Stern Warning

On the cusp of its 75th anniversary, morning radio faces some of its toughest challenges yet. What started out as an experiment with light-hearted goofiness has devolved into a world of powerful "shock jocks" and right wing demagogues.

In a move aimed at showing it's serious about its "zero tolerance" policy, Clear Channel Communications, whose president and CEO John Hogan is a strong Bush supporter, recently dumped Howard Stern, radio's #1 shock jock, from six of its radio stations. Stern, whose New York-based show is syndicated through Viacom subsidiary Infinity Broadcasting, claims his dismissal has less to do with indecency and more to do with politics, having recently flipped from pro-to-anti-Dubya.

In mid-March, fueled by the controversy over the baring of Janet Jackson's right breast during the Super Bowl half-time show, the House passed a tough broadcast-indecency bill that will radically jack up the maximum fines for broadcasting "indecent" material. Around the same time, the Federal Communications Commission voted 4-1 to add another quarter-million dollar fine to the bill of Clear Channel Communications. The fine was leveled because of nine alleged violations on a March 13, 2003 broadcast of the network's "Elliot in the Morning" show involving "graphic and explicit sexual material ... designed to pander to, titillate and shock listeners," the Associated Press reported. The only dissenting commissioner complained that the fine wasn't high enough.

Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 stations nationwide, continues to chew its nails over increased Congressional scrutiny and promises to clean up its act. Stern believes his days are numbered and he is fighting back, calling for support from his audience and turning to friendly D.C. legislators. (Stern recently asked frequent guest Rep. Jose Serrano (D-New York), to put him on his staff so he could appear at hearings, passing notes and whispering in the Congressman's ear, like in the old crime movies.)

Howard Stern didn't spring full blown from the head of Zeus; there is a lineage in the freaky world of wakeup radio. What started out more than seventy years ago as an experiment merging audience building and uncommon salesmanship with light-hearted goofiness, has devolved into a world of powerful "shock jocks" and right wing demagogues.

In the early 1930s Frank Cope initiated the Alarm Klok Klub on KJBS in San Francisco, California, broadcasting from 5 to 8 A.M. every morning, except Sunday. Cope was a master of studied casualness; spinning records and the first to spoof the advertiser's copy. "Cope was probably the world's first bona fide disk jockey, and his daily...[program] was San Francisco's most popular radio program for nearly twenty-five years," John F. Schneider wrote in his 1997 book The History of KJBS, San Francisco.

While Cope became a regional phenomenon, Arthur Godfrey took this new folksy laid-back morning radio format to the nation. "Although Arthur Godfrey is often given credit for being the first radio personality to ad lib commercials and kid his sponsors," Schneider wrote, "Cope was doing all this on KJBS in the 1930's." But Godfrey, who was later to become a television icon, perfected the one-on-one style of morning talk; a friendly voice that seemed to be talking to each member of the listening audience.

Soon, across the continental 48, wakeup shows began cropping up on powerful outlets, but local, spontaneous independents -- with their own newsmen, local advertising base, and community feel -- came to rule the roost by 1950.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, "personality" radio featured controversial local morning hosts who gave exposure to a group of heady iconoclasts (the so-called "sick comics") such as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Shelley Berman. This morning show access to comedy promotion is codified to this day.

As younger, wilder "Top 40" morning men replaced "personalities" the atmosphere for the shock jock format was coming in to play. In the 1970s male hyper-egos slowly took talk around the clock; by the Reagan era it orbited to the right, and off the charts.

During the past thirty years rock-rapping anarchic morning punks who thrive on dirty jokes and character assassination emerged. Pre-prepped packaging dictates the warp'n'growl of today's talk shows, prime time news, chest-beating sports talk radio and, perhaps most significantly, the egregious barking head TV pundits.

Across the nation, thousands of sunrise priests now emulate Stern, Don Imus, Stern, Mancow Muller, and Bubba the Love Sponge -- who was also recently fired by Clear Channel. These talkmeisters became so powerful that station bosses -- largely of the bean counter mold -- began to welcome the push for cost-cutting national syndication; it was one voice for hundreds of markets.

From Godfrey to Muller (and someone new is due any day now), the radio morning man -- and only recently, and grudgingly, woman -- always have been the "know nothing" driving wheel of the great and greedy mean American propaganda machine.

These days, a Michael Powell-driven FCC appears to be itching to flex its muscles, adding larger fines and perhaps even contesting the licenses of multiple offenders. (Currently, the FCC does not currently have power over cable and satellite-only channels, so viewers of "The L Word" and "The Sopranos" have thus far been spared the lawmakers collective wrath.)

In late February, Clear Channel, in a transparent attempt to make amends, announced a "Responsible Broadcasting Initiative" designed, the company said in a press release, "to make sure the material aired by its radio stations conforms to the standards and sensibilities of the local communities it serves."

It may be a bit premature to declare Howard Stern's reign as king of shock radio over, but if it is there may be a bright future for him on satellite. According to CNNMoney.com, "there has been rampant speculation that Stern might eventually join Sirius Satellite Radio or XM Satellite Radio, which like pay cable stations, are not subject to the same decency and obscenity rules that affect major TV networks and terrestrial radio stations." According to Paul La Monica, "Stern has some 15 million listeners nationwide, versus little more than 1.5 million for XM and 260,000 for Sirius."

Coincidentally, or not, writes La Monica, "both satellite radio stocks have bucked the market's downward trend: Since Feb. 2 (the day after the Super Bowl halftime show), shares of Sirius are up about 3 percent while XM Satellite has gained 7 percent." At the same time, "shares of traditional radio operators Clear Channel Communications and Citadel Broadcasting are down 7 percent."

For what may be his final mainstream-radio battle Stern is casting himself both as a political organizer and a martyr. "There's only one thing you can do," Stern said on a recent show. "Remember me in November when you're in the voting booth. I'm asking you to do me one favor. Vote against Bush. That's it." Stern's Web site, which recently began linking to a number of anti-Bush articles, also has on prominent display a poster: "The Passion of The Stern: A Radio Pioneer Persecuted By The U.S. Government."

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements. Arnie Passman is author of "The DeeJays," a history of disc jockeys.

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