The Straits Times
10 August 2015
Forget scripted talk. Radio DJs Mark Van Cuylenburg and Glenn Ong plan to speak their minds to get people thinking and talking One calls himself a "dirty old man". The other thinks he fully earns the title "the b*****d of radio".
This is how radio personalities develop, they say: You talk and talk and eventually, something happens.
You find something inside you that clicks with the listeners and ego - yes, they freely admit to have plenty of it - takes care of the rest.
For Glenn Ong and Mark Van Cuylenburg, that click happened when Van Cuylenburg (aka The Flying Dutchman) showed off his schoolboy sense of humour and, for Ong, that was when he decided to ignore the rule to not say anything if you do not have anything nice to say.
The insight happened in the late 1990s, when Ong hosted a show at 98.7 FM.
"I knew I would have to stand out. So from that day, I told myself I would have to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing. So I will always be different when I go on air," says Ong, 45.
Van Cuylenburg, 59, called FD by friends and fans, says he knew listeners enjoyed that off-colour sting in the tail, that "little quip at the end of something".
Their styles - snark versus quip, Ong's contrarian streak and Van Cuylenburg's conservative bent - came together on a long-running show on MediaCorp's Class 95 FM, from 2004 to 2013.
Both quit the broadcaster - Ong in January this year and Van Cuylenburg last December - to focus on projects outside radio.
Then, early last month, both were revealed to be co-hosts in the 6 to 10am #1 Breakfast Show. They co-host with Andre Hoeden at competitor SPH Radio's ONE FM 91.3 radio station.
Mr Jamie Meldrum, senior programming director for the rock-leaning ONE FM 91.3, tells Life the station decided to back the duo because their names together mean something to the public, especially for men aged 30 and older that the station is targeting.
"As a duo, they were No. 1 for more than 10 years and, as a brand, they're the best-known radio show in the country. They're also the perfect pairing for what we're doing on ONE FM 91.3, and for guys in particular, they now have a home on a radio station that's built just for them."
On a typical morning, the trio will take on the topic of the day, say, whether e-scooters should be banned, and dig into it.
There is no goal, say the duo, no desire to find consensus or shift the other's point of view. Shows end with no resolution. The point of the exercise is the banter itself.
"The discussion forces people to think, it's forcing people to speak. Too many of us - and I was stuck in that mode for the longest time - just go with the flow," says Van Cuylenburg.
If there is one topic they can agree on and that they both dislike, it is the creeping corporate homogenisation of radio.
It has caused deejay chatter to be cut to a minimum in favour of sponsored product chat, with what is left of the remaining talk stuffed with scripted jokes and pre- planned outcomes.
Scripted talk is a terrible trade-off, they think. What it gains in momentum and snappiness, it loses in genuine emotion.
Listeners prefer radio hosts who come across as real people, even if it makes for the odd dull moment.
Says Ong: "When we go on air, if we are not funny, we are not funny. We don't try to be funny. We've done that for 10 years." Van Cuylenburg adds: "It's okay to agree to disagree on a topic. It makes for good radio."
Ong and Van Cuylenburg hint, as they have done in other interviews, that the slowly tightening control over their on-air personas is among the reasons they left their previous employer.
They lament the loss of "radio personalities", most of them forged in the Golden Age of the 1990s, when English-language stations proliferated and hosts tried to outdo one another in outrageousness.
These days, young talents are trained to be "radio presenters", anonymous and bled dry of individuality.
It is done so that the hosts do not attract the censure of the authorities - which both Van Cuylenburg and Ong have done - but also so the station's brand gains listener loyalty, not the presenter, so that if the presenter walks, listeners will not be pulled along.
Says Ong: "We came in at a time when we were allowed to express ourselves freely."
And that he did: When he hosted the late-night show The Ego Trip in the mid-1990s, he became known for speaking in the voices of pungent characters such as Short Fart, God Pa and Honky, with a speciality in insulting anyone he thought was stupid - callers and listeners included - and sex jokes.
The public was reminded of Ong's penchant for shooting from the hip earlier this year when he became embroiled in a Twitter war over his panning of the local television sci-fi docudrama 2025, which drew an angry response from show producer Nicholas Lee.
Like Ong, Van Cuylenburg now finds himself in the interesting position of competing with his former morning slot on Class 95 FM.
His current gig comes after a varied career, hosting television shows (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, from 2001, and 2007's dance competition show Dance Floor, with Ong and Jade Seah, among others).
While his views might skew to the patriotic and pro-family compared with Ong's, Van Cuylenburg's bag of tricks includes barbs and funny voices - he used to do traffic reports with Indian and Japanese accents.
In the 1980s, emceeing live events led to a deejaying job at former cable radio broadcaster Rediffusion, which opened a morning show slot at Class 95 with co-host Joe Augustin from the mid-1990s, at the urging of Mr Bernard Lim, 45, a deejay who rose to become general manager and vice-president at MediaCorp.
When reached for a comment about the pairing of Ong and Van Cuylenburg at ONE FM 91.3, Mr Lim, now head of family segment and customer group at the broadcaster, says: "I'm glad to hear Glenn and Van Cuylenburg are enjoying their new gig. I wish them all the best."
Mr Mark De Silva, 45, father of a seven-year-old son and a senior IT architect with the National University of Singapore (NUS), has been tuning in to the duo since they first worked together at Class 95 FM, after having come from Ong's Ego Trip late-night show. He has since become a friend of Ong's after attending radio workshops conducted by the deejay.
Ong and Van Cuylenburg are a good match, he thinks, because the older man's sunniness deflects and directs the younger man's irascibility into a format that feels more structured.
When Ong is paired with "loose cannons", such as Ong's former co-hosts Rod Monteiro and Augustin, things tended to get out of hand, he says.
"When Glenn is alone, he says out loud what's on his mind, he hits out. When he's with Van Cuylenburg, it feels like it's more a comedy routine," says Mr De Silva, who listens to the show during an hour-plus morning car commute from his home in Pasir Ris to NUS in the west, with a stop in between to drop his son off at school in Bedok.
Van Cuylenburg seems to agree.
"I am a father-figure kind of person," he tells Life.
And in a reply that could have come from their morning show, Ong cuts in. "Yes - self-righteous, pompous," he says in a relaxed drawl.
Van Cuylenburg returns with the kicker, summing up their chemistry.
"Now, you see how that works?"
See more images of Glenn Ong and other related photos in the gallery below.