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Burning Man 

Rover may be struggling in Chicago, but Cleveland still loves him.

As sidekick Dieter was doused with fire, he was warned, "Try not to breathe."
  • As sidekick Dieter was doused with fire, he was warned, "Try not to breathe."

At 9:30 a.m., Rover -- dressed in a charcoal gray, long-sleeved T-shirt and his requisite Cubs cap -- is strolling around the 92.3 K-Rock studio, looking like a fifth grader bursting to tell a secret.

It's almost time for "Dare Dieter," the weekly morning-show segment where Rover challenges his frat-boy sidekick to do a Fear Factor-type stunt.

"Do you want to know what the dare is today?" Rover asks.

Pulling the rim of his ball cap over his eyes, Dieter looks uncertain. "I don't know," the baby-faced, musclebound sidekick says. "All right. I guess. Just tell me."

Rover smiles wickedly. "Dieter," he says, clamping a hand down on his friend's shoulder. "Today, we're going to light you on fire."

Dieter looks like a man on death row, waiting for the governor's pardon. "Do you mind if I puke in your car?" he asks the show's assistant director.

The radio crew drives to the East 55th Street Pier, where they meet up with Ted Batchelor, an expert stunt man who holds the world record for longest full-body burn. As Batchelor helps Dieter into a fire-retardant jumpsuit and applies fireproof gel to his face, he offers some last-minute advice.

"Try not to breathe," Batchelor tells Dieter. "Breathing when you're on fire is very dangerous."

At 10:45, Batchelor twists open a water bottle filled with fuel, then warns everyone to step back. Dieter shuts his eyes tightly. The fluid soaks his jumpsuit. Batchelor gets the torch, lights it, and touches it to Dieter's back.

Immediately, bright orange flames snake over his body, spitting heat. Dieter looks like a marshmallow in a campfire.

He takes a few wobbly small steps toward the lake, turns around, and flexes his muscles for the small audience, then jumps into the water.

Rover waves down at his friend bobbing safely in the water.

"They never would have let us do this in Chicago," he says.

Last November, Rover announced he was leaving Cleveland. He'd been chosen as one of the three talents -- along with David Lee Roth and Adam Carolla -- to occupy the impossible-to-fill shoes of Howard Stern, who was leaving for Sirius Satellite Radio. Rover's show would be syndicated in nine cities, including Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Columbus. The only thing that would change, Rover promised local listeners, was the geography: He was moving to Chicago.

Clevelanders went nuts, flooding the station with thousands of angry e-mails. "And that was just from the staff," quips 92.3's assistant program director, Dominic Nardella.

But the station, like the city, got over it. Since Rover departed for Chicago, his ratings in Cleveland have actually gone up. He's No. 1 with the 18-34 demographic and "absolutely dominates that market," says Adam Jacobson, an editor at Radio and Records, and industry trade magazine.

The same can't be said for Rover's new markets. In Chicago, he ranks a pitiful 33rd with the 18-34 crowd. The local newspapers have gone after him with the kind of cattiness normally reserved for Paris Hilton: "Rover has no personality and nothing to say," wrote one. The show is "an unmitigated disaster," and it's time for "Rover to roll over."

Other Ohio cities aren't showing him love either. He's ranked 11th in Cincinnati and 14th in Columbus with the 18-to-34-year-olds.

Rover's problems aren't just with low listener turnout. He's also struggling with management: On July 4, Rover wanted to shoot Dieter with fireworks, but executives nixed the idea, claiming it was too dangerous. As part of another dare, Rover wanted Dieter to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting. The suits vetoed that idea too, because it's "illegal to smoke inside."

When asked about the tougher rules, Rover just rolls his eyes. "So? I'm always a worst-case scenario type of guy. What was going to happen? Someone would call the cops? Big deal. Do you think they'd arrest us for smoking cigarettes?"

Rover claims he's not bothered by the ratings. "In larger cities like Chicago, it takes a longer time to [get noticed]. People understand this," he says.

But he might be running out of time to make that happen. Recently, CBS unceremoniously dumped David Lee Roth after the former Van Halen frontman drew atrocious ratings, no doubt because he rambled on endlessly and brought on uninteresting guests like his Uncle Manny.

Rover, too, is feeling the pressure to perform.

"When Howard Stern left, everyone said, 'Oh, CBS will need two years to recover an audience,'" Rover says. "Then it became 18 months, then 12 months." He smiles wryly. "Good thing for contracts, huh?"

Here, at least, Rover still receives a rock star's welcome. The station was flooded with calls and e-mails in anticipation of his recent return to Cleveland -- the first stop on his Morning Glory Calendar audition tour. "You'd think that Nirvana had been reincarnated and was playing a concert here," says Nardella.

At 8 on a Friday night at the downtown Tequila Ranch, Rover bounds onto the stage in front of a jam-packed audience. They are a sea of ball caps and collared shirts.

"Rover's like any great sports figure in Cleveland," explains ardent fan Mike Ritzenthal. "Once they get really good, they go off to another city. But you always remember that they came from Cleveland."

As Rover starts introducing the buxom contestants for his calendar, someone in the audience shouts out, "We love you, Rover!"

Rover smiles. "I love you too."

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