The emotional persuasiveness of person-to-person communication over the radio has been evident since the birth of the medium. Something about a voice emanating out of the very air commands an audience’s attention. Many radio personalities have employed that power without any thought to pushing the envelope of acceptable speech, while others have engaged in questioning their limits almost without license. When does public speech possibly pollute the airwaves, and has the very medium itself been shocking audiences, in one way or another, throughout its history?
The term shock jock has come into vogue as a shorthand designation for a radio personality who uses the power of his or her microphone to either rile up or titillate the audience. One can distinguish between two types of shock jocks. First are those with an ideological axe to grind who ridicule if not ravage the views of their opponents. The currently most popular of those figures (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage) tend to be conservative in their politics, although those in opposition to their positions attempted to establish a beachhead, the Air America network (2004–2010), to counter their preeminence on the dial. The second type of shock jock appeals to listeners through either disregarding or intentionally deflating the rules of publicly permissible speech as propounded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The currently most popular of those figures (Howard Stern, Opie and Anthony) litter their broadcasts with sexual innuendo and, on occasion, outright obscenity. The ultimate aim of both camps, admittedly, comes down to ratings and the maximization of their share of the audience; yet, in some cases, shock jocks act in a deliberate manner in order to convince the public to adopt their positions and act upon them in such a way as to influence public life.
I. Radio as a Shocking Medium
II. Rockin’ Is Our Business
III. Voices in the Night
IV. Exploding the Playlist
V. Seven Dirty Words
VI. Can They Say That?
VII. Crash and Burn
Radio as a Shocking Medium
While contemporary shock jocks engage in a form of extreme public speech not heard by past generations over the airwaves, the very medium of radio has possessed a capacity to shock since its very beginning. Admittedly, audiences accepted and accommodated radio as a form of public communication in relatively short order after the first national broadcast by the RCA network in 1921. However, we should recall that each consumer invites the participation of others into their lives by choice. In its essence, radio can be thought of as a kind of desired or designated intrusion, a fact that was authoritatively demonstrated in recent times by the excessive amplification of boom boxes. Once radios became reasonably affordable, around 1927, the technology came to be thought of as a kind of acoustic hearth, though audiences expected those who entertained them to wipe their shoes, so to speak, before they crossed the threshold of their homes.
This desire not to be disturbed or dismayed by what was broadcast over the air particularly applied to announcers and later disc jockeys—the predecessors to and, in some cases, influences upon present-day shock jocks. On-air personalities received considerable leeway to display the full range of their idiosyncrasies, but announcers were expected to be virtually invisible and extinguish any quirks from their personalities. Some compared the phenomenon of their voices to God, as they came invisibly out of the very air, and they were expected, like the deity, to promote and not abuse community standards.
Rockin’ Is Our Business
This trend began to change with the emergence of the disc jockey, a position that, while not inaugurated by Martin Block and his show Make Believe Ballroom in 1934, is by many associated with him as its originator. He gave a name and defined personality to a figure that heretofore remained anonymous, even if the music he played was the audience-friendly pop tunes of the day. Disc jockeys adopted an even more colorful role with the emergence of rhythm and blues and subsequently rock and roll in the 1940s and 1950s. They broke the moderate mold not only by the type of music they played but also, and more importantly, through the manner with which they presented it. Individuals like Hunter Hancock of Los Angeles, the black announcers on Memphis’s WDIA (Nat Williams and Rufus Thomas), and most famously Alan Freed of Cleveland and later New York injected a more raucous tone to their position. They concocted idiosyncratic vocabularies, solicited the opinions of their teenage listeners, and enthusiastically advocated the music they played. Even now, tapes of their broadcasts retain a vibrancy and audacity that time has not erased.
Many parents and some politicians feared the power these men held over their children and worried that the repertoire they featured threatened the very fabric of society. Some less open-minded citizens even called attention to and chastised the disc jockeys for playing music that they felt encouraged racial integration. When government investigations called attention to the fact that many of these men accepted payments for records they played, known at the time as payola, hearings were held in Washington and some careers ended, Freed’s most notably. The furor that followed toned down the audacity of the disc jockeys, as less threatening figures, like American Bandstand ’s Dick Clark, adopted a posture that parents found acceptable. Nonetheless, the transformation of the on-air announcer from a virtual nonentity to an audacious individual with a definite personality was complete.
Voices in the Night
Some individuals saw in radio the opportunity to speak, person to person, through a microphone and conceived of their broadcasts as a sphere of self-expression. None, perhaps, succeeded more in shocking portions of the public with his adoption of the airwaves as a kind of personal podium than Jean Shepherd. It was not that he had a polemical axe to grind, but, instead, Shepherd thought of the medium as a means for transforming the minds of his listeners toward a more imaginative, even anarchic way of thinking. Some think that Shepherd single-handedly invented talk radio, even though his antics had their predecessors, like Los Angeles’s Jim Hawthorne, who from the 1940s to the 1960s played records backward and invited listeners to call in, only to hold his receiver up to the microphone and allow them to address the audience at large. Shepherd started his pioneering broadcasts on New York’s WOR in 1955. Much of the time, he engaged in a kind of storytelling about his youth that one hears today in the monologues of Garrison Keillor about Lake Wobegon. (The popular film A Christmas Story  adapts Shepherd’s work and employs him as its narrator.) He also would sometimes solicit his listeners to engage in group actions that bear a surprising resemblance to the contemporary phenomenon of fl ash mobs; he would announce a time and place for them to meet and engage in some spirited action, a practice he called “the Milling.” Other times, he urged them to throw open their windows and shout slogans to the open air, something like the broadcaster Howard Beale in the film Network (1976). Station owners and some listeners found Shepherd disturbing as he not only broke conventions but also refused to bend to preconceived formats. His ultimate aim, he stated, was to combat “creeping meatballism,” a poetic phrase for objectionable forms of conformity.
Exploding the Playlist
If Shepherd shocked some by treating his broadcasts as a kind of public conversation, then the advocates of free-form radio in the 1960s triggered equally aggressive responses by expanding, if not exploding, the barriers that existed as to what kind of material, either music or speech, might be broadcast. Most disc jockeys were cobbled by playlists dictated by management and exercised little to no influence over their choices. Even if they did, their shows were routinely defined by particular genres of expression. It was considered unfashionable to mix disparate styles; rock was kept apart from country, or rhythm and blues from concert music. The airwaves were, in effect, ghettoized, with little intermingling of material. Correspondingly, audiences tended to associate themselves with distinct bodies of sound and self-censored what they did not want to hear.
This straightjacket upon the repertoire presented on radio was removed in large part by the practices advocated by the San Francisco–based disc jockey Tom Donahue. A veteran of a number of markets, Donahue quit KYA in 1965 when controls over his material reached the breaking point. He turned instead to the newly emerging technology of FM and the opportunity presented by the troubled station KMPX to initiate a new approach. Starting in 1967, Donahue exhorted his fellow disc jockeys to play the kind of music they would for their friends and disregard any form of niche thinking. The result was a kind of sonic smorgasbord that paralleled the mashing together of forms of expression that could be heard in the city’s premier music venues at the time: the Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom. Donahue encouraged his news staff to adopt a similarly unorthodox stance, and it resulted in what the news director, Scoop Nisker, characterized as “the only news you can dance to.” Other stations, particularly on the FM bandwidth, followed Donahue’s lead. Much as audiences appreciated the transformation, the radicalization of radio staff dismayed the owners of KMPX. They objected to the spillover of anarchy from the airwaves to the office spaces. This led to a strike, and, eventually, Donahue’s migration to KSAN. Free-form radio itself eventually fell prey to the segmentation that affected U.S. society as a whole, when the antiwar movement and the counterculture of the 1960s collided with the self-involvement of the following decade. Many, if not most, radio stations returned to a predetermined and circumscribed playlist, yet for many the shock of hearing such a wide array of sounds remains one of the high points of the radio medium.
Seven Dirty Words
Donahue’s expansion of the forms of expression included on radio drew upon certain programming practices of the noncommercial network known as the Pacifica Foundation. A group of stations in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Berkeley, and Houston, the foundation was founded by Lewis Hill in 1949. The inaugural signal, KPFA in Berkeley, initiated the organization’s commitment to spurning advertising as well as government or corporate support, and to permitting free speech over its airwaves. Over the years, the organization has assimilated any number of points of view and styles of presentation, some of which resemble the first-person mode of Jean Shepherd (Bob Fass’s “Radio Unnameable,” heard on New York’s WBAI) while others promote specific segments of the political or social spectrum, though customarily from a left-of-center perspective. Many listeners, should they chance upon a Pacifica station by accident, would be shocked and find the range of voices a virtual cacophony, the adoption of off – center ideologies strident in the extreme. Faithful consumers, however, regard Pacifica as the lone exception to the medium’s virtual expulsion of radical perspectives and acceptance if not promotion of the almighty dollar.
The most shocking element of Pacifica’s history and a groundbreaking influence upon what kind of speech could be aired occurred when WBAI broadcast an infamous track, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” from comedian George Carlin’s 1972 Class Clown. (A routine featured on Carlin’s subsequent album, Occupation: Foole , covered much of the same material.) This list of commonly used expletives was perhaps not officially prohibited from radio, yet a complaint to the FCC was made by a father who heard the track with his son. The FCC did not reprimand WBAI but put the station on notice that, “in the event subsequent complaints were received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress.” Pacifica appealed the notice, which was overturned by the Court of Appeals. The FCC brought the matter to the Supreme Court, which came down in favor of the FCC in 1978. This decision codified indecency regulation in U.S. broadcasting. Even though subsequent rulings amended its dictates, such as the provision that some questionable speech is permissible if children are not part of the audience, the decision holds to this day. There remains a window of opportunity for shocking language between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., but, otherwise, none of the seven dirty words should pass the lips of anyone heard over the air during the course of the rest of the day.
Can They Say That?
The jumping-off point for the present-day profusion of shock jocks is hard to isolate. Nonetheless, it remains clear that, while the announcer on WBAI took the words out of George Carlin’s mouth, these current performers do not achieve any of their audacity secondhand. It is also important to stress how virtually all of them emerged from more mainstream broadcasting as disc jockeys as well as how much they acknowledge their debt to and the influence of on-air personalities from the past, like Jean Shepherd. Some may as well have watched, or even been fans of, two short-lived television figures who virtually broke through the third wall of the screen, so vehement were their opinions: Joe Pyne and Alan Burke. Pyne broadcast a syndicated show from Los Angeles from 1965 until his untimely death from cancer in 1970; Burke appeared in New York City from 1966 to 1968 and turned to Miami-based radio during the 1970s and 1980s. It may seem more than a bit of a leap from the “Shut up, creep!” of Pyne and Burke to the outright obscenity of the current shock jocks, but a lineage between the two certifiably exists.
Other legal and institutional factors contributed to the emergence of the shock jocks. During the course of the Reagan administration, the FCC began to lean less heavily on the regulatory throttle, in particular so far as station ownership was concerned. More and more entities were brought up by broadcasting conglomerates, such as Clear Channel, and owners sought formats that could appeal across broad geographical and ideological segments of the population. Sexual innuendo, frat-boy shenanigans, and spirited diatribes against one’s opponents fit the bill. Also, the regulations regarding the need for all sides of an issue to be publicly aired became trimmed, so that the aggressive defense of polemical positions did not require any counterpointed alternative. The adoption of the airwaves as a personal soapbox therefore acquired the sanction of both the law and the corporate bottom line.
Don Imus unleashed his loose cannon on WNBC in New York City in 1971; Howard Stern joined him there in 1982; Rush Limbaugh began his career in 1984 in Sacramento, California; Michael Savage unleashed his vitriol over San Francisco’s KGO in 1994. While all four of them commonly stretch the boundaries of taste and legally protected speech, each operates under his own agenda. Stern, the “King of All Media,” aims to goose the adolescent mentality of listeners any way he can; Imus oscillates between the outrageous and the ideological, maintaining a need both to crack a crude joke and tweak the sensibilities of those he considers unwise or effete; Limbaugh engages his loyal listeners as a virtual cheerleader for their common conservative social and political philosophy; and Savage savages that which he dislikes with an acid tongue and the utter conviction of a true believer. All four men have also successfully engaged in media other than radio, publishing books and appearing in films or on recordings. Each maintains a loyal and considerable following as well as receives some of the highest salaries in broadcasting.
None of them continue, however, without opposition or outcry. The phenomenon of the shock jock certainly has been a mainstay of columnists and op-ed writers for some time, and many individuals need only the slightest provocation to bang the drum about these men’s latest foolhardiness or faux pas. Most notably, the comedian Al Franken published a best-seller, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, in 1996 and subsequently achieved his own on-air slot with Air America as a proponent of the liberal opposition. At the same time, sanctions of a more serious nature have been threatened against shock jocks. Stern in particular tussled repeatedly with the FCC, and some feel that part of the reason he signed up with the satellite system Sirius radio in 2006 was to circumvent the restrictions applied to terrestrial broadcasting. For the most part, broadcasters continue in their established modes of calculated offense, engaging their fans as broadcasting’s bad boys and shocking their detractors as near-criminal abusers of the public airwaves.
Crash and Burn
The phenomenon of shock jocks in general, and Don Imus in particular, occupied a brief but heated news cycle in April 2007. For years, Imus committed and subsequently apologized for a number of definitely offensive and debatably funny comments that amounted to little more than sophomoric exercises in sexism and racism. From referring to the African American journalist Gwen Ifill as a “cleaning lady” to characterizing Arabs as “ragheads” to denigrating the African American sports columnist Bill Rhoden as a “New York Times quota hire,” Imus has engaged for years in a free-for-all of invective. While one might argue that these comments amount to protected speech in the service of comedy, albeit a fairly sophomoric category of comedy, they nonetheless come across as hurtful, possibly hateful, and certainly mean-spirited.
One of the paradoxes of Imus as a personality, however, remains that this schoolyard potty mouth coexists in a kind of Jekyll-Hyde or symbiotic relationship, depending upon one’s perspective, with a thoughtful, well-prepared, and consistently intelligent interviewer. Many individuals who frequent Imus’s microphones praise him as one of the most astute and committed commentators on the public airwaves; New York Times columnist Frank Rich repeated these remarks at the climax of Imus’s latest, and most incendiary, collision with the limits of free speech. For years, the program oscillated back and forth between the cerebral and the coarse, and many listeners, and some participants, chose to ignore the elements of that dialogue that offended or bored them.
This process came to a head on April 4, 2007, when Imus and his cohort, Bernard McGuirk, dismissed the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” This was Imus’s retort to McGuirk’s characterization of the predominantly African American squad as “some hard-core hos.” Almost immediately, a torrent of anger ensued, and two days later Imus apologized for the dialogue: “It was completely inappropriate and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry.” Imus, however, ratcheted up the anger when he appeared on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio program on April 9 and referred in passing to some of his critics as “you people.” Plans were set in place for him to meet with the team and its coach. However, due to the public anger, loss of sponsors, and complaints from other African American employees at NBC, the network fired Imus and ended Imus in the Morning immediately. The meeting with the Rutgers squad proceeded, and their coach reported that the team members did not themselves call for Imus’s firing.
Aside from the heat and fury of the moment, the question remains whether Imus’s firing will trigger more focused attention upon shock jocks and whether the possibility of censorship will extend to those of a more right-wing persuasion who engage in invective and rancor on as regular a basis as did Imus.
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