Shock Jocks in Dry Dock
The rules may be changing for what's acceptable on the radio
On the air and on the phone, conservative radio talker Michael Savage is unpredictable. One moment, he declares that Don Imus's fate could never be his own, as he knows the pitfalls and avoids them. The next, he turns fatalistic.
"This is a very, very dynamic field, three hours on the tightrope," he says about his show. "Things happen."
Savage stumbled on that tightrope in 2003, when an antigay tirade cost him his show on MSNBC. And since Imus lost his show for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's" last month, the high-wire act has turned all the more perilous for talk radio hosts and shock jocks. As radio's bad boys adjust to new scrutiny, hosts and stations are facing contradictory pressures to both push the envelope and play it safe.
Just where to draw the line may be changing. Anthony Cumia and Greg "Opie" Hughes of the Opie & Anthony Show on satellite radio became the most recent casualties of the new era last week, receiving a 30-day suspension after a guest joked about raping Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other public figures. The duo will continue hosting a show on CBS Radio, which didn't broadcast the original comments.
Stereotypes. The week before, New York shock jocks JV and Elvis were pulled from the air after a segment full of Asian stereotypes. Across the Hudson River, "The Jersey Guys" have scrapped their bit, "La Cucha Gotcha," which urged listeners to turn in illegal immigrants.
Imus's comments may be driving the recent changes, but experts say the shift has loomed for several years, as the Web lets controversial comments travel well beyond their intended audience. "Imus has said lots worse than the outburst that got him," says Holland Cooke, a talk radio consultant. "But until now it went out of the lips, into the microphone, up in the tower, and into the ether."
The racial component of the recent controversies is not surprising, experts say. The Federal Communications Commission is limited to regulating language related to sexual or excretory acts, and savvy shock jocks have turned to racial humor to be edgy. So far, broadcasters have handed out the punishments. Imus was axed when advertisers dropped his syndicated show, and XM suspended Opie and Anthony after the two apologized but also griped that people were overreacting.
The duo crossed the line, says Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers Magazine, but XM is hypocritical, he says, to distance itself from hosts it hired for their tasteless humor, which once included airing a call from two listeners claiming to have sex in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. The stunt earned hefty FCC fines, but lewd humor can be lucrative; Imus reportedly brought in $15 million to $20 million in advertising to CBS Radio annually.
The XM show is technically immune from the FCC's oversight entirely, since it was not broadcast on public airwaves. But XM needs FCC approval for a merger with rival Sirius, and experts suggest the company couldn't be seen as flaunting its freedom from federal regulators.
Despite the recent incidents, the FCC shows no signs of clamping down and could not expand its list of punishable offenses without congressional approval. But the new controversies are especially troubling to conservative talk radio. Tom Tradup, a vice president for the Salem Radio Network, says any increase in oversight could lead to a return of the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that stations give airtime to opposing political views before dying in 1987.
Has Imus killed the raunch radio star? Probably not. But perhaps it's temporarily wounded, a change that even one of the most controversial radio personalities thinks wouldn't be the end of the world.
"Maybe," says Savage, "they'll actually think before talking."
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.