced that he wouldn't be returning to the show, but you'd been working on your own for quite a few months before then. Did that give you a chance to get a feel for how the show would move forward without him? Or were you still expecting him to come back at any time, so it felt temporary?
Rick Lewis: Floorwax, he went out in January of 2014, and we announced on October 1 that he wouldn't be coming back to the show. During that time period, I obviously started to retool the show. I had a feeling he wouldn't be coming back. We held out hope that maybe he could, but I knew better than maybe anybody that wasn't going to happen. So I retooled the show to get back up to speed again. But I honestly thought that I would probably be leaving the market and starting over somewhere.
It was the end of an era — the end of a really great run, a 23-year run, with Lewis & Floorwax. And I was, frankly, looking for something else to do in the business. I knew I would stay in the radio-and-TV entertainment business, but I felt, well, if I'm going to make a change, this would be a great time to do it. I had some opportunities not only to go somewhere else in Denver, but I had opportunities to go some other places in the country, as well as to start my own thing — The Rick Lewis Show, so to speak. So I thought, this might be a good time to move on; this would be a good time to make a break into something different.
I had hired an agent out of New York who's really well connected in the radio business and felt, this is going to be the next progression for me. But as time went on, ratings and revenues were fantastic. In fact, that summer, the Fox was number one in the book. And the show really came around. The new show really came together and started to jell.
I just didn't know if people would accept it without Floorwax. I knew the show was good. I just didn't know if people would accept it without him, which is why I was prepared to move on. But as the success of the new show grew very quickly, the company, iHeartMedia, started talking to me about a long-term contract.
It happened very quickly. There was very little negotiation. They came in and made it very clear they wanted to sign me to a long-term deal and offered me a nice contract. So I was more than happy to stay. But there was a time I was sure I'd either be moving to another station in the market or moving to another market in the country.
What was your original concept for The Rick Lewis Show and how has it evolved since then?
Floorwax, he was not doing well for quite a long time. So even though he was on the show, my role just grew. It went from a fifty-fifty show to a 75-25 or 80-20 show there at the end. I started picking up a bigger share of the load just to cover for him, because he wasn't doing well. Before Lewis & Floorwax, when I was in the L.A. market, I'd done my own show. So it wasn't like I was incapable of doing a show on my own. But I didn't know if the fans would accept it without him.
What I did, I retooled it in a way that I think was very friendly to Lewis & Floorwax and Fox fans by incorporating Kathy Lee. I told Kathy when he left, I said, "I really want you to be the primary second voice on the show. It would be a nice change to have a female voice in there," as compared to what we'd done for the past 23 years. I said, "You're fully capable of doing that, and I think you and I can do a really entertaining show together."
She really picked up her role, and people knew her already; she'd been around for eighteen or nineteen years. People were very comfortable with her and knew her, so it was a really easy fit plugging her into that position. It's not the Rick & Kathy Show, so to speak, but she really picked it up to be the second voice on the show.
How has Kathy's role changed the tone of the show from when you and Michael were working together?
There are things you can talk about a lot more comfortably when you've got a female in the room — certain topics we can cover now that, I think, can be entertaining but maybe more palatable than when you have two guys sitting around talking about some of these edgier topics. Now you've got a female point of view on there, and I think it's made it a much more palatable show for the masses. We've noticed that we have more female listeners now.
So the change has broadened your audience?
It's definitely broadened our audience. I've been doing a segment where I take calls from new listeners only. I say, "If you've moved here within the last two years" — because a lot of new people are moving into Colorado — "we want to welcome you to Colorado and welcome you to the show and find out why you moved here and why you picked this radio show." And it's amazing: So many people have moved into the area and they've never even heard of Lewis & Floorwax. We've also noticed it's a much younger demographic, and there are a lot more females, as well.
Lewis & Floorwax was a really male-heavy show. It was really geared toward men. This is more of a mainstream show. It still has an edge to it, and it still leans male. But I think it's more of a listener-friendly show for women.
Classic rock has always been seen as a male genre, but women listen to that music, too. Is this an opportunity for them to feel more comfortable with the show and listen to music that they've always liked?
I think that's a great way to put it. Classic rock — the format probably does skew toward men. But women also really love this music as well. And what's amazing to me is that this genre of music isn't dying. There are kids who listen to this music. You see them walking around wearing Zeppelin shirts and AC/DC shirts. It's fantastic to see. When we were thirteen, fourteen years old, there's no way we'd listen to our parents' music. But for some reason, these kids are really connected to their parents' favorite music format.
I meet people today who are third-generation listeners. Their dad listened with their son, and their son had a kid, and the kid is eighteen years old and he tells me his dad and grandpa listen to my show. It's unbelievable to me. Time really flies, but this format, it does connect with younger kids, which is amazing. And this show, I think, still connects with a really mass demographic.
There's the perception that terrestrial radio is going away. Are you finding that some of these younger fans are listening to the show the old-fashioned way, on the radio? Or are they all listening online?
What's happened is, the morning show is really the anchor of the radio business. And what I see happening is, people will tune in to listen to their favorite morning show — in this case, The Rick Lewis Show. But after ten o'clock, they may explore other listening options: Pandora, Spotify or some of the other options they have for listening to music. But there's something about the morning show that really connects you to the community, and I think that's still a really important cog in the community, fortunately for me. People want to hear what's going on in their town, and they want to hear it from their favorite morning personality. And it doesn't seem like that's going away anytime soon.
You talked about how the audience has accepted The Rick Lewis Show. At the same time, people are still wondering how Michael is doing — and I'm sure you hear that a lot as well. Are you in touch with him? And how is he doing these days?
You're absolutely right. People still ask me about him, and I'll forever be connected with him. We had such a great run together. As I told you earlier, there's a whole new group of listeners who didn't even know about that show. But we've been able to attract all those new listeners and at the same time keep the old ones. The old Lewis & Floorwax fans still love the show, and the new ones love the show, too, but they don't have the same history.
I do talk to Floorwax on a regular basis. I wish I had good news regarding that. He's still struggling. He's still having a tough time.
You and Michael had a band together, the Groove Hawgs. You've continued to play in a band, which you call the Rick Lewis Project. How did that transition take place? And have fans been as accepting of the new band as they have the new show?
When Floorwax went down, I didn't think it would be right for me to continue with the Groove Hawgs band — unlike some of these big classic-rock bands, where they lose all of their members but keep going out touring as Foreigner or whatever. I just didn't feel that was right, and as I said before, I wanted to freshen things up. I not only wanted to freshen up and reinvent the radio show; I wanted to do the same thing with the band. And so I did that.
We were mostly a blues band with the Groove Hawgs. I moved into a more mainstream, mass-appeal kind of music. I call it Colorado groove music; we play a little bit of everything.
I got rid of some of the members of the Groove Hawg band that we'd played with for a long time. We were very good friends, and believe me, it wasn't an easy thing to do. They understood what I was trying to do, but it's hard to tell friends, "We're not going to do that anymore."
I went out and recruited a whole new band. And that first year, it was a ton of work — to start from scratch with a brand-new band and work up to where you could play a two-hour concert with all new material, all new people. I worked my ass off that first year to get that band up to speed. We're just finishing up year two, and the band was very widely accepted right out of the gate, and even better in year two. Shows where we were the support act during the first year, they've been bringing us back in year two and making us the headline band.
We just got booked at the Reserve Casino in December, which is a great gig. They mostly have national acts play up there. So the Rick Lewis Project, I'm very, very proud of that band and very happy to say that fans have really accepted it. We still have some Groove Hawgs fans that come to shows, and I try to get around and talk to as many people as I can. We reminisce about the Groove Hawgs days — and I did end up bringing some former Groove Hawgs members back into the band in year two, just because I'm so familiar with them and these are my buddies — I love these guys.
I'm really happy how it turned out. That first year without Floorwax, I worked my ass off to get the radio show retooled and also to retool the band. It was really important to me on every level and in every way: I didn't want people to come to a Rick Lewis Project show and say, "Your band was good, but the Groove Hawgs were better." I never wanted that to happen. Same thing with the radio show. I really didn't want people to constantly say, "Lewis & Floorwax was so much better than this show." I worked my ass off, I'm telling you, and what I hear from people today is, "We miss Floorwax, but this is still my favorite radio show." And that's a real compliment to me.
Where do you see things moving forward? How long-term is your contract with the Fox? And do you hope to spend your entire career with the station?
I started a four-year contract this year. I have a Broncos pre-game show called The Truth; it's me and [former University of Colorado and Broncos player] Matt McChesney. I think my role as an alternative Broncos guy is going to expand here in the near future. I definitely see that happening. I may start doing a little more sports the way I want to do it, which is with an edge and a lot of fun. Doing that show, which we've been doing for the past five years, showcased me in a different light and showed that I could do different things other than just a morning radio show. I think that's really opened some eyes here in the Denver sports media. That role seems to be growing, and I definitely see that happening.
The band just keeps getting bigger and bigger, too, and that's one of the favorite things I've done in my entire career — playing music with talented musicians. I'm very happy with that, very satisfied where that's going.
I'd like to see me get more of a national platform for everything that I do — not only the band, but the Broncos pre-game show, sports talk. I'd like to see The Rick Lewis Show get a chance to expand outside of the Denver market, and I think all of those things are a possibility.
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I'm very, very grateful to have the opportunity to do what I do every day. I think I'm doing what I was born to do, and I love doing this radio show, still. Every day I get up and look forward to doing this show. As long as I continue loving what I do, I'll keep doing it. I don't see any end in sight, and I'm very, very grateful to have the opportunity to do this — and very grateful for all the listeners who've stayed with me through all these years, including the very tough transition, with my longtime partner, who everybody loved, going down.
So I feel very blessed to keep doing what I'm doing. And I'm going to keep doing it as long as I can.