One of the most beloved morning radio figures ever in Houston, last seen here 30-plus years ago, is finally back on the air.
Well, he wasn’t exactly seen, and he’s not exactly “on the air.”
Mr. Leonard, the outrageously funny character on the wildly popular John Lander and the Q-Morning Zoo radio show from 1982 to 1990, now is hosting a Saturday morning show on a new Internet station called Houston Radio Platinum. The station plays a classic rock format, including Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bee Gees, Chicago, Eagles … you get the idea.
Just visit the official Houston Platinum Radio and visit “Listen Live” or download the free app.
The (high-pitched) mystery voice
While he was a key figure on the ratings behemoth Q-Zoo, when radio stars were big celebrities in Houston, Mr. Leonard, though presenting himself as a man about town, was never seen by his listeners. That was part of the gimmick. Who was behind the mystery voice?
The Q-Zoo dominated Houston’s dial with ratings that seem incomprehensible in today’s fractured radio industry, with terrestrial, Internet, subscription, streaming, satellite, and podcasts all competing for listeners.
Mr. Leonard, performed by John Rio, moved the needle for 93Q Radio. With his lime green leisure suit, cherry red shoes, lime green Pinto, wife Onetta and lame excuses why he wasn’t coming to work that day, Mr. Leonard was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma neatly tied up in a silly comedy sketch.
If Lander sent him to Cooter’s club on Richmond (the bar where four New York Mets were arrested for brawling) for a personal appearance, Mr. Leonard would call in and say he was at the Cooter’s location in The Woodlands. Where was everybody?
There was the time that 40,000 fans were at the Astrodome for Mr. Leonard’s announcement that he was running for president with running mate Clara “Where’s the Beef?” Peller. He did show up that night, driving around the bases in a car with the windows rolled up, only his arm sticking through the sunroof waving to his supporters.
His Houston Platinum Radio show marks the first time that Rio has hosted a show in his Mr. Leonard persona. Up till now, for the past 40 years, he always tormented a scolding, not-buying-it straight man with his excuses, schemes, and pranks.
Leonard across the U.S.
Mr. Leonard wasn’t just a sensation in Houston. After Rio did a comedy bit with Lander live in studio (usually why he had to leave work early that day), he’d jump into another room and do the same Mr. Leonard bit over the phone with a morning host in New York, Cleveland, Dallas, Philadelphia, Boston, and other major markets.
Rio left the Q-Morning Zoo in 1990. There was, as Cosmo Kramer would say, “an incident” complete with a courtroom battle over who “owned” the Mr. Leonard intellectual property. Rio won but this national star wasn’t on the air in his own hometown.
Rio has continued to play the Mr. Leonard character on stations across the country. As John Rio, in his normal voice, he’s hosted shows on the ABC Radio Network and, yes, you might have heard him while shopping for groceries on the Randall’s Radio Network. He also appeared for several years on Scott Shannon’s syndicated Top 40 Countdown Show.
I had breakfast with Rio last week at the Buffalo Grille and asked him, how did you create Mr. Leonard in the first place?
“In 1982, I was working on KRBE here in Houston hosting a nighttime show as myself when a friend called. He was recently hired at 93Q where John Lander was creating what would become the Q-Morning Zoo show. My friend knew that I did a funny voice for an urban kind of character and said I should do it with Lander on 93Q,” Rio said.
“I told him, ‘I can’t do that, I work for KRBE, I can’t work for the rival station at the same time.’ He said that nobody would ever know because the character’s voice is so different from mine. Eventually I took him up on the offer and was working for 93Q in the morning while keeping my job at KRBE. I did this for a pretty long time. It would be several months before 93Q offered me a fulltime position.”
But what to call Rio’s newly created character?
“The character started taking off. We developed the character as the station’s public service director. The first bit was a public service announcement about boom boxes hurting people’s shoulders from carrying them around. As we were writing it, we wondered what should be his name? At the time, Mr. Bill was real popular on Saturday Night Live. I thought let’s just call him Mr. Leonard. I wanted a neutral name, kind of like Leonard, that would force people to use their imagination on what the character looked like.
“That’s how it became a mystery character, mainly because I didn’t want KRBE to realize that I was working with Lander at 93Q at the same time.”