DNR Resuscitated: The Return of Derek and Romaine
Since first publishing this article in the February issue of EDGE's monthly digital magazine, it was reported that Sirius XM was cancelling their groundbreaking OutQ station.
Breaking the Internet, or driving more traffic than a website or social media platform can handle, is the goal of just about every marketer or PR professional. Who wouldn't want that kind of demand? But what happens when the website and social media platform you're breaking is your own?
That is exactly the conundrum former Sirius XM personalities Derek Hartley and Romaine Patterson faced in early January. After a six-month absence from the airwaves, following the unceremonious cancellation of the long-running satellite radio program "The Derek and Romaine Show," Hartley and Patterson were "bootstrapping it" - launching their own subscription-based webcast and online community. What happened during their inaugural broadcast on January 4, 2016, was equal parts dream and nightmare.
Although precise numbers of individual users that caused their website to crash are unavailable, they were more than impressive by DYI startup standards. "Our first hour alone, we had 1.1 million hits," Hartley said. "Obviously it's a lot. Even if you break it down with people hitting it over and over and over again, trying to get in, at the low end you're talking about 10,000 people trying to get onto the website at once."
"We asked people for money, and we'd shown them nothing yet. We didn't expect we'd get lots of early subscribers," Derek told EDGE.
"We went to launch the first day. The users were there. They were ready well in advance of the show," partner-in-crime Romaine added. "They logged in and there were so many of them, they just killed the site. It was shocking."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes the push to get the show on the air was frantic.
"We were completely freaking out," Romaine said. "We were losing our shit behind the scenes, while doing a live show and trying not to lose our shit on the air. There was a lot of hand waving, scribbled notes and panicked looks."
Following the snafu that temporarily derailed their first broadcast, they switched server companies and solved many of the back-end issues that contributed to the site crash. Derek and Romaine were finally back in business, continuing a 12-year on-air partnership and ending a six-month hiatus neither had expected.
The Derek and Romaine partnership began in 2003, when fledgling satellite radio pioneer Sirius created an industry first by launching Out Q, the premiere all-LGBT 24-hour talk channel. The radio duo pairing was a blind date of sorts set up by producer John McMullen.
Derek, whose "Fantasy Man Island" dating/relationship column on defunct LGBT mega website PlanetOut brought him to national attention, was prospected early by McMullen. Derek would join other gay media figures, including noted journalist Michelangelo Signorile, in launching Out Q.
Noting that he was launching his LGBT-themed channel with few women in its on-air stable, McMullen enlisted Romaine Patterson, known at the time for peacefully silencing Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church during its protest of her friend Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998.
Both parties signed on to cohost the broadcast without ever having met.
"I wanted us to meet first, but John kept assuring me the situation would work out great," Derek said in a 2006 interview with Express Gay News. "Neither of us had done radio before and I was worried about the chemistry. All I knew about Romaine was that she was that activist girl from Wyoming. I hadn't even made the connection before that she was a lesbian."
He needn't have worried: that on-air chemistry was there from the onset, something Derek attributes to their complementary differences.
"I have a younger sister, Romaine has older gay brothers, and we really have a brother-sister, bickering-spouse dynamic," Derek said, to which Romaine added: "Part of what makes out dynamic work is the level of honesty that we share with one another. Part of it is the gentle and not-so-gentle jabs at each other that our audience finds enticing."
In the early years, Derek and Romaine literally had "boots on the ground" building an audience. "Romaine and I would go to over 20 events a year, traveling all around the country," Derek recounted. "Over the years of doing this we developed a one-on-one personal rapport with our audience."
For more than a decade, the bickering work spouses entertained listeners on Sirius XM, bringing in scores of diverse guests that ran the gamut from highbrow stars of stage and screen like Dame Joan Plowright to straight porn goddess Jenna Jameson and current Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
"We had Trump on more than a few times," Romaine was quick to point out.
Defying industry trends, despite having many A-list guests on the air, the factor drew radio audiences back to "The Derek and Romaine Show" day after day was the audience itself. With nicknames like "Trucker Bobby" and "ADD Jeff," Derek and Romaine had created an on-air community, where the listeners became stars of the show equal to the hosts.
"A big part of what makes our show work is the community of listeners that we've developed over the years," Derek told EDGE.
In 2012, after a nine-year run with the afternoon drive-time slot, the four-hour "Derek and Romaine Show" was bumped to evening hours to make "Dirty Pop with Lance Bass," a two-hour call-in show starring the former NSYNC band member. Although Derek and Romaine's audience loyally followed them to their new time slot, Bass' presence marked a shift in Sirius XM's LGBT programming.
Once a haven for homegrown radio talent, Sirius XM was changing. In 2013, inaugural Out Q personality Michelangelo Signorile moved to the newly launched Progress 127 channel. In 2015, Sirius XM announced the launch of Radio Andy, a channel headlined by Bravo TV's Andy Cohen with hosts Sandra Bernhard and Bevy Smith (also of Bravo).
Things were also about to change for Derek and Romaine. On Wednesday, June 18 - two weeks before Gay Pride in New York City - Derek and Romaine were called into work early for a meeting.
"I remember it well," said Romaine. "The night before, we got an email requesting a meeting with our boss. She never requested meetings. I got a sinking feeling in my gut and thought, 'This cannot be good.' "
"As I walked in the building lobby, I thought to myself, 'I really am walking the Green Mile right now,' " Romaine told EDGE. "Then the meeting was changed from our boss's office to a conference room, and I knew that everything about this was going to be bad."
"We were told that they wanted to go in a different direction with our time slot and that they were canceling our show," Romaine said.
"It was a surprise not only for our audience, but I think it was a surprise for a lot of people inside the building," Derek said. "Our show aired for 12 years. We were one of the first shows on Day One of the first gay talk channel in the company's history. We were there so long, we were almost like the furniture. Our show predated most of the people who currently had shows on the air."
"Derek and I cleaned out our desks and walked outside," Romaine recounts. "Derek said to me, 'So, what do you want to do?' I said, 'I need a couple of days.' "
"When your show gets canceled, it's easy to feel like a failure," Derek continued. "Just like anyone who loses a job, you think, 'What could I have done?' But the reality is, in media circles 12 years is almost literally a lifetime. It's a long time for a show to be anywhere. I can't think of our 12 years at Sirius as anything but success. I wish it had gone longer."
"I went home and felt sorry for myself, because that's what you do," Romaine said. "And then on the third day, like Christ, I rose again. I said, 'No, I've worked too hard to have everything taken away.' I called Derek up and said, 'We need to get to work.' "
Over the course of the next few months, Derek and Romaine took numerous meetings with podcasting businesses and traditional terrestrial (AM/FM) radio companies. They soon found that there was no existing business able to deliver 100 percent of what they were looking to do in their next incarnation.
"Terrestrial radio is limiting because FCC regulations limit what you can say. Podcasts are limiting because they're recorded and have no spontaneous interaction," said Romaine. Derek added, "These companies were great, but they said, 'Start your own podcast, get 50,000 subscribers and we'd love for you to join us.' And my feeling was, if we start our own thing and get 50,000 subscribers, what do we need them for?"
"Romaine wanted to join a larger network," explained Derek. "She likes the safety and security of a traditional company to work for. I come from a startup background, and the startup mindset was familiar to me."
"I like the security, because I have a wife and child and have a house to pay for," Romaine said. "But once I made the decision that this is where we were going, I threw myself into this."
Like former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, whose dismissal from the conservative network sparked him to create his successful online presence The Blaze, Derek and Romaine set wheels in motion to launch their own subscription-based website and online broadcast. "We're fortunate that, like Glenn Beck, we had an audience that was used to hearing us every day," Derek said. "An advantage we have launching is that our audience [from Sirius XM] is already used to paying to hear us, so it's not a giant leap to ask them to subscribe and listen to us through a pay service."
In fall 2015, Derek, with the help of friend and longtime "Derek and Romaine Show" listener "ADD Jeff," set to work on a website that would serve as a platform for their new daily broadcast. A monthly subscription fee of $6.95 per month or $20 quarterly was set with the goal of getting 1 percent of their Sirius XM audience as a break-even point.
"For me, the responsibilities are a little different than Derek's," added Romaine. "I went to school for recording engineering; my main responsibility was setting up the studio. Like Derek, I had a feeling this was the way things were going. So over the summer, when I was unemployed, I started shopping for all this equipment, and whenever I found a piece of equipment that I thought we might need, I bought it."
"Fortunately for us, technology and bandwidth is something that has gotten more affordable," Derek said. "And for us, who are bootstrapping this new venture on our own, we're in a cost-effective place."
The most affordable place in which to have their physical studio ended up being in Romaine's home in suburban New Jersey.
"We set up a studio at Romaine's house. Frankly, I'd rather it at my house - I wouldn't have to commute," said Derek, who lives in Peekskill, New York, over an hour's drive away. "Our goal is to get office space in New York City. It will make it easier to have guests in the studio and hire additional staff."
Just as Derek and Romaine's on-air chemistry burgeoned during the early days of Sirius, their business partnership is taking a similar path.
"By doing this, I've discovered that we're smart businesspeople," said Romaine. "We both have backgrounds in marketing and PR. Where one of us is weak, the other is strong, and we're not afraid to bring in outside help when we need it. That's the real blessing of our partnership."
For Romaine, who was reluctant at first to start on their own, the experience has been transformative. "This venture has been like jumping off a building and praying that you sprout wings before you hit the ground. And the listeners are those wings," she added.
"We're building a community around our show. What people are getting when they subscribe to our show isn't just Derek and Romaine, but a whole community of other listeners to connect to," Derek told EDGE. "Our new show and website is built around a social media platform of our own, where people can make their own profiles, connect in chat rooms and meet each other. They'll come for us, but they'll stay for all of the other friends they'll make along the way."
"When the show got canceled, I had an epiphany," Romaine said. "I always thought of him as a coworker or work husband. But the reality is, Derek is my best friend. I spend more time talking to Derek than anyone else in my life. When we weren't working together day in and day out, I missed him. We used to joke that if the show got canceled, he'd never hear from me again."
"I can't imagine doing this alone," she said.
Derek and Romaine 2.0 broadcasts live Monday through Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and can be heard exclusively at www.derekandromaine.com. A two-day free trial is available for new listeners. Subscriptions start at $6.95 per month.