How Mike Trivisonno became the smartest moron on the airwaves

The Face of Cleveland Radio 

How Mike Trivisonno became the smartest moron on the airwaves

It's lunchtime, and Triv is at Triv's. The upscale-casual Italian restaurant in Strongsville bears one of Michael Trivisonno's nicknames, but this is his son's place. Trivisonno senior, the daytime radio king of Cleveland, is not a partner, though he's a fixture here, popular with the waitresses and guests alike.

Triv — big Triv — doesn't call attention to himself, but when he talks in his booming gravel voice, it's hard not to notice him. Afternoons, he's the biggest name in Cleveland radio and has been for years. Today, as usual, he's dressed for a day at the beach, in photogray glasses, shorts, black Crocs, and a shapeless gray T-shirt, the collar of which is brushed by his salt-and-pepper mullet. From his fashion sense to his considerable girth, this is a man custom-made for radio. This week, he's negotiating a contract extension that would push his run to 43 years on the airwaves.

"The only time I think about my career is when someone brings it up," says Trivisonno. "I mean, life is life. But it's an amazing fuckin' story, I think."

His employer, WTAM-AM 1100, the self-proclaimed "Big One," is the most listened-to station in Northeast Ohio among listeners between ages 25 and 54. Trivisonno has been a marquee talent there for 16 years. He's spent more than half that time as No. 1 in drive time, and he's obliterated everybody over the past year.

The Mike Trivisonno Show applies a local spin to a familiar formula. Though Trivisonno got his start in sports, he long ago punted his ball into the political arena. These days, he spends more time needling Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson than analyzing the Browns. He was one of few local figures to relentlessly present the glass-half-empty view of LeBron James, whom he now refers to as "LePrick," if he refers to him at all.

When talk turns serious, Triv will scorch President Obama with riffs like "I'm praying he gets eight years — I want the people who voted for him punished. It's the only way the country is going to get back to what it used to be."

He is the voice of Cleveland, if something of a Neanderthal voice. "As a radio personality, Trivisonno is so proudly inarticulate that his show conjures up images of grunting men, dragging clubs and knuckles as they shove raw pterodactyl meat into their mouths," former Plain Dealer media critic Roger Brown once wrote. That diatribe came after PD readers voted Trivisonno the top radio talent in town.

"I don't get it," Brown harrumphed.

But much of Cleveland seems to get it just fine. They tune in to love him or hate him; when times are rough — whether in the wake of a terrorist's strike or a basketball player's flight — they look to Triv to make sense of it all.

"I'm more of a friend to them, someone that would lean on a fence and tell them what you think," Trivisonno says. "I'm someone they bounce things off."

Radio observers say much the same thing.

"His success is due to the fact he grew up in Cleveland," says media analyst John Gorman, an industry pundit who was the program director of WMMS during its golden age. "He was the average guy in the street. He was an opinionated guy. And the personality just worked. Trivisonno is one of the luckiest people in the world. With no experience, he parlayed being a caller to a show to become one of the biggest radio personalities in the history of Cleveland."

Mike From Mayfield

Technically speaking, the radio legend is qualified to do little more than lay tile.

On the air, he describes himself as a boob and a buffoon, and his grasp of the English language suggests perhaps it's not his native tongue. He makes much of his education, which ended in the 10th grade. But young Trivisonno knew how to have fun.

In Cleveland in the mid-1960s, they called the preppy, college-bound guys "collegians." Trivisonno was one of the other kind of guys — the "racks." Looking like less-friendly Fonzies, the racks roamed the streets, hair slicked back, dressed in white-on-white pressed shirts, leather jackets, black D&D pants, and pointy Stetson wing-tips. As a younger man, Triv looked sharp, his well-rounded gut still decades from fully blossoming.

He was tossed out of Brush High for, as he recalls it, "being an asshole — nothing serious." He transferred to Mayfield, but didn't show up very often.

If the racks weren't in school, on streetcorners, or hitting Vegas in a borrowed car, they were usually at the Eastgate Coliseum, an East Side hall with a pool room, bowling alley, restaurant, bar, and swimming pool. All that hanging around provided time for a lot of talk, and Triv excelled at it. When fights broke out between rivals, Triv — who'd had friends from both area high schools — could step in as the diplomat or join the fray when necessary.

His time at the Coliseum paid off. One night in 1965, 17-year-old Trivisonno spotted a petite young woman with curly dark hair walking down a hallway.

"Who's that girl?" he asked a friend.

"That's Linda Conforto."

"I'm gonna marry that girl," Triv replied. Less than three years later, he did.

The Trivisonnos settled into a rented house in Lyndhurst, and Mike, then 19, worked alongside his tile-laying father. He eventually struck out on his own, then opened a landscaping business. The jobs didn't pay much, but they were enough to support a small family; Michelle, the first of their three children, was born in 1969.

Trivisonno didn't like labor, but at least he still had his three escapes: partying, sports, and radio. In 1972, two of those passion collided. Cantankerous Cleveland broadcaster Pete Franklin launched the Sportsline show on WWWE-AM 1100 nearly two decades before sports-talk radio existed elsewhere. Although he seldom agreed with the host — or perhaps because he seldom agreed — Trivisonno couldn't get enough.

Soon after Sportsline's debut, he decided to set Franklin straight with a phone call. "Mike From Mayfield" began calling every night, holding the line endlessly until the producers decided they needed him for a boost. In time, Franklin started derisively referring to Trivisonno as "Mr. Know It All." On nights when Triv didn't phone in, the show started calling him.

"When I was a young kid, I knew I could [be a radio host]," says Trivisonno. "When I really knew I could do it: when Pete Franklin's producer would call me up and tell me to spice up the show — the No. 1 show in Cleveland. I'd say to my wife, 'Why don't they just hire me?' But I didn't want to work. I just wanted to play."

Through the 1970s and '80s, Mr. Know It All was a Sportsline staple and Trivisonno a glorified volunteer. In 1979, he quit tiling. He and his wife started managing the Mid-Pines golf course in Solon. Triv had a 12 handicap, and a group of locals became regulars, visiting the course seemingly just to spend time with the Trivisonnos. By then, his brother Gary was playing on the PGA Tour, which didn't hurt either.

Trivisonno wasn't making much, but he had a good time. Triv and Linda — "Mick and Pep," as their friends called them — would visit Vegas six or seven times a year. Back in Cleveland, he never grew tired of all-night card games. Every Friday and Saturday, aging racks mixed with new friends and serious gamblers, playing poker all night in Triv's garage or a rented hotel room.

"I can't get into everything," he says today. "But we were having a good time."

Franklin left town in 1987. That year, WNCX-FM 98.5 offered Trivisonno his first paying radio gig: a position as the sports guy on Those Guys in the Morning. The show didn't last but Trivisonno did, seemingly clawing his way forward with each discarded host.

Then, in 1992, WNCX replaced its homegrown morning show with syndicated king Howard Stern. Triv got a severance package, but he was out on his ass, and at a bad time. The Trivisonnos had just bought their first house. His daughter was getting married, and the golf course had been sold and converted to a country club. Dropping a roll at poker wasn't an option now.

"The shit hit the fan," he says. "My mid-'40s is when the light went off and I decided to get serious. I started paying more attention to business, life. The pressure was good. It's probably why most of my money sticks now. I don't spend as much."

He spent the next two years on the bench, laying tile again. His hands throbbing, back aching, knees stinging, he decided that if he ever got back in the game, he was going to do it right.

A Buffoon Is Born

In 1994, Trivisonno got a surprise phone call from Ray Davis, then the assistant program director at WWWE (which eventually became WTAM). As stations were going corporate, the WWWE brass had visions of a show that would hold fast to its local roots. They offered the 6 to 11 p.m. slot for $34,000 a year — a huge step down from the $50,000 Trivisonno had made in his first full-time position at WNCX. But at least it would get him off his knees.

"I should have laughed at them," he says now. "But I just wanted to get my foot in the door. You've got to be in the building to get ahead. It's the station I wanted to work for anyway."

He stepped in as host of Sportsline, the show for which he had once been the unpaid MVP. In his first ratings book, Triv delivered. By 1996, Sportsline was bumped up to drive time. With more ears than ever on him, Triv delivered more than just ratings: He created the all-important radio phenomenon known as "driveway moments" — stories that listeners stayed in their car to listen to, even after they arrived at their destination. His boss at the time was operations manager Joe Riley, better known by his on-air name, Bobby Hatfield. Riley wasn't a sports fan, but he found himself glued to Sportsline — most often when Triv was off-topic.

In 1997, Riley called Trivisonno into his office. The corporate bosses wanted him to talk sports and only sports. Riley had other plans.

"Do you want to make money in this business?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Triv.

"You've got to get away from sports. It eliminates your audience. Sixty percent of [the] audience could give a shit. Stay away from sports. And get a female voice so it doesn't sound like a locker room."

Money and big audiences sounded good. And Sportsline certainly had been a locker room. Triv had proven he could carry a show; now he had to show how far he could take it.

In 1998, The Mike Trivisonno Show was christened. The host prepared for each episode like no one else the bosses had ever seen. From the time he woke up till he went on air, he furiously logged ideas. Friends who visited Triv's home first thing in the morning would find him filling notebooks as he watched news, read papers, and answered calls from friends and producers serving up potential material.

"Triv is a very quick person," says Riley. "And the other part is so deceiving: People think he's so street-sounding that he must be a dummy."

Triv was careful to leave room for both sides of every argument. Instead of cramming his opinion into viewers' ears, he made every show a debate.

"He's a boxer," says Riley. "Go in, take a couple shots, go back to your corner. He sees it as sport."

"When [a caller] hates me, I go to them first," he explains. "It's better radio. You love it when somebody rips me. I'm a performer. I tell people, 'Three words: Mike Trivisonno Show.' It's a show."

It's His Show

"Triv always had the balls to say what's on his mind," says Ray Davis, the host's current boss at WTAM. "And a lot of the time it's the same thing people are thinking but would never say it themselves. There is also a love-hate relationship with listeners. To be successful, you can't be vanilla; you have to be able to evoke emotion in listeners. And he does this."

Triv evokes emotion in his staff too.

The format has remained essentially the same for the last dozen years, but the 2010 Triv Show has a new cast, at a post-recession price. Producer-sidekick Ryan Gohmann, a 32-year-old who looks like a newly minted college grad, puts in workdays of 12 hours or more. Traffic reporter/sidekick Jennifer Rose — the show's blonde "all-American girl," clocks comparable hours.

Triv's day starts around 9 a.m., with a conference call about that day's material. He arrives in the studio an hour before airtime. Between segments, he bounces from one studio to the next, delivering commercials live or recording spots to tease upcoming bits. Gohmann and Rose sit in the studio like they're waiting for Dad to get home from work, take his seat at the dinner table, and join the discussion. When he takes the mic, they watch attentively, waiting for their opening.

Maybe Gohmann and Rose will survive, but history says they won't. The show has replaced nine on-air personalities and producers in recent years. Some were the result of industry-wide budget cuts, while others were personality conflicts. Many left in clouds of controversy.

Triv moved to afternoon drive in 1998. Joining him was Marty "Big Daddy" Allen, a producer he knew from WNCX whose voice was a real-time laugh track. Next onboard was Paul Rado, a recent broadcasting school graduate whose dead-on impression of the traitorous Art Modell was welcome comic relief for a town still wondering where its football went.

The addition of rookie Kim Mihalik provided a much-needed feminine counterpoint. A teacher and aspiring actress, Mihalik won a contest to appear on WTAM's morning show for a single shift. Always tuned to the station, Trivisonno heard the guest spot and recruited her for his show. Together, the lineup thoroughly represented Cleveland — East Side and West, urban and suburban, black and white. When Cleveland listened in, Cleveland heard itself.

"Triv is a Clevelander," says Davis. "He's one of us, which I think makes him even more popular."

True to his nature, he's also a contrarian John Madden of the airwaves. Early on, he was politically moderate, though he earned a reputation as a liberal in the days when President Clinton was still a divisive golden boy. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal left a sour taste in Triv's mouth too.

"He didn't go to the right," explains Rado. "He said he was pushed to the right by the Democrats. That's the difference in Triv 10, 12 years ago and now."

As Triv became more conservative, a divide was growing among the staff in the days prior to September 11, 2001. When the country changed, so did the station and the show — and ratings went through the roof. Trivisonno's fiery rants about patriotism and politics made him mandatory listening for Clevelanders struggling to make sense of the disaster. He used to mock conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh; now he was starting to sound like him.

It was a shift that heightened tension in the studio. Listeners mistakenly thought the drama was manufactured. In one post-9/11 conversation, Triv argued that we're all phonies if we didn't fly the flag on September 10. Mihalik maintained that you don't need to wave the flag to be a real American. Their dispute became heated, and Mihalik walked out of the studio. She returned a few days later and stuck it out for four more years, but the show wore her down, and their chemistry was never the same. When Triv wasn't hammering her, listeners argued with her on Triv's behalf, and she clammed up. In 2005, they parted ways; parent company Clear Channel cited budget cuts as the official reason.

"It's his show, and he has to do what he wants to do," says Mihalik, whose mood has softened in the five years since. "He was tough, but he was fair and honest. We got to be No. 1, and the objective was to stay No. 1. Did he drive us? Sure. But he rewarded us quite a bit. He was never not appreciative. He treated me like one of his own, like a daughter."

Rado, too, still calls Triv "the father I never had." But he remembers praise being much harder to come by.

"He throws around compliments like manhole covers," he says. "If he's not ragging on you, that's a compliment. Every now and then, you'd do a hot-ass show, and on your way out, he'd say, 'Good job.' That was like getting a compliment from the President of the United States."

In January 2009, Clear Channel was cutting jobs left and right — 2,000 employees from its 1,200 stations. During the year's second round of cuts in April, Allen and Rado were let go — on the same day new ratings arrived: The Mike Trivisonno Show was No. 1 yet again.

The cuts were a controversial episode in the ongoing saga of Cleveland radio. Both personalities were popular. Rival jocks spread the rumor that Triv had replaced them with cheaper talent and absorbed the salary difference.

Rado doesn't believe it. Allen declined to be interviewed for the story, citing a settlement with Clear Channel regarding his release. (In April, Allen told The Plain Dealer he wouldn't stop to help Triv if he saw him broken down on the road.)

Triv says he didn't fire them and didn't take their money — nor did he fight to keep them. And he won't say he wasn't involved in the decision.

"You're always involved," he says. "I liked Paul Rado. I liked Marty Allen. But it was time for them to move on — without getting into details, which I won't and can't. The show got stale. It's the nature of the beast: You get a little success, and people get big heads. I tell people: 'It's The Mike Trivisonno Show. I could do the show with four chimpanzees and people would tune in.' People don't tune in to hear the support staff."

Mick-and-Pep

A month after his first sit-down with a reporter, Triv is back at Triv's. The man watches what he eats, but the culinary math doesn't add up: He'll order hamburgers without buns, which don't quite cancel out the plate of crunchy calamari or the spicy-sweet banana pepper appetizers. He's started smoking again after three years off. It's been a tough year.

In 2008, Linda started coughing. The initial diagnosis was pneumonia, but it didn't go away. X-rays revealed lung cancer. She lasted a year, then died July 30, 2009.

He's been miserable ever since.

The loss of his lifetime sweetheart devastated Trivisonno. Friends still refer to them as one, mashing their nicknames into a single three-syllable unit: "Mick-and-Pep."

"If there was one person put on earth for him, it was her," says Ron Schultz, a friend since their high school days. "She did everything for him. He depended on her for everything he did, and it was a good thing, because she enjoyed doing it. We used to say we hoped he went before she did — we didn't know what he'd do without her."

Sometimes, Triv seems to have no idea what to do with himself. Memories of Linda haunt him, whether he's sitting at a restaurant table they once shared or simply opening a drawer at home. Though he eventually took some time off, he worked the day after she passed. The job is his therapy, he says.

Mick mourned Pep on the air. He publicly debated whether or not to erase her voice from the answering machine in their home (he finally did this summer, after his family convinced him it was creepy). He still hasn't come around to talking about Linda in the past tense.

"If I didn't have a job, I probably would have blown my brains out," he says. "You wanna know how nuts I am? She had a certain spot she liked to sit in the living room and watch TV. I left it running for eight months. I couldn't bear to turn it off."

In her honor, he formed the Linda Trivisonno Endowment Fund, which supports cancer research and provides financially strapped victims and their families with money for everything from household bills to travel expenses.

"I made a promise to my wife — more to me — that her name will outlast mine in the city of Cleveland," says Trivisonno. "The fund lasts forever. That's the least I can do for her. The shit she's put up with over the years."

The Real Trivisonno

At 62, Trivisonno is still at the top of his game. He has aged grudgingly — in the last year, he stopped subtracting seven years from his age on the air, though he'll still claim 59 when he can. But as the years have accumulated, by all accounts, he's become bigger and better.

In recent years, WTAM billboards along I-77 and 71 have featured Trivisonno's meaty mug on the body of a chiseled young hunk that looks nothing at all like Triv's 5-foot-9 frame. It's an intentionally half-assed Photoshop job, though the host's muscle with WTAM is very real. Industry sources guess his multi-year deals have topped $1 million. (Triv won't discuss money.)

The new contract is final: The Mike Trivisonno Show is locked in for another five years. Triv says they will be his final five "unless something stupid happens. I want to live a little too. Right now, I'm not quite financially set, but I'm not hurtin'."

No other station has been able to duplicate Trivisonno, so it seems unlikely that his own station will turn the trick either. He knows his success baffles management — and many a listener, past and present. But it works. For now, his goal is to go out on top. For the first time in years, he's happy with his team.

"I finally have a staff now — all three are radio people," he says. "They listen to radio. It's part of their life. I just want to stay consistent. The past month, I think I've done the best work that I've done in a long, long time."

Then, as usual, he relates it all back to Linda. "When she died, that's all I had left. I was on cruise control for three or four years. Now I'm back. I've got the pedal to the metal again."

But Triv's world now is smaller. When he's not at work or the restaurant, he's consumed with poker. He'll open up to a reporter at a restaurant, but his house is off limits. A friend describes his home office as having three TVs and two computers — one for poker, one for internet research between hands.

He will open his wallet for friends and bare his soul to listeners — but you will only get so much. Want to catch the real Triv? A poker table — or, lately, a poker website — is where you'll find him.

"Mike, at the root of it, is competitive," says Rado. "The ratings game was competition. Poker is competition. He can't play tennis anymore. [Poker] is something he can do all the time. Texas Hold 'Em satisfies the quintessential Mike Trivisonno: People think it's all luck. When you're catching cards, it's easy. What do you do when you're not catching cards?"

Send feedback to dferris@clevescene.com.

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