WIND in no hurry to hook new partner for Big John

February 18, 2010

Big John Howell

As Salem Communications narrows the list of candidates for co-host of Big John Howell's morning show at news/talk WIND-AM (560), there's still a chance the winner could turn out to be "none of the above."

Two months ago today, Howell's on-air partner and friend, Cisco Cotto, surprised his bosses and co-workers by quitting after more than three years to rejoin Citadel Broadcasting news/talk WLS-AM (890) for more money. While management has been conducting a search for Cotto's replacement, Howell has been hosting the show solo. Beyond the obvious cost saving for his bosses, the prospect of continuing without a co-host has a certain appeal to Howell, who said in an interview Wednesday:

"I've been told that they're comfortable with me working as a solo until they find the right person, and there's no rush. If I had to go forward without a partner, there are some aspects of that that I would welcome. But I do think that for the show's development and for it to be really competitive, it's also valuable to bring in other voices. I can go it alone for the foreseeable future, but for the sake of continuity, it's probably wise to have a co-host in there at some point. I think the company has become comfortable with the show in its present form -- and I think that's been an unanticipated bonus -- not to mention they're saving a few dollars."

Howell declined to comment on -- or even confirm -- any of the candidates on the short list to replace Cotto. But among WIND insiders, they are believed to include morning newsman Mike Scott and weekend hosts Guy Benson and Geoff Pinkus. Outsiders who've made it to the off-air audition stage with Howell include Jerry Agar, Amy Jacobson, Bill Leff, Deborah Rowe, Jennifer Stephens and Bruce Wolf. Said Howell:

"I think the process is moving forward pretty judiciously. They put out a wide net, both locally and nationally, and they received a ton of response. Then they gleaned those down to the people they thought would fit the format and were probably available for what they had budgeted for the position. And then there was the process of bringing a lot of people in to sit down with me to do these auditions. Every single one of the auditions went pretty well, in my mind. There wasn't a single stinker in there."

For Howell, 49, it took almost two years before he felt truly comfortable in the role of moderately conservative talk show host. After more than 20 years in various music radio formats -- including 17 at CBS Radio country WUSN-FM (99.5) -- the transition wasn't easy. But as he recalls, it finally came together for him during the summer of 2008:

"I'm ashamed to say it took me that long. It really took me until the moment that I decided to say publicly that I thought Sarah Palin was a terrible pick for John McCain. And I was beat up for it, and I'm still being beat up for it. But it was almost an epiphany for me, a moment of clarity when I realized that to perform at a certain level in this business and to gain credibility, you better be willing to say what you truly think. That was when I found my voice. Now that I have, I really, really enjoy it."

While Howell said he misses Cotto, he understands why his former partner left for WLS. Still, he's sorry Cotto got to spend only a few weeks as Roe Conn's afternoon co-host before a programming shakeup at the station moved him to the slot previously occupied by Mancow Muller and Pat Cassidy from 9 to 11 a.m. Added Howell:

"I was excited for Cisco joining Roe's show because I've been waiting for the next "ËœRoe & Garry,' and with all due respect to everybody Roe's had with him, I was waiting for Roe to come back to that previous form. I thought maybe Cisco was the straw that would stir that drink. So I was disappointed for Cisco's sake that it didn't get longer to develop. I know from working with plenty of partners that it takes a while to develop a rapport. Chemistry cannot grow in captivity. No matter what management thinks, you have to work it out yourself. But right now I think Cisco has a tremendous opportunity to be in that sweet rocking chair between Don Wade and Rush Limbaugh. He's very lucky."
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