The Last Days of Shock Jocks: How a Mad World Drowned Out Radio Loudmouths
Being an edgy, rule-breaking radio host isn't what it used to be. For one thing, the young men and women who used to worship cranky shock jocks as gods aren't as glued to their radios as they once were. In fact, they might not even have radios. According to a recent Edison Media Research Infinite Dial study, one-third of people 18-34 years old have no AM/FM receiver in their home. It's tough to shock people who can't hear you.
While popular shock jocks exist in markets across the country -- like Erich "Mancow" Muller in Chicago or The Billy Madison Show in San Antonio -- many of the genre's biggest stars now lurk behind the paywalls of satellite radio (Howard Stern) or have their own lucrative podcast networks (Adam Carolla). They don't generate headlines like they used to. They aren't changing the culture. They aren't relevant.
Want proof? The most hotly debated radio shock-jock controversies of the last year have all been tied to the past. In February, BuzzFeed unearthed recordings of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump making a series of degrading remarks about women on The Howard Stern Show. Just last weekend, in the wake of the Access Hollywood scandal, CNN released audio of Trump on Stern's show back in 2006 when the mogul gave the OK for Howard to call his daughter Ivanka "a piece of ass."
So, what ended the once-all-powerful reign of the radio shock jock? I went looking for answers, hoping to find a resurgent generation of young shock jocks ready to take over the airwaves. Instead, I found myself watching "how to get laid" horndog Tom Leykis hawk his "Pedal to the Metal" red wine from a stage in a college auditorium. Seriously, what the hell happened?
Portrait of a modern shock jock
Mike Calta bristles at the phrase "shock jock." With his short black hair, carefully cropped beard, small earring, and dark jeans, the Tampa Bay radio personality sticks out at the TALKERS 2016 talk-radio conference at Hofstra University in Long Island. (The conference occurred in May, and months later, the first presidential debate was held at the university.) Attending an industry gathering where many of the older, suit-wearing attendees resemble Sean Hannity clones -- and the actual non-clone Hannity stops by for a breakfast meet-and-greet -- Calta looks like an affable guy who might sell really cool Jet Skis. Or be a shock jock.
"The worst term ever," he jokes as we sit down at a table near the conference's ample lunch buffet. "It's not cool if you call yourself a shock jock. It's not shocking."
And he should know: Calta got his start in radio back in the glory days of shock jock-dom, the early '90s, when drive-time radio shows -- often called "morning zoos" -- were playpens for grown men looking to make prank phone calls, embarrass their less talented sidekicks, and ogle strippers in the studio. The public broadcasting waves were a filthy haven.
Mike Calta's first job in radio came at a station called The Power Pig. He began his broadcasting career as an intern at Florida's WFLZ, and later became a producer for noted Tampa Bay radio personality Bubba "The Love Sponge" Clem. He often went by Cowhead, a nickname he had in high school, but dropped the moniker in 2014. In the early '00s, he left Bubba behind, briefly working in sports radio before getting his own morning show. Along the way, he formed a heated rivalry with Bubba, which is documented in multiple YouTube videos where the two hurl insults at each other. These are some of Calta's most popular videos: An especially brutal one from 2015 has over 96,000 views.
If you don't follow Florida radio rivalries, Calta's name might be familiar because he was named in Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media, which centered around the publishing of a sex tape featuring the professional wrestler and Clem's wife Heather. Other reasons you might know Calta: He interviewed your favorite pro wrestler, you read about him giving out Conan O'Brien's publicist's phone number, or maybe you got a tattoo of an NHL team's logo in his studio. He's a busy man.
Now, Calta is the host of The Mike Calta Show on WHPT The Bone, where he takes calls from listeners, discusses the news of the day with his in-studio cohorts, chats with touring comedians, interviews celebrity guests like Joe Buck and Ralph Macchio, and, in true shock-jock tradition, does the occasional stunt. For a ticket giveaway, Calta once gathered an audience of about 150 people in the studio and taped tickets to a man's back, then had contestants shoot the man with a blow-dart gun. If you hit paper and pierced some flesh, you got to go to the concert.
"To be shocking these days, you have to kill somebody in the studio."
"It's just funny to watch," says Calta while describing the stunt. "All of a sudden, we've struck blood and it's like hitting oil. It's become exciting. Or you miss and you hit the wrong guy. Or you accidentally shoot your producer -- those things are fun."
Calta understands that his show can't duplicate the off-the-cuff profanity of a podcast like Marc Maron's WTF. He gets it. Comedians like Joe Rogan and Adam Carolla command large audiences and increasingly fickle, data-conscious advertisers with their uncensored, freewheeling podcasts because they expand on the shock-jock template: an obnoxious guy who isn't afraid to tell it like it is. The increasingly risk-averse, corporate-controlled terrain of commercial radio has struggled to compete. But like any radio veteran, he appreciates the challenge.
Calta is keenly aware of the restrictions of radio. "To be shocking these days, you have to kill somebody in the studio," he jokes. "It's not that we get up every day and say, 'What can we do today that's so edgy?' It's 'Let's do this like the regular guy would wanna do this.'"
So why do we call them shock jocks anyway?
The phrase "shock jock" is often used to describe two species of radio host: There's the comedic shock jock in the Howard Stern mode, often found on an FM hard-rock station, and the political shock jock in the vein of Rush Limbaugh, typically found on the AM dial. Rush and Howard, as their fans call them, are the twin pillars of shock jock-dom. The political shock jock still has great power in this country; the comedic shock jock is more often than not a punch line.
Nick Kroll's The Douche on Parks and Recreation, the radio workplace sitcom The Jamz on Netflix, and comedian James Adomian's hilarious portrayal of Tom Leykis on Comedy Bang Bang are only a few examples of how modern comedians mock the shock jock. It rarely comes off as a loving tribute; instead, it feels like satire of a dying form. They're lampooning a mutated morning-zoo model that will, perhaps unfairly, always be tied to Stern, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media."
The Queens-born media icon was the product of a specific era: heated conversations about PC culture ruled the airwaves, Federal Communications Commission fines were doled out like small slaps on the wrist, audiences craved provocative stunts, and if you said the word "podcast" you'd sound like a character out of a science-fiction novel. It was a time when a radio host could write a New York Times best-selling autobiography then turn it into a $41 million grossing movie of the same name. (It's called Private Parts, and it's pretty good.)
But Stern didn't emerge out of nowhere; he was working in a rich, filthy lineage. "There was always what was called 'blue humor' and people like Don Imus who were a little dirty," says industry observer, TALKERS Magazine publisher, and TALKERS 2016 conference ringleader Michael Harrison. "They were pushing the limits of what you could hear on the public airwaves. They were challenging the FCC. That was the key to the whole thing: that it was on the 'sacred public airwaves.'"
Building on the work of truth-tellers like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, Stern's cutting wit, frank sex talk, and willingness to "go there" earned him legions of loyal followers who obsessed over the characters orbiting the show like Stuttering John, Jeff the Vomit Guy, and Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf. But it all came back to Stern. He was a phenomenon. With that success came controversy, and with controversy came the engine that drives most shock jocks: getting fired.
Stern's tendency to lose his job was cyclical. "I don't care that I'm going to be fired," he told David Letterman during his first of many appearances on Late Night. "What'll happen is some other radio station will hire me and pay me a lot of money to say obscene things and they'll get uptight about it and they'll fire me and some other radio station will... I'm constantly getting fired."
That backstage drama is not just a feature of a good shock-jock show -- it's part of the DNA. Tension-filled sagas like Stern's played out across the country, with fines and lawsuits only adding to the mystique. In 1997, San Francisco station KSOL-FM had to pay $500,000 in tolls as restitution for a stunt where host Erich "Mancow" Muller caused a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge so a station employee could get a haircut in a van. Boston's Opie and Anthony got fired by WAAF in 1998 for an April Fool's gag that involved telling their audience Mayor Thomas Menino died in a car accident. Months later they were back on the radio in New York. In 2002, Bubba the Love Sponge was acquitted of animal cruelty charges after broadcasting the on-air slaughter of a wild boar. And those are just the famous guys. (Note: They're pretty much always guys.)
For a period, the fines and lawsuits were badges of dishonor, and more than anyone, Stern skillfully positioned himself as a free-speech martyr in the press, even earning an approving profile written by David Remnick in The New Yorker. No fine could stop him. "When Howard got fined it was cool because Howard had always got fined," explains Calta. "He was the original shock jock and he was the bad boy, and he got fined and fought it, and it was great."
Sadly, things did not stay great for long.
The big crackdown
"I can tell you that Janet Jackson was really the thing that fucked it up for everybody," says Calta with a sigh. It's clear this is not his favorite topic. "Once that whole titty-gate thing came out, the FCC started paying more attention."
If shock jocks were dinosaurs in expensive sunglasses, the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII was the giant nipple-shaped asteroid sent to destroy them. Ninety million people watched Justin Timberlake tear off a piece of Janet Jackson's bustier, exposing a partially bare breast for less than a second as "Rock Your Body" played in the stadium. According to an ESPN Magazine story about the event, the FCC received 540,000 indecency complaints about the incident.
Then headed by Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the FCC stepped up its efforts to fight obscenity cases, taking on a more pronounced and proactive role in policing the airwaves. For the Super Bowl moment, 20 Viacom-owned CBS stations were fined a combined $550,000. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act into law, which raised the maximum penalty for broadcasting indecent material on radio and television to $325,000. This meant war.
"The lines are so blurry as far as what's acceptable and what's not by the FCC with the community standard," says Calta. "So you really don't know. Radio erred on the side of caution, which took the wind out of a lot people's sails."
Even before nipple-gate and the fallout, the era of the shock jock showed signs of winding down. In 2002, Opie and Anthony held their annual "Sex for Sam" contest, a promotion for Sam Adams beer that encouraged fans to have sex in public to earn points. A Virginia couple allegedly had sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral and earned 25 points for their trouble, but also got arrested. As a result of the controversy, the show disappeared until Opie and Anthony reemerged on uncensored satellite radio in 2004. Two years ago, Anthony Cumia was fired by SiriusXM for a series of racist tweets he made, and now hosts his own podcast, while Opie remains on satellite radio. (Mike Calta recently announced that he will be co-hosting an afternoon show with Opie on SiriusXM in December.)
Opie and Anthony weren't the only ones losing their jobs. In 2004, Bubba the Love Sponge incurred a $755,000 fine for, among other things, airing sketches where famous cartoon characters discussed drugs and sex. In the midst of the nipple-gate fallout, he was quickly dumped by Clear Channel. Around the same time Slate's Bryan Curtis described Stern as "a shock jock in winter." Hounded by increasing FCC fines, the "King of All Media" made his final terrestrial radio broadcast in 2005 and began his own ongoing satellite radio stint on January 9th, 2006.
Now, when Stern makes headlines, it's more for his impressive skills as interviewer than for his on-air antics or crass humor. Following the Trump controversy, a recent POLITICO feature framed Stern as a "ghost in the machine of the 2016 presidential campaign." Even before the election, he served a few years as a host on NBC's family-friendly competition show America's Got Talent. Instead of a career shift or a cynical rebranding, it was a slow-burn maturation in a media environment that warmed up to his considerable charms.
What changed? The internet, mostly. Who could be shocked by Fartman when you can see unspeakable sites on 4chan by simply opening your web browser? "The thing that has made 'shock jocks' as a term completely irrelevant and passé as a concept has been the pornography industry," says Michael Harrison. "There are truly dirty and shocking things out there that make these guys look tame."
The truth-telling warrior rhetoric of the shock jock should sound familiar if you've watched the news recently. As the Washington Post's David Weigel pointed out in December of last year, the language of shock jocks has been co-opted, streamlined, and some might say perfected by Donald Trump. Perhaps learning things during his infamous Stern appearances, the billionaire has taken the bad-boy shtick of radio DJs out of dingy studios and injected it into mainstream political discourse. Harrison calls him "the first shock-politician."
Despite voting for President Obama in the past, Calta is a Trump fan. He's not sure if a Trump presidency will lead to "fucking chaos" or not, but he's willing to take the risk because he likes that Trump speaks his mind. "Everybody wants to tell the teacher to fuck off," he tells me. "That's what Donald Trump's become."
At the TALKERS conference, Calta is in good company. Though there are liberal voices present, many of the presentations I attend are dominated by the familiar voices of conservative talk radio: loud, brash, and not excited about Hillary Clinton. However, there are fun non-partisan oddities. In the morning, New York sports talk-radio figurehead Mike Francesa gives a monologue from the stage where he name-checks "medium is the message" cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan. Ex-SNL cast member Joe Piscopo is there, though he does political talk now too, and many attendees want him to run for governor of New York. Then there's Tom Leykis, and his bottle of wine.
The veteran West Coast shock jock appears on a panel with the title "Generating Revenue in the Digital Era." About halfway through the discussion, the 60-year-old Leykis pitches his wine, which he holds aloft like a proud papa. "I'm manufacturing my own products and selling them," he says from the stage. "I made 125 cases of Santa Ynez Valley syrah, a top-quality bottle of wine." According to Leykis, he made $35,000 in three days.
Is that the future of the shock jock? Selling wine off your website for $75 per bottle? It's hard to say. Judging from the panel Calta was on called "The Millennials in the Media," which ironically featured no speakers under 30, the future of talk radio is not getting any younger. Though reports of radio's demise are greatly exaggerated -- according to Nielsen, radio still reaches about 90% of adult millennials -- the anxiety about the lack of new young superstars, particularly in the non-music realm, is real.
Unsurprisingly, there weren't many young people at the TALKERS conference. During lunch I sat with a few Hofstra students attending the conference, but after I introduced myself as a reporter they started texting, then immediately left the table. I must've seemed like a cop. My guess is that none of those students will go on to be the next Tom Leykis or Howard Stern.
Despite the paucity of young shock jocks, Calta sees hope for the future in the type of raw, unfiltered comedy he enjoys. He thinks the most innovative material now happens on YouTube in the missives of vloggers and pranksters like Roman Atwood, a favorite of his son. "As far as the shock jock goes, you went from the guys who want to be Howard to the guys who want to be Jackass," he says. "Now you're looking at the guys who want to match things they see on YouTube."
I think he's right. The democratic star-making apparatus of YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, and Instagram makes the hierarchical power structure of talk radio look like the Middle Ages. It's not that the preferred subjects of shock jocks have become irrelevant -- swear words, slapstick violence, fart jokes, and strippers are still popular -- it's that the tools of their trade, the medium they use, and the culture around them are changing so quickly. It's hard to keep up.
As I finish talking to Calta, the truth becomes a little less murky: The shock jocks weren't defeated. They went viral. Like a belching ghost, they haunted radio for decades, then moved on to spread their fumes elsewhere. They walk among us: screaming podcasters, angry Redditors, and egg-avatar Twitter trolls. If you want to know what happened to shock jocks, all you have to do is take a whiff.
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