Shock jocks: A long history of crossing the line

Five years ago, Opie & Anthony were booted from the nation’s airwaves for a stunt where listeners had sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On Tuesday morning, the shock jocks were back on the air, riffing on Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” fiasco.

The latest collision of outrageous radio and outraged listeners is business as usual for morning radio, where jocks walking the line between bad taste and big ratings continually reinvent the art of self-destruction.

“The question is not ‘How far can we go?”’ said Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade magazine Talkers. “It’s always been, ‘Go as far as we can go.’ And then you start testing the line again.”

“The only rule is there are no rules,” said Ron Kuby, the liberal co-host of a morning show on right-leaning WABC-AM. “Once you get beyond the FCC, a host is left to the discretion of a program director, station manager, bosses they’ve never seen, advertisers and a fickle public. What might be fine today results in a boycott tomorrow.”

Even Imus admits he crossed the line with his comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which earned his show a two-week suspension. On Tuesday, Rutgers’ president and basketball coach condemned Imus’ “despicable” remarks and announced the team would meet with the embattled radio personality.

But economics often trumps emotion in an anything-goes business where stars like Imus have earned local radio stations and major media companies millions of dollars with their outrageous antics.

“Radio is where the hippest, most spontaneous pop culture exists, so it’s therefore the place with the most controversy,” Harrison said. “People are constantly dealing with crossing the line.”

And then tripping over that ever-shifting marker, falling face-first into unemployment or anonymity after inserting both feet into their endlessly chattering mouths:

  • Last May, DJ Star of the New York-based “Star & Buc Wild Morning Show” was fired after threatening to sexually abuse a rival DJ’s 4-year-old daughter. For bad measure, he offered to urinate on the child and directed racial slurs at the girl’s part-Asian mother.
  • One year earlier, a three-minute musical “parody” about the killer south Asian tsunami led to the termination of New York-based Hot 97’s morning show co-host and a producer. The same station paid a $240,000 settlement over a promotion dubbed “Smackfest,” where women slapped each other for cash and prizes.
  • In February 2004, popular Florida radio host Bubba the Love Sponge was fired for offensive material that included cartoon characters like George Jetson and Scooby Doo discussing sexual hijinks.
  • Multiple offenders Greg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia were tossed off WNEW-FM in 2002 after the infamous St. Patrick’s Cathedral stunt. They were fired four years earlier in Massachusetts for a misguided April Fool’s joke where they announced Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino was killed in a car crash.
  • And radio’s biggest star, Howard Stern, always paid the biggest obscenity fines for his morning show before jumping to the unregulated haven of satellite radio.

Along with bad taste, most perpetrators had something else in common: They aired in morning drive-time, the most lucrative advertising slot for any radio station. An old radio mantra posits that as goes the morning, so goes the rest of the day.

“Stations want someone edgy and controversial, who creates cooler talk at the office,” said Paul Heine, executive director of Billboard’s Radio & Records. “It’s a quick route to ratings success, but it’s a double-edged sword. If you’re out on a tightrope, you can fall over.”

For Imus, with his national television audience and more than 70 stations for his syndicated radio show, controversy is nothing new — his longtime schtick includes cheap shots at people of every race, color and creed.

He reinvented himself years ago by bringing aboard A-list politicians, authors and journalists, although remnants of the past lingered on the program.

Harrison said radio has long served as an outpost for envelope-pushing material, dating back to the early days of rock ’n’ roll with DJs like Allen Freed — long before Stern launched his first “Lesbian Dial-A-Date.”

On their show Tuesday morning, which airs on both satellite and terrestrial radio, Opie and Anthony were offering their support for Imus — but also joking about taking over his slot should the veteran broadcaster get the ax.

Unless, of course, the pair gets fired first.

© 2007 The Associated Press