Shock jocks ignore taste for ratings, better jobs; In city, some radio hosts keep up their bad jokes

By Joshua Benton and Michael D. Sallah
Blade Staff Writers

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Less than 24 hours after WSPD’s Scott Sloan was suspended for remarks about assassinating the Rev. Jesse Jackson, WVKS colleague Denny Schaffer was on the air offending local black leaders and making Jewish jokes.

In the space of two hours yesterday, Mr. Schaffer defended inviting a prominent black leader in Toledo to eat ribs with him at Denny’s and played a song making fun of Hanukkah.

“Different people get offended by different things,” he said on the air.

Even with Mr. Sloan suspended without pay for a week, Mr. Schaffer showed no sign of altering his outrageous style.

“Everyone in talk radio is aware of what happened (in Toledo to Scott Sloan),” said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, a national radio trade publication. “But that’s not shock radio. That’s stupid execution of shock radio.”

Analysts and academics agree that WSPD’s and WVKS’s brand of “shock radio” has been a remarkable success around the country, despite the controversies that always seem to accompany it – in fact, perhaps because of the controversies.

It’s almost a rule in shock radio today: Talk show hosts seek out controversy through outrageous comments, and usually end up profiting from it in one way or another.

Radio stations love the added listeners controversy can bring. And the radio personalities themselves, even if they are disciplined by their employers, often get better jobs in the end.

“It’s good for business, and that seems to be the real trend,” said Dr. Diana Owen, a political science professor at Georgetown University. “It’s not about whether you believe in an issue. It’s how far you can push the envelope.”

The latest radio controversy began on Nov. 17, when Mr. Sloan spoke out against Mr. Jackson for his role in the Decatur, Ill., standoff over six boys expelled from a high school there for fighting.

Mr. Sloan said that Mr. Jackson wanted to become a martyr like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and said he wanted to help Mr. Jackson in his cause. He called a hotel with a similar name to the motel where Dr. King was killed, asked about its balconies, and said that once hotel arrangements were made, “All we need now is a shooter.”

Community groups responded angrily, saying that the remarks were hateful and racist.

On Sunday, Clear Channel Communications, which owns WSPD, WVKS, and three other Toledo stations, announced that Mr. Sloan was being suspended without pay for one week as a result of his comments.

The decision received national attention yesterday, with stories published in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, along with daily newspapers in Atlanta, New Orleans, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Dayton.

“These are people who don’t have writers, who don’t have time to research, who don’t really think about what they are saying. It was clearly a stupid thing to say,” Mr. Harrison said.

It wasn’t the first time that a radio personality has reached the national spotlight for comments others consider racist or off-color. It’s common for shock jocks to be suspended or fired. And it’s common for them to go right back on the air – often with better jobs.

In New York, WABC radio fired Bob Grant in 1996 after he said he was “a pessimist” for believing that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had survived a plane crash. Secretary Brown, who was black, died in the crash; Mr. Grant had attracted attention for calling blacks “savages.”

Within days, Mr. Grant was hired by rival WOR, and his show became syndicated nationwide.

In Nashville, disc jockey John Ziegler was fired in 1997 after he used a racial epithet to describe boxer Mike Tyson. He went on to be hired by Philadelphia station WWDB.

The most recent high profile shock jock to be fired was Doug “Greaseman” Tracht. Washington’s WARW fired him in February after he played a record by hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill and remarked, “No wonder people drag them behind trucks,” a reference to the murder of a black man in Texas. Three white men were convicted, two receiving the death penalty and one receiving life in prison

Mr. Tracht had drawn fire in 1986 while working at another Washington station. He was talking about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and said: “Kill four more and we can take a whole week off.” That remark sparked protests and bomb threats to the station.

Premier shock jock Howard Stern has offended people throughout his career, and yet he has become one of America’s biggest celebrities. And he is still offending some listeners.

In April, he joked about the mass murder at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo. “Did [the killers] try to have sex with any of the good-looking girls? They didn’t even do that?” he told his syndicated audience. “At least if you’re going to kill yourself and kill all the kids, why wouldn’t you have some sex?”

But even with the controversy surrounding Mr. Sloan’s comments, that didn’t stop his Clear Channel colleague, Mr. Schaffer, from continuing to push the boundaries of what some people would consider good taste.

Yesterday’s program made fun of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins on Friday night, playing a song set to the tune of “White Christmas.”

“I’m dreaming of a white Hanukkah / When we made dreidels in the snow,” the lyrics go. “The menorah glistened / And we all listened / To Barbra Streisand as it glowed.”

The program also played a fake advertisement for a turbo-charged menorah that could produce enough fire to “melt the polar ice cap.” Candles are lit each night of the eight-night festival.

Local Jewish leaders said they believe the comments were less offensive than some things the Toledo airwaves have carried in the past, but still in poor taste.

“I think it was an attempt at humor,” said Rabbi Edward H. Garsek, of the Orthodox Congregation Etz Chayim. “Some people might find it funny, including some Jewish people, but I think it’s in poor taste.”

“This is a spin-off of bad Jackie Mason humor,” said Rabbi Alan Sokobin, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shomer Emunim. “I’m not offended if people don’t intend to offend me. I don’t think it’s good humor, but I’ve had people not laugh at some of my jokes before, too.”

Mr. Schaffer was criticized on WSPD this morning by Larry Sykes, the only African-American on the Toledo Public Schools board. Mr. Sykes, appearing on the station, said that Mr. Schaffer had left a harassing message on the answering machine of WilliAnn Moore, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Schaffer was inviting Ms. Moore to lunch, he said.

“We’ll go to lunch,” he said. “We’ll go to a rib place. … Where should we go to lunch? … We could go to Denny’s Restaurant and see if we all get served.”

Denny’s Restaurant has been the target of several lawsuits and a federal investigation over complaints that it discriminates against minorities, sometimes refusing service to blacks. In 1994, Denny’s agreed to a $54 million settlement of two class-action discrimination lawsuits.

Mr. Schaffer defended himself on his show yesterday, saying that his references to ribs and Denny’s were not meant to stereotype or attack blacks. “If I offended her, that was not my intention,” he said.

On the air, Mr. Schaffer played a recording of the message he left on Ms. Moore’s answering machine. He said he left the message after calling Ms. Moore for an interview one morning in July. Ms. Moore hung up on Mr. Schaffer after he identified himself. “She hates me because I’m white,” Mr. Schaffer said at the time.

He then called her back and left the message on her machine. “I thought if I was outrageous a little bit, maybe she would pick up the phone,” he said. He said that he knew that “ribs, chicken, and watermelon” were stereotypical items in the diet of African-Americans.

But Mr. Sykes said yesterday that he did not accept Mr. Schaffer’s explanation.

“To me, it’s an insult, and it’s harassment at that point,” Mr. Sykes said. “You’re calling this lady’s home again after it’s been made clear she doesn’t want to talk to you, and talking about Denny’s, which is notorious. I think that goes beyond wanting to talk to someone to disrespecting someone.”

To Mr. Schaffer’s on-air statement that his words had been misinterpreted, Mr. Sykes said: “That station has more misinterpretations than any station I know.

“Mr. Sloan is not the problem, and Mr. Schaffer isn’t the problem. The format is the problem,” Mr. Sykes said. “The atmosphere must be conducive to this sort of development.”

The Clear Channel stations have been the target of criticism in the past. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, Mr. Sloan said that Muhammad Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, might drop the Olympic torch on “some greasy Middle Easterner.” WSPD and Mr. Sloan refused to apologize for the statement.

Neither Ms. Moore nor Mr. Schaffer could be reached for comment yesterday.

WSPD and its morning host, Mark Standriff, are the target of a lawsuit filed on Sept. 28 by The Blade. The suit accuses WSPD and Mr. Standriff of stealing The Blade’s news content and reading it on the air without attribution. WSPD and Mr. Standriff have denied the charges.

The origin of “shock radio”‘ is sketchy, but some people trace it to California in the 1960s, with radio figures Joe Pyne and Bill Ballance.

While Americans were still tuning into standard news programs and popular music, these two talk radio hosts were often criticized for being irreverent toward guests, and at times, hostile.

Mr. Pyne railed against big government, while Mr. Ballance was known for constantly making sexually explicit remarks over the air. Mr. Pyne died of cancer in 1970 at the age of 44, and Mr. Ballance was ordered by the Federal Communications Commission in 1969 to “cease and desist” from making such comments.

“Ballance was the king of sex,” says Robert West, a retired professor of journalism at Kent State University. “He broke ground on radio with his comments, which drew a lot of criticism from groups.'”

The FCC was much tougher on controversial radio personalities, but by the late 1970s, “you could see that they were backing off,” Dr. West said, and talk about taboo topics was “not as much of an issue anymore.”

During that period, one of the country’s biggest shock jocks emerged: Howard Stern.

Engaging and irreverent, Mr. Stern changed the face of talk radio when he entered the Washington, D.C., radio market in 1980. He could be caustic, and at times, antagonistic, but perhaps his strongest suit was then and remains his penchant for talking about sex. He raised controversy with his on-air antics and irreverent remarks, and raised ratings in the process for his station.

Others began to mimic the “shock jock,”‘ as he was known, and a new radio format began to be popularized.

Michael Marsden, provost and vice president for academic research at Eastern Kentucky University, said the development of shock radio was a response to the rise of television.

As the television market grew, “radio was forced to respond,” he said, “and it had to do it in a bigger way: that is, being outlandish and trying to keep people on pins and needles.”

The topics of sex and race and politics became the staples of the rising genre, but Dr. Marsden cautioned that the new format “was never to be confused with broadcast journalism,” he said. “It is, and always has been, entertainment.”

“You have to understand that they are not there to comfort,” Dr. Marsden said. “They are there to afflict. They are there to keep us on pins and needles. They play with our fears, and in some ways, reinforce the sense that life is out of control.”

In a national study of talk radio hosts titled “The New Media in American Politics,” two professors found that many of the personalities they interviewed admitted to taking on controversial issues just “to get people to listen to their shows,” said Dr. Owen, one of the two authors of the study.

“It was for the ratings, not for what they truly believed,” she said. “Many times, they said they could care less about what they were talking about, but their stations wanted them to carry on, so they did.”

Sometimes radio personalities will fume about problems they are having with their station owners, but that is “staged,” like professional wrestling. “It’s a way to get people to listen,” Dr. Owen said.