- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999


Less than 24 hours after Toledo disk jockey Scott Sloan was suspended for remarks about assassinating Jesse Jackson, his colleague Denny Schaffer was on the air offending local black leaders and making Jewish jokes.

Mr. Schaffer defended inviting a prominent black leader 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. But Mr. Sloan also has apologized for remarks that he and Mr. Schaffer made.

"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 the brand of "shock radio" practiced by Mr. Sloan's WSPD and Mr. Schaffer's WVKS 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 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 Martin Luther King, and said he wanted to help Mr. Jackson in his cause. He called a hotel with a similar name to the motel where 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. Clear Channel Communications, which owns WSPD, WVKS, and three other Toledo stations, has announced that Mr. Sloan was being suspended without pay for one week as a result of his comments. The decision received national attention.

"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 then-Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown had survived a plane crash.

Mr. Brown, who was black, died in the crash. Mr. Grant had previously attracted attention for calling blacks "savages." Within days, he was hired by rival WOR, and his show became syndicated nationwide. In Nashville, Tenn., disc jockey John Ziegler was fired in 1997 after he called boxer Mike Tyson a racial slur. 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-FM 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 previously drawn fire in 1986 while working at another Washington station. He was talking about the national holiday for King 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?"

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 in 1969 to "cease and desist" from making such comments by the Federal Communications Commission.

"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," Mr. 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: Mr. Stern. Engaging and irreverent, he changed the face of talk radio when he entered the 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 rise 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 Mr. Marsden cautioned that the new format "was never to be confused with broadcast journalism."

"It is, and always has been, entertainment," he said.

"You have to understand that they are not there to comfort," Mr. 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."

"Good [talk radio] personalities know where the line is, and they don't cross it," Mr. Marsden said. "They are successful in that regard. Less talented people don't know how far they can go. What you end up with is a lot of racism and sexism, the underside of American life."

Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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