Bubba comes back to earth for talk show

Banished to satellite after getting a record indecency fine, he'll be on a Tampa station.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published December 11, 2007

Nearly four years ago, he was yanked off the radio airwaves in Tampa, fired by Clear Channel Radio after drawing what was then the largest single indecency fine in history.

Now, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem is poised to return to free commercial radio in Tampa and Jacksonville early next year after closing a seven-figure deal.

On Jan. 8, Clem will take over morning drive time at Cox radio stations WHPT-102.5 FM (the Bone) in Tampa and WFYV-104.5 FM in Jacksonville, hosting a show from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Clem also will still host his national show for radio star Howard Stern's Hoard 101 channel on Sirius Satellite Radio from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.

Combined, the radio deals are worth more than $3-million annually for Clem's company, which will produce both shows from a studio in a Tampa office park.

"I have a lot of unfinished business in the market," said Clem, calling Monday from New York City, where he celebrated his new, one-year Sirius deal on Stern's show. "I never got to say goodbye to the fans. I was thrown off the air by Clear Channel ... which hung me out to dry."

Clear Channel Radio fired Clem, then Tampa's highest-rated morning personality, in February 2003 after he earned a record $755,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission for broadcasting skits in which cartoon characters talked about sex and drugs.

Out of work for nearly two years, Clem's career was resuscitated in 2006 when Stern tapped him to work the drive-time shift on one of two channels Sirius was formatting around the self-styled King of All Media.

Now, after ratings in October showing the Howard 101 channel is the second most-listened-to-channel on satellite radio - behind Stern's mother ship Howard 100 channel, of course - Clem has negotiated a return to free "terrestrial" radio.

"I gotta stay away from the sex stuff, basically," Clem said. He often features graphic appearances by strippers on his satellite radio show, which is not bound by government radio indecency rules. "If I get fired again on regular radio, I'm a one-trick Willie ... and I know I'm coming back with a huge target on my back."

Douglas Vanderlaan, the Jacksonville scientist whose 2001 complaint to the FCC brought Clem's record fine, said he's withholding judgment until he hears the new show.

"There's no point in getting upset about a program when I don't know the content," said Vanderlaan. He couldn't say if he would adopt the tactics of advocacy groups such as the Florida Family Association in Tampa, which already has said it will record and monitor Clem's new broadcasts for FCC violations.

While on terrestrial radio in Tampa, Clem was fined for broadcasting a simulation of someone receiving a milk enema. Later, he was tried for animal cruelty after broadcasting the castration and slaughtering of a pig (he was found not guilty).

And he's raised the stakes on satellite: In one stunt, a man's shaved genitals were sprayed with carburetor cleaner.

So the question falls to Cox Radio executives: Why hire a guy who earned a $755,000 fine last time he was on free radio?

"I think Bubba is more concerned about this than I am," said Jay O'Connor, regional vice president and Tampa market manager for Cox Radio. A friend of Clem's who attended his Jan. 13 wedding, O'Connor spent months negotiating the three-year deal. O'Connor says Cox has a strict indecency policy that prohibits graphic talk about sex acts, among other things. Clem's show will operate with a 10-second delay, with pretaped skits screened by executives and advance notice required for controversial bits.

And if Clem crosses the line, drawing another FCC fine?

"Depending on the nature of the utterance, that probably means we would discontinue the program," O'Connor said. "The stakes are high. And Bubba knows the stakes."

Other industry experts were skeptical Clem could switch gears between the unfettered world of satellite and the more regulated terrestrial radio scene - an industry that has tightened content rules since his firing.

"It's like the sailor who gets off the boat and goes home to see mom," said Charlie Ochs, senior vice president and Tampa Bay market manager for CBS Radio, noting Cox Radio's reputation as a conservative broadcaster. "I don't think there will be any pigs killed in the parking lot at Cox."

WFLZ-93.3 FM morning personality Todd "M.J." Schnitt, whom Clem openly challenged during an interview Monday with the St. Petersburg Times, shrugged off news of the competition, saying his audience is more female and upscale.

"I've been in this market for 14 years. I've seen a lot of people come and go," said Schnitt, who worked for Clear Channel at WFLZ when Clem was on WXTB 97.9 FM (98 Rock). "I'm flattered that I'm on his radar ...but I've been steady as a board for 14 years."

Born Todd Clem in Warsaw, Ind., Bubba the Love Sponge Clem took his radio handle as his legal name long ago. Now at 41, he's married with a son and stepdaughter, and disavows his most notorious prank, saying he would not air the pig castration he once defended in court.

"It wasn't illegal, but it was distasteful," Clem said. "After having done it and saw how much of a grotesque act it was, I don't want to see it. It offended me, too."