Beck, Burns, and Bridgetown

Betting on baring, well, everything

By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly


For two hours each weeknight, the city's airwaves belong to Byron Beck (left) and Zak Burns (right) — pictured here in their studio. Photos by Xilia Faye, PQ Monthly

On the corner of Fifth and Madison, in the heart of downtown, mere steps from City Hall — in a tower boasting exceptionally good views of prison yard basketball — sit the offices of Alpha Broadcasting, home to several of the city’s most prominent radio stations, from KUPL to KINK to KXL. Walking up the steps, through the glass doors, and waiting to be let upstairs to floors of sprawling offices and cubicles, it’s a bit surreal to realize so much of Portland’s airwave power emanates from one spot.

Surreal is amped up as Lars Larson strolls by, and you’re face to face with the voice that so assertively spouts some of the city’s most controversial rhetoric. Because if anyone is “the voice” of KXL, it’s inarguably Lars, the man who delights in tormenting progressives statewide. On KXL’s site, he brandishes a cigar in his photograph, proving beyond any doubt he means Limbaugh-esque business.

Now, in the midst of all that slanted-to-the-right notoriety, there’s a new voice — new to radio, but certainly not to the city: Byron Beck. There are few local names so widely known — some might say notorious. Opinions abound — some strong, others less so, but there’s no denying the former mastermind behind the legendary “Queer Window” (try finding a gay who’s never heard of that column) has, since his stint at Willamette Week ended, morphed almost as many times as Madonna, sans the costume changes.

Print, blog, television — and now, radio — there’s little media Byron hasn’t immersed himself in. The Oregonian and Willamette Week routinely cite his blog. Yet, somehow, regardless of his media forays, it feels like Byron’s now really hitting his stride.

Not that he’s doing it alone — upstairs, in the middle of those floors that house all those offices, radio stations, and big personalities, Byron’s sitting at his desk, hollering over partitions, engaged in a verbal sparring joust with his on-air foil, (the foxy) Zak Burns. The two go back and forth, like speed daters on a mission, as they prep for the night’s show. Zak, a producer with serious national credentials (ask him about the “David Lee Roth experiment” sometime), is part of the mix not only for his considerable logistical talents but, according to KXL, to “keep Byron out of trouble.”

Clearly a bit giddy about his new gig (and digs), Byron is quick to offer a tour. We pass cubicles covered in all manner of debris (flyers, folders, merchandise — some piles are unrecognizable), and he’s quick with introductions. Stacey Lynn, as sweet as you imagine, doles out hugs. Clyde Lewis, paranormal phenom, is just as welcoming, sans the embraces — and chats incessantly from beneath the Black Sabbath poster displayed prominently above his desk.

There are showers (for the record, Byron’s yet to have need for them), radio dials in the bathrooms, a modestly fancy “convenience store,” and, of course, Diego Giovanni, his assistant — often affectionately dubbed “mini-Byron.”

Asked how his now-daily radio gig affects his status as man about town, Byron offered this explanation: “We broadcast from 7 to 9 p.m. every weeknight, so that’s definitely changed my schedule. I tend to go out later and I try not to miss any big events. Sometimes that means I’ll ask my friends, like Diego and Marissa Sullivan, to cover stuff I can’t make. But you can bet every weekend I’m out covering events with my little camera.”

And you can bet half the city — regardless of how many will admit so publicly — still checks said blog to see if their photos made the cut, all while reading about which celebrities have descended upon the Rose City.

Chatting, introductions, and official preparations (which begin hours before airtime) stop, and it’s time for Beck and Burns to go on air. Armed with the agenda they’ve hammered out beforehand, red lights go on, and the pert dynamic duo goes live. Subjects, as expected, run the gamut — on this particular night, it’s our city’s mayoral race, gay bullying, and the Octomom. Matt McCormick makes a cameo to talk about his new documentary, “The Great Northwest,” and the Carrie Brownstein-starring “Some Days Are Better Than Others.”

Inside the studio, in the background, the last televised mayoral debate is on, and the two hosts, while barely missing a beat with their back-and-forth banter, are clearly distracted. Zak, especially, is exasperated by what he calls Charlie Hales’ “outright lies.” “He’s old, he forgets what he’s said, where he’s lived,” Zak jokes. “He still thinks Adam West is Batman.”

Throughout, there are zingers a-plenty — Zak likens the current election cycle to “choosing between two Michael Dukakises and a John Kerry.” (Also, for the record, Zak says he’d love to have Hales on as a guest.)

The show takes a serious turn when the subject shifts to bullying — and some fervent sparring begins. Bullying, gay suicide, what’s courageous, what isn’t — exchanges are heated, the two actively disagree, but when they go to commercial, it’s all mutual love and respect.

The show continues, an ideal blend of the comedic and the serious, of politics and celebrity gossip — the stuff of perfect radio. The stuff that makes a two-hour program fly by. A parade of local celebs certainly doesn’t hurt their cause: Hutch Harris, Lance Bangs, and Storm Large have all lent their star power.

In all his incarnations, in all his outlets, it’s sometimes hard for passers-by and observers to get a real feel for Byron’s sense of self — the sort of candid evaluation that’s tough for someone routinely in the spotlight. On that, Byron waxed a little nostalgic: “When I was writing ‘Queer Window’ for WW, I was the most hated gay man in Portland.”

“And I think it was for good reason,” he adds. “At times, I would spout off my opinion without really thinking about what I was saying. As a blogger and someone working in the new media world, I hope I learned some kind of lesson. With social media outlets — like Twitter and Facebook — available to everyone, I am just one of many voices in the gay community. If people want to hear what I have to say, I’ll share it with them. But I’m just one voice. Yes, I do see my life through a pink filter, but all I’m trying to do is tell my story and share how I see the world around me. And it’s just my story.”
Perhaps it’s just his story, but as long as he has a microphone — or camera or website — it’s a pretty safe bet people will continue to listen.

Listen to Beck and Burns weeknights from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on FM News 101, KXL. Find Byron, as always, at