Phony Business

Three years ago, a DJ named Mancow Muller came to Chicago radio station WCRX 103.5FM and proceeded to destroy the competition. He took the "shock jock" disc jockey format pioneered by Don Imus and Howard Stern and within a matter of months took command of the all-important 18-to-34 year-old advertising demographic. It wasn't much longer before "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" was the #1 morning show across the board in Chicago, and now he is riding his success into syndication across the country. He is currently on the air in 10 states, with Atlanta and Denver on the way. But there is a secret to Muller's success, and it's not a pleasant one.Carl Kozlowski dials into Mancow's hoax-call hangup Mancow Muller, host of Mancow's Morning Madhouse on WCRX-FM 103.5, has become a top draw for Chicago's young male listeners by mixing rowdy comedy and fringe political commentary with appearances by a bizarre assortment of seemingly disturbed individuals. Supposed child molesters, racists, kidnappers, murderers and con artists have been featured on the program, stirring a mix of debate and diatribe that usually climaxes with Muller expressing his disgust and kicking the lowlifes off the air. In several cases, however, these vile callers are not who they appear to be. Rather, they are local comedians recruited to play it absolutely straight. With Muller offering no disclaimers, listeners must sort the reality from the fiction on their own. I should know: I was hired to make one of the bogus calls last week. In addition, I interviewed several comedians who say they participated in similar hoaxes after being approached by Madhouse independent contractor Harry Berberian.Chicago comic Chris Barron, for instance, says he found himself playing one James Payne last October. The Payne character had 100 credit cards maxed out at $10,000 apiece, for a grand total of $1 million in debt. Payne wasn't on the air out of shame, Barron says, but rather to give tips about how to rack up and abuse big credit lines. A tape of that day's show reveals that at least some listeners believed his character enough to call in and express their anger over his supposed credit-card fraud. Soon after he agreed to play the part, Barron says, "I realized it wasn't just a comedy bit-it was treated as a real thing and at no point would they acknowledge it wasn't real. When Harry [Berberian] asked me to play this character, he said, 'When you come into the station they want you to be in character. If you identify yourself as yourself and not the character, the deal's off, even when you go up to the receptionist walking in.'" Other actors say they were hired to portray such characters as a black restaurant worker who spits in the food of white patrons, a white man who spray-paints cars owned by blacks and Hispanics, a practicing child molester, and a man who wants to kidnap and kill a woman for Mancow. At no time, say the participants, did anyone on the show indicate that these calls were hoaxes. I verified that Muller passes off fake guests as real by agreeing to do a call myself. I have performed stand-up comedy on the local open-mic scene and had met Harry Berberian before his recent move to Los Angeles. When I called WCRX and told Madhouse director Rusty Humphries I was a local comic who wanted to get in on the hoax-call action, the following exchange occurred:Humphries: "If you really know what you're doing and you have friends who have done this, you'll know to get in touch with a guy named Harry." Me: "I know Harry, and he's in L.A."Humphries: "You'd still know how to find him." The phone clicked off. The comics I interviewed had warned me that the fake calls are arranged outside of the program's official auspices. I next contacted Berberian in L.A. He asked me to play Jim Breen, a man who as a child had been repeatedly sodomized by his father with a corn dog. Despite the seemingly absurd nature of the call, Berberian urged me to act with complete sincerity. "Be completely serious: This is not to be a joke," he said. "Focus on the corn dogs, make it as controversial as possible and keep it real. Keep it real."In the course of our conversation, Berberian took credit for creating a character who recently shook up listeners by relating that his wife left him for beating their Down's syndrome child until he was 7, and who wished that all Down's syndrome children could be killed. How does he come up with these ideas? "I'm a comedy-writing genius," Berberian said with a laugh. His final piece of advice: Push the call to the limit by saying I had blocked out the abuse until five years ago, when I had a flashback while putting ketchup on a corn dog. (I'll allow the reader to make the visual connection.) Before hanging up, Berberian added, "Try not to tell anyone you're doing this. Or at least keep it within the acting community."On March 26, my phone rang at 7:40am. A Madhouse employee put me on hold until Muller was ready for me. At 7:45, Muller gave Jim Breen a dead-serious introduction.Muller: "Jim, so many times we hear from different convicted killers, child molesters, from rapists, any kind of filth our planet can put together. We always hear they have an excuse because their childhood was bad. And you wanted to come on and talk about this because there's some men who abuse their children and they don't realize what they're doing to their children. And of course, your form of abuse was extreme." Me: "Yes, it was. It was highly unusual." After a few more introductory remarks, Muller played the part of responsible broadcaster.Muller: "I ask you to use, and I want to caution children to move away from the radio."Me: "Absolutely."Muller: "Jim, I'd like you to describe what happened to you. When we talked in the pre-interview, of course we got graphic. We are on the radio, many ears are listening, I ask you to be as delicate as you can and use medical terms whenever possible."Me: "Yes sir. I'm not sure if there's a medical term for the item my father used-"Muller: "Jim, when people are raped, and I've said this, the rapist should have his penis cut off."Me: "Yes."Muller: "But rape doesn't necessarily have to be a penis. It can be a tongue, could be a finger, it could be the end of a stick as it is in many cases. A lot of guys who are rapists are not able to actually get an erection to rape somebody. A rape could be done with a pen, with anything. So you were indeed raped, and there are gonna be people who say, 'He wasn't raped,' but you were raped and you were raped-" Me: "With a corn dog, sir. Yes, my father went down to purchase corn dogs, he'd heat 'em up, and utilize them on me in a rather, uh, fashion." Muller: "He would sodomize you with corn dogs." After a few more moments of banter, Muller provided a graphic summary of the issues in the call: "Here we've got incest, we've got rape, we've got child molestation-pedophilia. All kinds." More banter ensued about the inability of Jim's father to maintain an erection, including an obvious joke by Muller, which newswoman Irma Blanco took exception to, saying, "Don't make fun of him. My God, this is serious!" Ultimately, Muller asked me to urge men who are sodomizing their kids with corn dogs to stop. I was also asked if I had trouble going near corn dogs in stores, and when I said I had flashback problems, Muller began his closing volley.Muller: "If I told you we just had pulled a corn dog out of the microwave and I was eating one right now, how would you feel about me?" Me: "I think you'd have to be a really, really heartless bastard." Suddenly, horror-movie music burst forth and Muller screamed. Muller: "Irma, pass the ketchup!"His laughter dissolved into a blistering rock track. But the next morning brought an even more bizarre twist to the corn-dog story. At the close of the show, Blanco told Muller to wait-they had received an unsigned fax that he just had to hear. The writer, she said, was upset that the corn-dog call was treated as a joke because he had been abused with corn dogs himself. The listener further wrote that rape is a serious matter no matter how it occurs and asked Muller to back off and allow my character to begin the healing process. Muller sounded stunned, and proceeded to replay the call. At no point did he cop to the hoax.But when I called to get a comment for this story, Muller defended the corn-dog call and others like it by putting them in the context of a wacky morning radio show. "If you portray me as taking something as serious as child molestation and making light of it, that is something that I would never do and I will sue the paper," Muller told me. "Obviously, the corn-dog call was not on a news show. It's a comedy show. When Jack Nicholson fell into a vat of acid in 'Batman,' he didn't really become the Joker. This is a morning show that tries to be funny. My audience can figure it out."Muller also disputed the level of responsibility he has for the guests Berberian sends his way. "Harry is an independent contractor," the shock jock said. "I have 20 of these guys working for me, looking for ideas and talent. I can't control what two-bit comedians will claim to get a piece of my fame. I can't control it if someone comes on as serious when they're not."Berberian might be an independent contractor, but he seems to be in close contact with Muller. The evening after my appearance as Jim Breen, the writer called my answering machine and said, "Hi Carl, this is Harry Berberian. I talked to Mancow today and he said he liked what you did very much, that it was very good. See, we can do it. We did it. Corn dog! Good! Gimme a call back and let me get all your information, and then in about 10 weeks or so-it takes a while, so don't be standing on pins and needles-but we'll actually give you a $50 check to do what you did, too. Anyway, gimme a call. Bye." After he learned that I was writing a story about the show, Berberian did not return my calls. One of Muller's rewards for success in Chicago was winning the 1996 Mainstream Rock Local Radio Air Personality of the Year award from Billboard. The magazine's radio editor, Chuck Taylor, says it's not surprising Muller would fake phone calls. "Certainly any DJ is going to use any number of platforms to establish and build an image," Taylor says. "Employing people to build his image off of is not uncommon. Mancow is still a rare breed. There are few shock DJs with as broad a reach who are as successful and syndicated, so that puts him farther up the ladder. If he was in Anchorage, Alaska, he'd be much more limited-the community wouldn't stand for it. But Chicago's the third-largest market and listeners of this brand of personalities are extremely loyal. This is not going to turn away listeners, because he's still making his points whether the calls are real or fake."

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