Bobby Bones is a radio DJ without that classic, booming radio DJ voice. He wishes he had it — he tried to fake it — but it never quite worked out. So he stopped pretending and just decided to be himself.
That decision to keep it real has paid off in a big way. Bones, 33, has become the host of the biggest country music morning radio show in America, heard on more than 60 Clear Channel stations, with a daily audience in the millions. The newest — and biggest — market he can be heard in is Washington, where WMZQ airs “The Bobby Bones Show” weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m.
Bones might seem like a controversial choice. He’s known as a wild card who is not afraid of “going rogue” when interviewing top singers and is frequently accused of being “not country enough.” But Clear Channel believes he’s a star and has tapped him as a key figure in their push into syndicated country music programming.
An Arkansas native, born Bobby Estell, he has been working in radio since age 17. Bones is honest to a fault, to the thrill of his fans — and to the occasional confusion of program directors and new listeners who don’t know what to make of the guy who talks in startlingly detail about his life. Almost always self-deprecating, his subjects range from his own romantic relationships to that time he popped some Xanax on a plane and did a radio interview that he doesn’t remember.
His co-hosts regularly laugh with him, laugh at him and regularly make fun of him. If it sounds like they’re just a group of friends hanging out, that’s exactly what they are, and Clear Channel executives pinpoint that as the reason for the show’s widespread popularity. In addition to Bones, his best friend Amy joins him along with sidekicks Eddie, Ray and Alayna. And what group would be complete without someone named Lunchbox? Bones, the only one with a radio background, says the goal is to sound as real and normal as possible.
“When you work with your best friends, you’re able to talk differently,” Bones said by phone from Nashville. “We all know each other so well, and there really are no rules on our show what we can and can’t talk about.”
As a result, listeners develop a strong bond, something Clear Channel noticed when the program was in Austin and the crew had a morning show on a Top 40 station. The show felt different from anything else on the radio with its casual atmosphere, and Bones appealed to a coveted younger audience.
In February 2013, Clear Channel convinced him to transplant the entire crew to Nashville and helm the show for WSIX, the flagship country station in country music’s capital.
“We really wanted a show that was hip and current,” said Clay Hunnicutt, Clear Channel’s executive vice president and general manager of national programming platforms. “We just wanted an entertaining morning show. It didn’t have to be a country morning show — it just needed to be an entertaining morning show that the listeners could relate to.”
The listeners are sometimes as opinionated as Bones, especially about the fact that the show sometimes veers off-topic from country music. Bones has long been a lightning rod for his distinctive style, but he seems especially polarizing to the country audience, which likes things done a specific way. (In Washington, Bones replaced longtime WMZQ favorite Boxer and his much more traditional morning show. Boxer is on from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Some aren’t fans of the frothy banter between Bones and his co-hosts, or that they talk about their love of rap music or their prolonged discussions about whether Bobby should be okay with his girlfriend (singer Rachel Reinert of the band Gloriana) kissing another guy in a music video.
Bones knows he’s an acquired taste — he frequently reads scathing comments on air and retweets the worst of the bunch. Sample comment on WMZQ’s Facebook page: “too much talking (about stupid stuff and not even funny) and not enough country music!!!”
“When we first go on anywhere, we’re pretty much not liked. We’re awkward-sounding at first because we’re so different,” Bones said. He likes to save the negative comments and then repost them six months later. He says people frequently call him back and say, “I was completely wrong about you guys.”
It’s all part of his all-honesty policy. “When a new show comes on the air, you usually don’t hear the host going, ‘Here are all the negative comments.’ It’s usually fake: ‘Listen to everyone who loves us!’ That’s not true,” Bones said. “We just want to be honest. If people don’t like us at the beginning, we ask them to give us a chance.”
One group that loves Bones and his show? Country music stars. It wasn’t always that way, as Bones has a reputation for asking any question that comes to his mind, not an easy pill to swallow for celebrities that stick to carefully scripted answers. But by being someone they consider a friend, Bones has gained the trust of many of Nashville’s top singers, getting them out of their comfort zone when they come onto his show.
That’s why you see Taylor Swift in the studio, dispensing dating advice to the show intern and reading pages from the “Titanic” movie script.
When Bones joked that new duo Dan + Shay reminded him of “Savage Garden with guitars,” the guys showed up at his studio and performed a medley of the ’90s pop group’s hit songs.
Bones is especially proud of the Swift interview. “I think we got a lot of human out of Taylor that people don’t normally get,” Bones said. That’s part of his formula for success: Make the stars seem like regular people. Plus, the singers (and audience) enjoy getting a break from the usual “What’s your album like?” questions.
Of course, some artists aren’t fans of his shtick. Exhibit A is his public feud with Kacey Musgraves, as Bones took great pleasure in dissecting on-air a flat, awkward interview that took place between the two at November’s Country Music Association Awards. Bones also poked fun at singers listed as Nashville Lifestyles’ Most Beautiful People, including Toby Keith and Chris Young. Keith found it hilarious; Young, not so much. Bones was on the receiving end of furious e-mails from the singer’s reps.
Naturally, Bones talked about all of this on the radio. Given that Bones is the public face of Clear Channel (he will host the giant inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin on March 29), do his corporate bosses wish he kept some of the behind-the-scenes details, well, behind the scenes?
“You know, we just take it because it’s Bobby. You take the good and the bad with everybody, because it makes the person who they are,” Hunnicutt said. “Those are his feelings, those are his topics, those are the things that he talks about. And that’s okay. That’s great. If you stifle that and get rid of that, then that’s not Bobby. And that’s not who we want on the radio.”