In 1981, Ronald Reagan was president, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was just cracking 1,000 and Prince Charles married a pretty girl named Diana Spencer. It was also the year Cosmo Leone was hired by Dave Steinle at KGRS(FM) in Burlington, Iowa, as a nighttime deejay.
Now, almost 32 years later, he’s still at “The New Mix 107.3,” but in the ensuing years has moved up to the morning show and added “program director” to his business card.
“I only had two conditions when they offered me the job,” said Leone, 54. “I asked to spend Christmas 1980 with my family back east, and I wanted to fly home again for my fiancee’s graduation. By the way, that fiancee is now my wife and we’ve been married 30 years.”
Leone, named “Cosmo” after his grandfather (not Kramer from “Seinfeld”), grew up in the golden era of top 40, listening to WABC(AM) New York’s high-powered personalities like Dan Ingram and Chuck Leonard, as well as young Big Apple sportscaster Marv Albert. “He was a great play-by-play guy, and I love sports. I’ve been able to call a lot of games on the air, including my daughter’s high school basketball games.”
Leone was going to junior college at Nassau Community College where he worked at the campus station, WHPC(FM).He also worked as a “gopher” at WPLJ(FM), a big-time rocker in NYC.He did not have the experience to get on the air there, so he started sending out tapes and Titan Broadcast Management called him and said they needed someone energetic.His original dream was to be a sportscaster, and he called himself a “radio geek who went to bed with the transistor radio.”
Listen to your city
While some on-air personalities covet jobs in ever-larger markets, there was something about small market radio that appealed to Leone. For him, it’sall about “thinking local.”
“I have a connection to the community and that’s the thrill of the job for me,” he said. “Chuck Leonard once said that if you’re doing it right and you’re not there on a particular day, you’ve screwed someone’s day up. That means that people depend on you and they almost make you feel guilty if you have to miss work. I do have a life outside of the radio, but this job is very important to me.”
And Leone is nothing if not ubiquitous in his adopted hometown. He’s on the air four hours every weekday. He’s at every large public gathering, including Burlington’s Steamboat Days, a music festival from which the station broadcasts every year.
Leone poses with the staff of local hair and tanning salon Shear del Sol, at their grand opening. “Whatever is going on, we’re there,” he said. “You have to be seen and heard.”
One of Leone’s important community contacts is Tim Manderscheid, branch manager for Fleck Sales, a beer distributor in the area.
“Cosmo is a lot of fun to be around, full of energy,” he said. “This will be the sixth year we’ll be partnering with the station for the Toys for Tots drive. Cosmo, the local sheriff and I stay overnight in a trailer at a mall and Cos broadcasts until the next day when the trailer is usually filled up with donated toys. And hey, that’s really fun being outside when it’s about 20 below zero.”
Manderscheid noted that during the event two years ago, Leone wanted to collect bicycles to hand out to needy kids. He put his appeal out over the air and the trio managed to collect 176 bikes. Manderscheid is also involved in another local charity event with KGRS that benefits Crime Stoppers.
Leone has a small but efficient team, about seven people in all, who handle everything for KGRS and its sister station at Titan Broadcasting, KBKB(FM), “The Bull.”
Past station owners include Harris Corp., LWM Inc., Jacor, Clear Channel and John Weird (to name a few). But L.J. Pritchard bought these stations four years ago, and Leone says he loves having a local owner now. “It’s nice to go down the hall and get an answer, rather than going through numerous emails.”
While some weekend and evening shows are voice-tracked, most broadcast hours are live. But ask anyone who works long hours with a small staff about balancing job and family.
“There was a time when I was doing too much, back when I first took over as program director,” said Leone. “But I found out that if you don’t delegate and be a great time manager, you won’t have much of a life.”
One member of the staff has known Cos longer than anyone else. Tim Brown met Leone in 1990; Brown pulls the long noon to 6 p.m. shift on the air.
“You wouldn’t know it by looking at his messy desk,” said Brown, “but he is very organized when it comes to planning station promotions, programming the station and planning bits and features for his morning show. I’ve learned a lot.”
And Brown thinks he has discovered the reason for Cosmo’s popularity.
“Beneath that tough exterior, he’s a very sentimental guy. He’s a softy. Actually, his listeners probably already know that as he shares just about everything in his life on the show. That’s what makes him relatable.”
Eye on the other guy
Even a small market like Burlington, listeners have many choices.
“Our main competition is a group of six stations, but we have a heritage of 36 years and we’re totally tied into the community,” said Leone. “The idea is that we go in and sell who we are and if we take care of our own ship and don’t worry about the other guy, we’ll succeed.”
And what about other forms of competition?
“When I was growing up there were no home video games, no CDs or DVDs,” he said.“You had to go to a theater to see a movie. Now there are way too many choices out there now, so if you’re not really local and tied into stuff, it’s not making an impact on someone’s life. They will find something else to entertain themselves.”
Even after over three decades at the same station, Cosmo “Cos” Leone is still having fun.
“There is nothing like being on a mic live at a radio station,” he said. “It’s like being the Wizard of Oz. We’re the guys behind the curtain.”
Ken Deutsch is a former deejay who says he almost used the air name Beethoven Smith until minutes before his first show, when his program director told him it was a stupid idea.