Star sidekick Gina Grad on bringing Jewish flavor to radio and podcast
Radio personality Gina Grad knows how to take a joke or two or three about her own people.
Take, for example, when Carolla wondered aloud whether the Nazis’ love of the notoriously anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner should make Wagner’s music taboo today.
“You can’t play ‘Here Comes the Bride’ at a Jewish wedding,” chimed in Grad in her trademark upbeat tenor.
“Oh, really?” Carolla responded.
“You don’t hear that at Jewish weddings,” Grad said, adding, “I don’t think I’m wrong about that.”
Serving as an on-air Jewish ambassador is an entirely comfortable role for the Kansas native who was raised Conservative and is a Birthright alum.
“If I’m the one that’s sort of picked by default to educate [listeners] who might not know any Jewish people, then I think I’m a pretty good representative,” Grad, 37, said during a recent interview at the Wilshire Boulevard studios of 100.3 FM The Sound, where “Mark in the Morning” broadcasts from 6-10 a.m. weekdays. “I make jokes at my expense all the time, but I also have a lot of reverence for how I grew up and for the culture I am from.”
Just 16 months ago, Grad was grinding her way through the broadcast and podcast wilderness, juggling screening calls with recording radio promos and commercials and co-hosting her own pretty successful independent show, “The Pretty Good Podcast,” with radio personality Randy Wang.
She has moved on from that podcast, but while it was going, the duo’s stream-of-consciousness conversations about happenings around Los Angeles, interviews with celebrities and various experts, and, most intriguingly, candid conversations about the pair’s personal lives attracted more than 1 million monthly downloads. And Grad’s and Wang’s discussions were filled with the type of intimate and revealing talk that had spooked Grad about radio for years.
She’s worked hard, over time, to overcome and harness that fear in order to allow her audience to connect with her vulnerability. In 2011, Grad was a guest on comedian Paul Gilmartin’s podcast, “The Mental Illness Happy Hour,” and very candidly talked about her own history with panic attacks. And regular listeners to Carolla’s show know a decent amount about her quirks, pet peeves and personal life. Grad has talked openly, for example, about how she recently moved from Hollywood to South Bay to move in with her boyfriend.
Yet even after more than a year of enviable radio and podcast success, she still comes across as a humble, non-entitled and even giggly personality who was shaped by years of grinding through the lower levels of the media ladder.
When Grad sat down for an interview with the Journal, she was proudly wearing a Carolla T-shirt bearing one of his sayings: “Don’t do your best, do my best.” And during a separate visit to Carolla’s Glendale studio for a taping of the podcast, Grad animatedly responded to Carolla’s comment at the top of the show that a Jewish Journal reporter was doing a story on her.
“How does that work?” Carolla asked.
“I don’t know; I have no idea,” Grad said, laughing. “He stopped by the morning show last week, and we chitchatted for a little bit after that, and then he asked if he could come here, and that’s literally all I know. I’m feeling pretty excited, though!”
She went on to joke about an exchange during the interview at “Mark in the Morning.”
“I think Jared [Sichel] felt really sorry for me after we chatted after the morning show,” she said, referring to this reporter. “Because he just assumed, he was like, ‘Well, how many other publications have interviewed you, and you do all this stuff, and what number am I?’ I was like, ‘Oh, no, you’re the first.’ ”
“That’s right,” Carolla said, suggestively.
“He was like, ‘Oh, God, really?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I was really excited!” Grad said.
Grad got her first big break in June 2007, when she was at home nursing a badly strained neck from a car accident. Lying in bed in her “horrible little hole” of an apartment in Echo Park, she got a call from “The Tim Conway Jr. Show” asking if she would be its regular call-screener — a low-paying role for any show, but a promising entry-level position in radio.
At the time, Grad was working full time as a saleswoman at Hugo Boss in Beverly Hills and doing weekend gigs for a radio station in San Diego. She was also performing stand-up comedy at joints around L.A., call-screening for a community affairs show on KLSX radio (now KAMP), and recording “practice shows” on her own time at KLSX to develop her broadcasting and audio-editing skills.
Between her first gig and her big break with Carolla seven years later, Grad became a go-to female voice for radio bits, song parodies and fake commercials for Premiere Networks, the largest U.S. syndication company. She was also an assistant producer for KFI’s “The Bill Carroll Show” and did news bits for “The Young Turks,” a popular liberal online news show based in L.A.
Grad connected with Carolla through a friend from KLSX, Teresa Strasser, who had been Carolla’s first female co-host (and a Jewish Journal contributor). In 2010, when Strasser left Carolla’s show and was replaced by Alison Rosen, Grad became a top substitute co-host on days Rosen wasn’t available, taking over for Rosen after she and Carolla parted ways in late 2014.
At the same time, “Mark in the Morning” was looking for a new co-host, and Grad heard through the grapevine that they wanted a woman, so she applied. Then she came down with the flu on audition day, but went anyway, got the offer, and took the job, marking a spectacular two-part career leap in just two weeks.
On the Carolla show, which has grown so popular in part because of the host’s humor-filled political incorrectness, Jews are among the few people about whom most of the jokes are positive.
For example, on one weekly segment, called “Definitely Not a Jew,” the show highlights a particularly outlandish news story — such as a hot dog salesman in San Jose caught selling at his stand a sawed-off shotgun, a machine gun and methamphetamine to undercover police officers.
Definitely not a Jew.
“It’s not an insult,” Grad said. “Someone does something totally insane and totally unethical and illogical — so they’re obviously not Jewish. It cracks me up.”
And when something cracks up Grad, which is often, listeners know — her distinct, somewhat high-pitched laugh reminds listeners she’s there when, often for minutes at a time, she’ll just listen to Carolla and his other sidekick, Bryan Bishop, or a guest, with nary an interruption.
As the show’s official “news girl” for each day’s final segment, Grad muses on a few leading news and culture stories of the day, only to see them deconstructed, torn to shreds and sometimes used as premises for improv riffs.
So, what does Grad see in store for a future now ripe with possibilities she probably couldn’t have imagined just 16 months ago? Perhaps she’ll be a sidekick to Howard Stern. Or have her own syndicated radio show or an uber-successful podcast of her own.
For now, she said, she’s just soaking in the experience of working two of the top gigs in radio and podcasting.
“I really am just so grateful to be here that I try to not get ahead of myself,” Grad said. “It will move me onto whatever path I go on from there, you know what I mean? I don’t think we’re supposed to stay anywhere forever. But, damn, I’m happy right now.”