'I'm back in the climb': Drew Lane builds podcast mini-empire in basement

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Six years after Drew Lane, shown, and Mike Clark were replaced at WRIF-FM (101.1), and more than 3 years later after Lane left a sports station, he's building a podcast hub in a Ferndale basement.

Ferndale — An Econo Lodge in Battle Creek had 475 police calls in 13 months, and Drew Lane wants to talk to a guest to see just how godawful the place is.

That's Drew Lane as in "The Drew & Mike Show," as in the first two names in Detroit FM radio for most of the 1990s and 2000s. The microphones are live last week as producer Brandon McAfee dials the front desk, multiple times, but he can't get past a recorded message.

Instead, Lane and his team launch into dramatic readings of the motel's one-star online reviews — "They treat you like garbage, and it smells like garbage" — and a podcast segment that should be a disaster turns raucously funny instead.

Ultimately, more than 150,000 people will download the show and share the mirth, putting it well within the top 1% of podcast popularity. Depending on how you tweak the numbers, Lane might have more daily listeners than he did when he was on the radio.

Basically, he might have tumbled onto the future of broadcasting — and at least for him, it sounds a lot like the past.

Six years after Lane and Mike Clark were replaced at WRIF-FM (101.1), and 3 ½ years after Lane left a sports station because it wanted him to talk more about games, he's building a podcast mini-empire.

Producers, engineers, and talent participate in a taping of the Drew & Mike podcast in a recording studio in the basement of Drew Lane's home in Ferndale.

The empire includes, among other things, Detroit Tigers alumnus Denny McLain and a 59-year-old intern in a chicken suit.

Its global headquarters is the basement of a 94-year-old brick bungalow in Ferndale that's about a third the size and eight miles south of where you'd expect a former highly paid radio star to hang his hats, which are invariably baseball caps.

"I'm pretty Bohemian, to be honest," Lane says.

There was a point where he wanted the standard dream house with a mammoth man cave. Then he looked at a pricey new condo in Royal Oak. But he realized he didn't like big houses, even if he was supposed to have one, and the foreclosure he spruced up in Ferndale as an investment suited him fine.

At 59, he has learned a few other things as well.

He needs a microphone, for instance, more than he needs a regular paycheck. He can still get starstruck, though it's not rock 'n' rollers who make him pinch himself these days. And he's still not cut out to be a boss, never mind that he is one.

"I'm not supposed to be a manager," he concedes. "The manager is a guy I make fun of."

If it helps any, he's not a good manager, or at least not an organized one. His Red Shovel network remains behind on some of the paperwork you're supposed to take care of before you become a business, let alone after you become a profitable one.

But envelopes marked "Elrick" and "LeDuff" sit side-by-side on the breakfast bar in his kitchen, and both contain checks: advertising revenue is getting where it's supposed to go. The podcasts are growing.

He's even adding a program, the fifth in the Red Shovel portfolio — local freelancer Gary Graff expounding on music.

Graff joins "The Drew & Mike Show," absent Mike; "M.L.'s Soul of Detroit," with WJBK-TV (Channel 2) reporter M.L. Elrick; "No B.S. News Hour," with frenetic former television reporter Charlie LeDuff and the intern who chased down an interview subject while dressed as poultry; and "No Filter Sports" with McLain and former local sportscasters Eli Zaret and Bob Page.

Also on hand are the morale officers, Lane's 9-year-old Papillons. Maggs is a portly male who has to be carried to and from the basement because he weighs 30 pounds. His sister, Layla, weighs a proper 13 pounds and has to be carried because the narrow staircase is steep.

McLain, 75, could also use a lift. The former 31-game winner, morning radio host and prisoner has a shredded knee, and he leans on a four-footed cane as he makes his way up from the studio Lane spent $40,000 to create.

"You and me, both," he says, looking down at Maggs as they collect themselves in the kitchen. "My tongue's hanging out, too, buddy."

Memories of Mike

Longtime Detroit radio host Mike Clark died in his sleep last October. He was 63.

The Red Shovel network gets its name from a running joke on the WRIF morning show.

"When are you going to put your snow shovel away?" Clark would ask. "It's April."

"Why put it away?" Lane would say. "It's going to snow in six months."

It was a character trait as well as a punchline. Lane never resets his clocks for daylight savings time: "I just remember it's an hour behind." But the shovel became a soothing memory after Clark died in his sleep last October.

Lane says Clark, 63, was starting to take better care of himself, but he still liked cigarettes more than doctors. Health issues, including a paralyzed vocal cord, limited him to two appearances a week on the uncensored five-day podcast that still carries his name and his imprint.

The podcast started in 2016 as the broadcasters' equivalent of a hobby farm. No ads, no income, "just a fun way for Mike and I to reconnect with the audience."

Trudi Daniels, their old newscaster, had been laid off, so she sat in. She's still there, rushing over from a new day shift DJ gig on WLLZ-FM (106.7), where the podcast is condensed, sanitized and aired on weekend mornings.

Marc Fellhauer, Lane's producer and co-host at WMGC-FM (105.1), was bounced when the station switched from sports to throwback hip-hop. He also joined the team, along with Daniels' son, Joey Zuver. Longtime local sportscaster Tom Mazawey popped in once a week.

The audience kept growing, but Daniels and Fellhauer couldn't work for the smiles. Reluctantly, six months in, Lane set up a donation bar on the show's website — and in two weeks, listeners gave $60,000.

"Oh," Lane thought. "I guess we're a business now."

He started selling merchandise at drewandmikepodcast.com. Started selling ads. Started making enough to meet a $25,000 monthly payroll. And started chipping away at the industry that launched him.

Rise of podcasts

Dick Kernen has worked for the Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield for 49 years, or 83% of Lane's lifetime.

When he started, Specs Howard focused on radio and television. Now, says Kernen, 81, "you can't just look at radio anymore. There are so many options for somebody like Drew to get into people's lives. It's really changing the face of the business."

Podcastinsights.com says there are more than 700,000 podcasts in the United States, though as with many statistics in the field, it's a hazy number.

Many of the 700,000 are inactive. Many are idle pastimes. Many have audiences that could be counted by a first-grader. Many are awful.

On the other hand, there were 13.7 billion downloads and streams in 2017, and last year Apple Podcasts passed 50 billion cumulatively. The most popular podcasts reach millions of people and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Podcasts can be paused. They are adaptable to the listener's schedule. On Lane's unusually lengthy two-hour, 15-minute show, all commercials are read live, and there are no more than three in succession.

Zaret, the co-host of "No Filter Sports," has a television and radio background but has become a podcast evangelist: He cites figures that suggest "The Drew & Mike Show" reaches more ears daily than any radio program in Detroit.

In many ways, however, the comparison is apples to kumquats.

Radio's Nielsen ratings are based on a small sampling, but there's science behind them, and they measure listenership by the quarter-hour.

With downloads, there's no way to tell how long someone tunes in, or whether that person listens at all. Ads can be skipped.

But one thing is certain: "The Drew & Mike Show" sells cars.

Big in Michigan

Drew Lane sits with his two dogs Layla, left, and Maggs during a break in a taping of the Drew & Mike podcast in the recording studio in his basement in Ferndale.

According to the streaming site Spotify, Lane's show is the most distinctively popular podcast in Michigan, meaning it's the most downloaded in Michigan that's not also the most downloaded somewhere else.

According to general manager Stephen Gabarra of Szott Ford in Holly, the show moves 14 to 16 vehicles per month.

Gabbara, 48, had been a faithful listener on WRIF. Once he found the podcast, he began emailing, asking to advertise. Lane wasn't interested. Finally, he sent an email referencing Fellhauer: "Let's pay Marc's salary."

The Szott group of dealerships sponsors the Red Shovel studio, which is expressed during the shows as "Proud sponsors of Drew Lane's basement." The Ford store also advertises on its own, and Gabbara says he keeps a tally of the customers who say Lane sent them.

The first month, he says, "Drew and I communicated five times a day, literally. He was so nervous about taking someone's money."

Now Lane tells listeners, plainly, that patronizing his advertisers keeps the show alive. In response, "they come from far and wide," Gabbara says. "They'll drive past two, three, four, five other Ford dealerships. I've had them come from Port Huron. I just had someone who came up from Toledo."

Climbing the ladder again

Drew Lane sits for a taping of the Drew & Mike podcast in the basement studio of Lane's home in Ferndale.

Lane's first job came with a company car.

He'd been captain of the baseball team at Virginia Tech before he went to work selling containers. After work, he'd pull the 7 p.m.-midnight shift at a little station in Blacksburg, home of the university.

Eventually, he gave up the splashy job to clear $113 a week at the station. He climbed the ladder from there: Roanoke, Virginia, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Boston to Phoenix to Detroit.

Now he's a small enough operation that the other hosts let themselves in and out of the house. Sometimes, they bring guests or friends.

"I'm kind of a hermit," he says, so it was more than a little surprising to pull up one day in December and see eight cars parked outside his house.

LeDuff was essentially throwing a Christmas party, complete with food from his regular job at American Coney Island and an 80-year-old playing blues guitar.

LeDuff's social media network is so wide-ranging and devoted that the first of his weekly "No B.S. News Hour" shows had 50,000 downloads, an enormous figure for a debut. That buys him some rhythm when it comes to inviting musicians to his boss' house.

Elrick's weekly show averages 25,000 downloads. The twice-weekly sports show collects around 7,500 per episode, which is mightier than it sounds; one industry report says the average 30-day figure is 141, and 9,000 makes the top 5%.

Lane says he'll add other programs organically — not creating a gardening show because it's an open niche, but expanding if something truly makes him want to listen to it.

For now, he's enjoying the podcasts and the company.

He'll do phone interviews with major league musicians who have concert tickets to sell, but that's nothing new.

One day when Elrick appeared on LeDuff's show, it struck him that he had two Pulitzer Prize winners in his basement. That was exciting.

He heard Coleman Young II arguing loudly with LeDuff ... that was cool, too. He met Young's mother, Annivory Calvert, who was driving her son around, and Judge Vonda Evans, and any number of other people who aren't realistically as high on the celebrity scale as Lane is.

But it's different. It's new. And it's also old.

"It dawned on me," he says, "that it's the climb that really is fun."

Blacksburg to Detroit. A few thousand downloads to 150,000.

On WRIF, he'd agonize that they weren't pulling in 24-year-olds like they used to. He pays someone to collect all that information now — 82.3% male, 63% aged 35 to 54 — but it only matters if the boss says it does, and that's him.

"I'm back in the climb," he says, up and down the skinny staircase, building something out of talent and history and one-star motels.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn