"Bigotry can still pay big" - Articles on Don Imus, Howard Stern and other bigot jocks
The sacking of Don Imus: The rise (and fall) of the shock jock
The right-wing U.S. broadcasters who fill the air with invective operate way beyond the conventions of good taste. But now one of them has gone too far
April 14, 2007
By Andrew Buncombe
Like Earl Grey or English Breakfast, whether the radio host Don Imus is your cup of tea may simply be a matter of taste. He is brash, he is outspoken, he often says things that many people find utterly inappropriate.
And yet he has been there forever. For 30 years or more Imus has entertained and shocked listeners to his morning radio show broadcast from New York with his own particular mix of political interviews, barbed commentary and fundraising for wholesome causes such as children with cancer. His chief goal, he once claimed, was to "goad people into saying something that ruins their life".
But not for any longer. Imus has opened his mouth a little too widely and said something that has, if not exactly ruined his life, at least brought his career to a shuddering halt. The shock jock has been jolted into silence. The final blow came when the broadcast giant CBS announced on Thursday that it was cancelling his Imus in the Morning show. The decision - following an announcement by the television channel MSNBC that it was pulling its simulcast of the show - meant that Imus, 66, no longer had a home on television or radio.
The decision to axe the shock jock and long been anticipated and it was perhaps only Imus himself who did not really believe it was coming. In the end, CBS claimed it had no real alternative but to can one of the best-known voices in US radio.
At the centre of the controversy were comments that Imus made on 4 April during a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women's basketball match between teams from Rutgers University in New Jersey and a team from the University of Tennessee. Discussing the match with one of his radio show's contributors, Imus described the mainly black athletes on the Rutgers team as "nappy-headed hos" - nappy being a derogatory reference to the hair of some black people while ho is well-known slang for whore.
It provoked immediate outrage. Campaigners such as the Rev Jesse Jackson and the Rev Al Sharpton demanded that Imus should be fired while many of Imus's regular guests rapidly distanced themselves from him and vowed they would never appear again on his show. CBS said it would suspend Imus for two weeks without pay while it considered the matter.
In a different time and a different setting, the matter may have gone no further. Indeed, Imus had previously made plenty of inappropriate and bigoted comments on his radio show that stirred controversy but little more. But in this instance Imus picked on two hot-button topics that fuel passionate debate.
First and foremost, the topic of race and racism in the US is never far from the centre of controversy. Secondly, college athletics in the US holds an elevated and idealised position in the public imagination that is difficult for foreigners to appreciate. In making comments that were both racist and derogatory towards student athletes - and especially so in a digital age when people could download a podcast of his comments or watch them again and again on YouTube - Imus had signed his own death warrant.
Announcing the decision to cancel the show, Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, said that in recent days senior officials had been consulting with a range of opinion formers and groups. He said: "In our recent meetings with concerned groups, there has been discussion of the effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of colour trying to make their way in this society. That consideration has weighed heavily as we made our decision." In a note to CBS staff, he added: "He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people."
When the controversy first erupted, Imus - grey haired and craggy and with a face meant for radio - made a less-than-impressive apology. He said that his comments were an "idiotic, stupid" thing to say. The man who had earned an annual salary of about $10m (£5m) said he had said a bad thing but that he was not a bad person. In the hyperventilating, circus-like atmosphere that quickly surrounded the event, Imus found he was not the only person in the spotlight.
The players of the Rutgers team agreed to meet Imus to hear his personal apology and appeared for the television cameras wearing their matching team workout clothes.
He and his wife apparently spoke with the players for three hours at a private meeting in the official mansion of the Governor of New Jersey on Thursday. Standing on the steps of the mansion after the meeting, Vivian Stringer, the team's coach, told reporters: "We had a very productive meeting. We were able to really dialogue ... Hopefully, we can put all of this behind us."
But by then it was all getting a little late in the day. Imus had not helped himself with his initial apology and by his decision to appear on Al Sharpton's own radio show in which he made more trouble for himself by losing his temper and referring to Sharpton's black guests that were questioning him as "you people".
By this point many of his advertisers, including American Express and General Motors, had dropped their sponsorship of his show in disgust. While the show brings in about $15m for CBS, it was clear that this was a situation that would not be allowed to continue to fester. As the controversy continued and as the debate about race and ownership of language soared - if it was wrong for Imus to use the word "ho", some commentators argued, than surely it was equally wrong for black rappers to use the word - Imus may have finally sensed the end was up.
In a tragi-comic, only-in-America finale, Imus's final broadcast for CBS took place on Thursday morning during which for four-and-a-half hours he held a "radiothon" to raise money for three different charities he supports - two that help children with cancer and another that campaigns on infant death syndrome. At one point he told a woman whose son had been a guest at ranch that Imus runs for sick children in New Mexico: "It was an honour to be at your son's funeral."
His wife, Deidre, who has promoted her environmental books on the show and who Imus has previously called the "Green Ho", spoke of their meeting with the Rutgers players. "They gave us the opportunity to listen to what they had to say and why they're hurting and how awful this is. And I have to say that these women are unbelievably courageous and beautiful women," she said.
Meanwhile, Imus also railed at the decision to pull the plug on his show and accused the media of hypocrisy. "This may or may not be our final radiothon," he told listeners. "But let's for the sake of safety say it is." Ironically, the radiothon raised more money than in previous years, proving that the cliché about all publicity having value may still be true.
The decision by CBS was welcomed by those who called for him to be fired. Mr Sharpton said: "He says he wants to be forgiven. I hope he continues in that process. But we cannot afford a precedent established that the airways can commercialise and mainstream sexism and racism." Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, described the firing as a "victory for public decency". He added: "No one should use the public airwaves to transmit racial or sexual degradation."
The future for Imus, once voted one of the 25 Most Influential People in America by Time magazine, is at this point unclear. What is certain, however, is that the market for shock jocks, those people who very purpose appears to be to push at the boundaries of taste and decency, remains as strong as ever.
Howard Stern, another notorious shock jock, left terrestrial radio for a satellite channel claiming that his often derogatory comments were being censored too often by the parent company. While his salary has never been made public, when he made the move, Sirius Radio provided a budget of $500m to pay Stern and his team's production costs. While it may get you fired, bigotry can still pay big.
Meanwhile, with Imus having been banished from the airwaves, it fell to Deidre to fill in for her husband yesterday on the final broadcast of Imus in the Morning.
Radio's most controversial stars
The allegedly self-proclaimed "King of Media" has made a highly lucrative career out of outraging America with his shocking comments. Critics say they are routinely racist and sexist but his fans argue that they merely push the boundaries of free speech and comedy.
His reputation for shock tactics have helped him become both one of the most highly paid, and highly fined, radio talk-show hosts in the United States.
Stern shot to fame in 1985 after NBC sacked him for slipping a somewhat controversial sketch into his show entitled "Bestiality Dial-a-Date". The subsequent sacking, naturally, launched his career.
If there's one thing Stern likes to rail against, it's religion. "I'm sickened by all religions," he once said. "Religion has divided people. I don't think there's any difference between the pope wearing a large hat and parading around with a smoking purse, and an African painting his face white and praying to a rock."
Pity the anti-war protester who crosses swords with the former actor, DJ and gameshow host Danny Bonaduce, particularly if they are a celebrity. The self-proclaimed "patriot" and long time Republican supporter caused a storm when he suggested Jane Fonda, who was prominent in opposingthe invasion of Iraq, should have been shot for treason. On Rosie O'Donnell, who dared to compare the danger posed by "radical Christians" as akin to the threat of Islamic terrorism, Bonaduce once said: "If anyone had a rope thick enough, I think that Rosie should be strung up for treason." A YouTube video of the gameshow host expressing his outrage outside a Hollywood cafe at the 11 September terror attack conspiracy theories became an internet phenomenon and a major source of ridicule from the left.
Savage may not be his real surname (Weiner is), but to any "liberal" on the end of one of his attacks, Michael Savage is everything his name suggests. His nationally syndicated radio show The Savage Nation reaches more than 8 million listeners in the US. Born into a Bronx-based Russian-Jewish family, Savage wasn't always a raging conservative, and was once friends with Beat generation icons such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Nowadays he is less fond of them. "I looked at [Ginsberg] almost like a rabbinic figure," he once said. "Little did I know that he was the fucking devil."
Opie & Anthony
This pair were responsible for what has been described as the "most vulgar stunt ever broadcast" when they played a live audio broadcast of a couple having sex in the vestibule of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Four years after being sacked from their Washington show, they have returned to the airwaves with a fresh barrage of smut. Their current favourite is W.O.W - Whip 'em out Wednesday - which encourages women to expose their breasts to random passersby, and an "April Fool" in which they claimed that the Mayor of Boston had been killed in a car crash. The pair have twice been fined by the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] for violating decency standards - including complaints about a jingle they entitled "Guess what's in My Pants" and another song called "I'm Horny for Little Girls".
Is Shock Radio Dead?
More potty-mouthed DJs join Don Imus in doghouse
Bad boys of radio living on borrowed time as sexist, slur-filled gags garner suspensions, firings
May 15, 2007
By Gil Kaufman
It was a good, flatulent, slur-filled and sexist-gag-soaked run, but the bad boys of radio appear to be living on borrowed time.
On Tuesday (May 15), XM shock duo Opie and Anthony were slapped with a 30-day suspension for last week's gag involving a homeless character discussing his desire to sexually assault Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, first lady Laura Bush and the Queen of England.
"Nobody in radio thinks they're a shock jock; they're entertainers. But if [the genre] isn't dead, it's certainly had a storm warning," said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, citing last month's firing of Don Imus as well as this week's canning of the New York duo JV and Elvis over an on-air prank that featured a derogatory call to a Chinese restaurant.
Add in the firing last week of New York Power 105 jock Donnell "Ashy" Rawlings for making anti-Semitic remarks and a flap in Cincinnati over billboards for an AM talk station that used exaggerated Hispanic stereotypes and you have what appears to be a death knell for a genre that has been cracking wise about minorities, politicians, women and anyone else within earshot since the early 1970s. "It's certainly put a chill in the air, like when you're driving down the highway and you see someone pulled over and you look at your speedometer," Taylor said.
If the genre isn't down for the count, it's certainly wounded, according to Radio & Records Executive Editor Paul Heine. "It remains to be seen whether or not broadcasters will get some balls and stand up for their right to entertain people on radio," he said. "But the whole genre of edgy radio is under the microscope now, and anyone with an ax to grind will probably have their words fall on receptive ears."
The suspension of Opie and Anthony — who set the outrage bar pretty high in 2002 when they were fired for sponsoring a contest in which a couple had sex in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral — added a new wrinkle to the Imus blowback because the duo are now on a satellite channel, which is not regulated by the feared Federal Communications Commission. An XM spokesperson did not return calls, but in a statement, the company said that comments the duo made on their show Monday "put into question whether they appreciate the seriousness of the matter."
Even though the Opie and Anthony show is on one of XM's explicit channels, a tamer version of their show is also simulcast on some CBS Radio stations — which carried Imus and, coincidentally, fired the pair in 2002 over the St. Patrick's gag. The suspension could have something to do with a current push by XM and Sirius to convince the government to roll back restrictions that would prohibit them from merging. "If you work for XM or Sirius right now, it's not a good time to say something provocative," explained Sean Ross of radio research firm Edison Media Research. "[The same goes] if you work at CBS, which is going to have to defend its decision to break Imus' contract."
Opie and Anthony apologized for their gag last week, but they took a different stand during Monday's broadcast, according to The Associated Press. "We're under the same scrutiny as [National Public Radio] — it doesn't make sense," they said on Monday's show. The pair also expressed sympathy for Don Imus, saying his career is now "gone, just because he was trying to entertain people."
Suddenly, jokes that seemed funny to some even a month ago are off limits. The undisputed master of this kind of toilet humor radio, Howard Stern, however, appears to have skated around the controversy so far despite continuing his patented brand of provocative, often offensive gags on Sirius satellite radio. Stern's agent did not return calls for comment.
Ross said there are hundreds of other edgy shows across the country that have less visibility than some of the genre's fallen stars and they won't likely all go away overnight, if ever. But they will certainly think twice before making the kinds of jokes that used to pass without much uproar.
"Are you saying you can't entertain without saying racial slurs or talking about assaulting prominent women?" Ross said. "I would hope that these people see themselves as having more to say. ... But the bigger issue is, I don't know what anyone who makes any of these comments means. I don't think it's because it's a deeply held opinion and they say they're doing it as comics to be provocative, which is maybe even worse."
Holland Cooke — a news-talk specialist and consultant for McVay Media, the biggest radio programming consulting firm in the world — said another factor in the potential demise of the genre is the emergence of instant protest over the Internet by watchdog groups like Media Matters and the Family Research Council, which can flood e-mail inboxes within minutes, cutting the time it used to take to mail a letter of protest and wait for a reaction. Another blow is the popularity of sites like YouTube, which helped spur Imus' fall thanks to the widely distributed footage of his derogatory comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team.
"You can [still] say whatever you want," Cooke argued, even in light of the Imus meltdown, which he said had more to do with where Imus made his comments, i.e. on TV and radio, than what he said. But the question for many shock jocks going forward will be, is it worth the laughs?
For more on Imus' firing and the attack on hip-hop that followed, see "Hip-Hop On The Defensive After Imus Incident; Sharpton Calls For 'Dialogue' With MCs," "Hip-Hop Hits Back At Imus, Critics: T.I., Snoop, Fat Joe, Common Weigh In" and "Hip-Hop Under Fire: A Video Timeline Of Controversies Over Rappers And Their Rhymes."
Don Imus and Other Radio Shock Jocks: Can They Say That?
Call It Revenge of the White Guys--the More Disgusting They Are, the Higher the Ratings
April 1, 2000
By Leslie Milk
IT'S WEDNESDAY AT 5:30 PM. CARS ARE crawling along I-66 and the Beltway. In the WJFK studio in Fairfax, Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara, the "radio gods" of drive-time, are ready for the "JO [jerk-off] test."
To win a pair of wrestling tickets, a listener on the phone has to guess Mike's answers to a series of questions:
Has Mike JO'ed today?
Has Mike JO'ed in front of someone else?
Has Mike ever been caught JO'ing?
Has Mike ever JO'ed while thinking about a coworker?
The day before, Don and Mike did a "prison-sex quiz'':
Have you ever participated in an interracial gang rape?
Have you ever fantasized about your codefendant?
Do you consider taping a sock in your partner's mouth with duct tape a legitimate form of foreplay?
TELEVISION JUST REDISCOVERED GAME shows--radio never forgot them. Every week, Howard Stern's morning show has studio guests or celebrities playing games like "Black Jeopardy" or "Who's the Jew?"
Recently Stern had three "contestants," named Kareem in my Coffee, Link, and Amos Alien, playing "Black Jeopardy":
"This ass-kisser drove OJ during the high-speed chase. Who be?"
"The hot piece of white ass who was having sex with OJ during the trial. Who be?"
"The nice brother of that arrogant Gumble on the Today show. Who be?
For Final Jeopardy, the contestants had to spell "barbecue." All three got it wrong.
ELLIOT SEGAL, THE GEN-X SHOCK JOCK DC-101 hired to rev up its morning ratings, prefers to ask his studio pals and his listeners more profound questions, such as "If you could get a million dollars for cutting off a finger, would you do it? Which finger?" Segal recently asked his sidekick Diane Stupar: "If you were in the morgue when JFK Jr. came in, would you touch it--the 'humma humma'? Would you kiss it?"
Washington's inquiring minds must want to know the answers--shock jocks dominate the radio dial. Don & Mike and Howard Stern are number one in their time slots, catapulting WJFK-FM, "guy-talk" radio, into second place in the Washington-area Arbitron ratings.
TALK RADIO IS BOOMING ALL OVER. "IT IS a growing power in our society. It is fun and easy and lucrative to perform," says author and former Washington radio talker Peter Laufer.
Radio's talking heads fall into three camps. There are the ideologues, such as Rush Limbaugh, who tell you how to think. There are the moralists, such as Dr. Laura Schlesinger, who tell you how to live. And there are the entertainers. Shock jocks are first and foremost entertainers.
They aren't heirs to Edward R. Murrow. They are the sons of Saturday Night Live. The lewder, cruder, and ruder they are, the higher their ratings. According to one study, Howard Stern haters listen for the same reason that listeners who love him do: "I want to hear what he'll say next."
Q:Who has a large penis in Hollywood?
A: Don Johnson. I hear Sean Connery has a large penis.
Q: Which one of the 'Friends'?
A. Lisa Kudrow.
The only way Bill Bradley could get attention now is to take his penis out.
--Don Imus, Imus in the Morning
HOWARD STERN ARRIVED IN WASHINGTON in March 1981. "He came in and set the market on its ear," recalls longtime radio personality Jim Elliott. "Washington had never heard anything like it before. Howard's idea was to piss people off; ours was to hug ladies and babies."
Stern's rise in Washington was meteoric. He proved that Washington is a good audience for raunch radio. Based on the ratings, a lot of people listen to Howard Stern whining about his tiny penis or Don Imus on WTEM-AM asking New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman her bra size. Whitman isn't the only public figure to be embarrassed this way. It's open season on celebrities on shock-jock radio.
Monica Lewinsky--I thought she was a spokesman for Jenny Craig. She looks like she swallowed Jenny Craig. Which wouldn't be the first time she swallowed something.
John McCain wouldn't be a candidate if he had just been a better pilot.
--Howard Stern show
WASHINGTON IS NOT ONLY A GOOD audience for shock jocks, it is also the biggest incubator for them. Howard Stern became a star here. Doug "Greaseman" Tracht started--and ended--here. No other city could produce a G. Gordon Liddy, who dispenses wit and wisdom for four hours a day on topics ranging from the ways to kill a person with your bare hands to what a man should wear when the invitation calls for "elegant casual."
Liddy's answer to the latter: "designer jeans, they would be tailored, and an expensive shirt."
Washington's other export is the Don & Mike show. Geronimo and O'Meara paired up at WAVA 11 years ago. Their show is now broadcast on WJFK and in 56 other radio markets. Six million listeners all over America are taking the "JO test."
This month, Geronimo and O'Meara are going to New York, the mecca of all mike guys. Two or three days a week, they'll be broadcasting from the studios of WNEW, once the symbol of elegant urbanity, where William B. Williams paid homage to his idol Frank Sinatra by coining the nickname Chairman of the Board.
The buttoned-down, politically correct Washington is a fertile field for shock jocks, says Jane Hall, an assistant professor in American University's School of Communication and a former media reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "The shock value is perceived as an antidote to correctness.
"A lot of talk shows appeal to the angry white guy," Hall says. The shock jock "gives voice to the really ugly thoughts: 'Minorities have gotten too much.' 'I'm not doing as well as I used to.' "
Many of these men resent "objective journalism" that rarely reflects their views and the arrogant journalists who they believe talk down to them, Hall adds.
Local shock jocks also explode the myth that Washingtonians are obsessed with politics and policy issues. "People could give a rat's ass about politics, unless it's Bill and Monica," Don Geronimo says.
Elliot Segal agrees. "I'm not going to spend the next eight months talking about George W. Bush. PlayStation2 is coming out. To me, that's interesting."
NOBODY UNDERSTANDS THIS BETTER THAN WJFK-FM: "The station with less BS."
Kenneth Stevens, former manager of WJFK, bragged that his stars talk "generally the way their audience talks." Otherwise, "They would hardly be accepted as real," Stevens said.
Not just real people--real men. WJFK is the tower that testosterone built. More than 70 percent of its listeners are male. Macho radio attracts the listeners that advertisers like--men ages 25 to 44; educated, successful men with money to spend. Most WJFK listeners have college degrees and earn more than $75,000 a year. With stats like that, Don Geronimo can afford to say "Eat my shorts, Linda Wertheimer!"
WJFK STARS, LIKE OTHER SHOCK JOCKS, pride themselves on being equal-opportunity offenders. They say things that get professional athletes in trouble and guys in suits fined or fired.
This is the last bastion of loudmouthed bad boys who see themselves as an endangered species. This is the revenge of the white guys--they own the playing field. They get to win.
So you're half Arab, half Jew. What do you do, negotiate with a sheep before you hump it?
I have been working to solve the problem of the retarded: Send them to Jeffrey Dahmer's house.
--Howard Stern show
The only bad thing about the Rodney King incident is that Clarence Thomas wasn't in the back seat.
--Howard Stern show
SHOCK JOCKS SAY THEIR COMMENTS ARE inspired by humor, not hatred. People who know them personally often take less offense than people who hear them on the air.
Don Imus is an example. A few years ago, Imus referred to Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz as a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy.'' Kurtz did not see it as anti-Semitism. "While Imus sometimes goes over the line, most listeners understand that he is in the satire game--and that makes all the difference," Kurtz says.
But it's the shock jock's message, not his motives, that blasts out of radios. Sometimes that message is so obnoxious that the offended want to get the shock jock fined or banned from the airwaves.
In August, when a Texas border town decided to conduct its city meetings in Spanish, Don and Mike called a town official on the air. Residents who don't speak English "should get on their burros and go back to Mexico," they said.
A complaint was filed with the Federal Communications Commission. A few stations dropped the Don & Mike show. WJFK and the two jocks apologized, and the show went on as before.
Greg Edger [WJFK board operator] wields his penis like the Three Musketeers wield their swords. He would take it and make a giant Z on you, like Zorro.
--Don & Mike show
I don't mean to belittle anybody, but have you ever seen somebody who has a finger coming out of their arm? . . . You could use it to scratch your head . . . "Sing Us a Song of Thalidomide."
--Elliot in the Morning
You should have been aborted. I wish I could go back in time and visit your mother with a coat hanger.
--Don & Mike show
CAN THEY SAY THAT ON THE RADIO? IT seems so. The FCC has to bend over backward to protect free speech, no matter how obnoxious that speech may be, according to the FCC's David Fiske. The First Amendment protects programming that stereotypes or offends people "with regard to their religion, race, national background, gender, or other characteristics."
Obscenity and indecency guidelines that stations are supposed to follow are so loosely worded that Don and Mike's frequent caller "Cheryl the Big Dyke" can easily slide through them. "Contemporary community standards" are supposed to define the acceptability of material about "sexual or excretory organs or activities."
If contemporary community standards include women's magazines selling sex on every cover--including a step-by-step guide to oral sex in a recent issue of Cosmopolitan--the shock jocks don't seem so shocking.
The FCC almost never revokes a radio license for these offenses. Anything goes on raunch radio, unless it crosses a line--one that nobody can quite define.
But the public seems to know indecency when it hears it. When Doug "the Greaseman" Tracht made wisecracks about the killing of a black man in Texas, the outcry was immediate. Despite his many apologies, Tracht's radio career as a shock jock may be history. Recently, he was hired by a small station in St. Croix--and fired before he started working.
But there is no such outcry about bad taste. Howard Stern can say to a studio guest, "I like black women with straight hair. What about your pubes, do you straighten those too?"
Don and Mike can interview a man who runs his business from his bathroom and mention that his wife is on the toilet during the interview. They can give a colleague a birthday surprise involving two adult entertainers and broadcast a play-by-play of the birthday boy enjoying his gift:
"Jimmy is wearing the penis mask . . . the girls are naked . . . he's turning her knobs . . . Jimmy is handcuffed . . . the penis mask is near his no-no place . . . she's riding the penis mask. That thing looks like a Bob Evans sausage . . ."
BASED ON THE RATINGS, WASHINGTONIANS think this show is a riot. The Don & Mike show has topped all competitors in 27 of the past 30 Arbitron books.
As H.L. Mencken observed, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Or the taste of radio listeners.