A bit older, a bit wiser and every bit as outspoken, T.J. Trout, the former morning radio prince of pranks, is back in Albuquerque and soon to be back on the air – but not in the morning, and not at his former home of 94 Rock, KZRR-FM.
Instead, Trout, 63, will take on the conservative AM radio crowd at KKOB-AM. Like a modern-day Daniel, he will officially walk into the lion’s den Jan. 22, launching his 3-6 p.m. afternoon drive-time talk show.
Known for its largely conservative lineup, which includes nationally syndicated radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, KKOB-AM is not an obvious choice for Trout, who was called out of retirement by station general manager Jeff Berry.
“The way it was put to me when Jeff brought me in for the interview was he wants me to help change the culture of the radio station,” Trout says. “I reminded him, ‘You know my politics. I’m solidly left of center, a social liberal, and I make no apologies. If I’m going to be on the air, that’s what I’m going to do.’ Jeff said that’s what they were looking for, so I guess I’ll be the yin to Rush Limbaugh’s yang.”
Berry praises Trout as a “tremendous talent,” but beyond that he says he sees Trout as someone who can “engage people on the right and left and do it in an entertaining way.”
He acknowledges that the conservative talk radio audience is getting older, and the last election underscored New Mexico’s blue state status, but the decision to recruit Trout was made before the election, with the intention of expanding the audience by “taking the station in a little bit different direction” and maybe even nudge the ratings for those hours, he concedes.
“Politics today is so polarizing. People think they have to pick a side, but I don’t think they do,” Berry says. “People may lean right or left, but they don’t have to buy into the entire agenda. I know that some people will call in and disagree with T.J., and that’s OK. I want people of all beliefs who are passionate about a subject to engage. I want diverse subject matter, diverse opinions, and I think T.J. is the guy to find the common ground among all those voices.”
Trout is fully onboard.
“I think people will be interested in what I have to say, and I’m not going to dismiss anything from either side,” he says. “But I want polite discussions, so I have some rules of engagement for phone callers and on-air guests, the main one being no name calling. Don’t call me a snowflake, and I won’t call you a dumbass. We’ll try to keep it as civil as possible and above all we’ll try to entertain you along the way, and maybe we can all learn something.”
Trout guards his privacy and declines to divulge his real surname, though in the past he has revealed that T.J. comes from Timothy James, his first and middle names. “Trout” was adopted from the recurring Kilgore Trout character in Kurt Vonnegut novels.
Born in Cleveland into a lower-middle-class family, his father was a factory worker and his mother a stay-at-home mom – both of them independent Democrats. Trout attended Bowling Green University in Ohio, where he worked on the college radio station. After graduation he took jobs at stations in Dover, Del., then Cleveland and finally Ocean City, Md., where he began honing his T.J. Trout persona and his morning show shtick.
He was hired at KZRR in Albuquerque in 1986 and for 25 years maintained one of the highest-rated morning radio shows, much of that success due to his ability to finesse intelligent conversation, political astuteness and humorous pranks.
Fans may remember when Trout faked campaign commercials for a Richard Nixon re-election bid 18 years after Nixon left office.
He mobilized the “Million Elf March” with a cadre of “exploited elves” who walked in an annual holiday parade with signs declaring “No Pay, No Sleigh” and “Stop Elf Oppression.”
Pretending to be an official from the Federal Aviation Administration, he called the supervisor of a local construction company rebuilding parts of the Sunport, saying that a new control tower would have to be torn down and rebuilt underground for safety reasons.
“By the end of my time at 94 Rock, I was completely burned out,” Trout says. “I’d get up at 3:45 a.m. and sit there with my head in my hands, just hoping for strength to get through another day. I needed a break.”
So he and his wife, Marti, both retired and split their time between properties they owned in Florida and Delaware. More recently, they spent time in Cleveland, helping to care for his wife’s elderly parents until they passed away.
Of course, Trout didn’t stay away from New Mexico. He returned yearly to pursue his passion for fly fishing and even wrote a book, available on Amazon, “Fishing With My Fly Down.” He is close to completing a second book, “Fly Fishing With Jesus,” which not surprisingly “has nothing to do with religion,” he says.
While Trout’s new talk show will likely forgo pranks and crank phone calls, it will not be devoid of jocularity or the comical absurdities that characterize contemporary matters of state.
“A lot of times,” he says, “political messages just come across better with humor.”