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Radio raunch equals ratings? Maybe not

''Shock jocks'' go to extremes to separate themselves from the pack, but for today's listeners, they can go too far.

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 21, 2001


"Shock jocks" go to extremes to separate themselves from the pack, but for today's listeners, they can go too far.

On the morning of Feb. 24, 1999, Doug "the Greaseman" Tracht was doing his usual irreverent schtick on Classic Rock 94.7 in Washington, D.C.

Grease torturing his boss with a cricket. Grease on a tiny island with a sex-crazed Jane Fonda (she winds up dead). Grease hunting baby seals.

At his peak, in the mid 1980s, the Greaseman had been one of the city's top disc jockeys, pulling down a salary close to $1-million a year.

But times -- and tastes -- change. By the mid '90s, ratings had fallen off. It seemed the listening public was becoming increasingly numb to the crude and raunchy humor from shock jocks like Tracht.

The novelty had worn off. In its place was tedium.

The Greaseman's show needed a boost. Something that would get people talking.

Tracht would later say he wasn't thinking about that when he said what he did. But it had the desired effect: It got people talking, mostly about how Tracht's head would look on a platter.

Tracht played a clip from rapper Lauryn Hill's new CD. Then he said this:

"No wonder people drag them behind trucks."

The reference was to the murder a year earlier of James Byrd Jr. in Texas. Byrd, who was black, was kidnapped by three white men and dragged behind a truck until his body was torn to pieces. The murder was one of the nation's ghastliest racial crimes of the century. And the Greaseman had just made a joke about it.

Tracht was suspended that day, fired the next.

He tried to apologize, but few would listen. He waited for the heat to die down.

Not in D.C.

* * *

photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, charged with animal cruelty for a stunt at his Tampa radio station, WXTB-FM 97.9, could face five years in prison if convicted.
Two years later, on the morning of Feb. 27, 2001, Tampa radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem was doing his usual irreverent schtick on WXTB-FM 97.9 (98 Rock). The so-called highlight of his show was a segment called "Road Kill Barbecue," in which listeners were encouraged to bring road kill to the station parking lot, where the dead animals would be cooked or processed in a blender. As a crowd watched, a live wild boar dubbed "Andy" was castrated, slaughtered and eaten.

In the aftermath, dozens of companies withdrew ads in protest, and animal rights groups demanded that Clem, 35, be fired. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission notified Clear Channel Communications, the company that owns 98 Rock, that it is investigating whether the broadcast was "obscene or indecent."

Clem was suspended for 15 days. A month later, prosecutors charged him with animal cruelty, a third degree felony. If convicted, he could face five years in prison.

These two incidents are different in content, but they could both be seen as examples of how far (or low) radio now goes to attract listeners.

And it's all about attracting listeners.

* * *

In my effort to be funny, I slipped. It was not intentional, I regret the pain I have caused the family members of the deceased, the Black community and the rest of my listeners who were offended by a dumb remark.

All I can say now is that I pray for the chance to show the listening public that I can go back on the air and be responsible . . . do my bits without the racial overtones.

I never intended any harm. I can only ask for another chance with the promise that I will make good for this lapse in judgement . . . and with the promise that I am not a racist and never have been.

I beg your indulgence.

Grease

-- Posted on the Internet by Doug Tracht on March 8, 1999

* * *

With his flip comment about the racially motivated murder of a black man, Tracht had overstepped an imaginary line, crossed over from crude to reprehensible. With one sentence, he had managed to infuriate just about everybody.

After searching for work for more than a year, Tracht got an offer from a station in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He made it as far as Puerto Rico. When word reached the islands that Tracht was headed their way, listeners protested, the station owner changed his mind, and the offer was withdrawn.

Tracht had to wait another year before he would get back on the air. Since late February, the Greaseman has been doing his show at WZHF, a tiny, 5,000-watt AM station in Washington, D.C., that broadcasts brokered programming. That means that anyone can get on the air if he or she has the money to buy air time. The station normally sells time to Spanish- and Asian-speaking clients who air music and news.

Who listens? So few people tune in to WZHF that the station doesn't even register on the Arbitron ratings.

But when you're Doug Tracht, you'll take what you can get.

It costs Tracht nearly $20,000 a month to air his show, although he's now syndicated in six other markets. Each station pays Tracht about $2,000 a month for the rights to his show, which means he needs about four more stations just to break even.

"I was surprised it took two years to get back," Tracht said recently from his home in Virginia. "I'm a comedian and an entertainer. So far people are digging the new show."

Tracht, 51, said he regrets what he said but doesn't understand why he's still being punished.

"I've never done stunts, and I never did controversy for controversy's sake," he said. "I just tell jokes. And I refuse to make another mistake. I'm working now with a keen sense of self-awareness.

"The question," he said, "is should a person who makes a mistake be banned forever from making a living? I don't think that's what they had in mind when they set this country up."

He acknowledged, however, that it's increasingly difficult for radio personalities to separate themselves from the pack. So they go to extremes.

"Whatever you do to make a name for yourself," he said, "we're all trying to get ratings."

* * *

Florida Statute 828.12 Cruelty to animals

(2) A person who intentionally commits an act to any animal which results in the cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, or causes the same to be done, is guilty of a felony of the third degree.

* * *

Like Tracht, Clem also apologized, on the air several times and in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "This is a situation," he said, "that never should have happened."

But he also says Hillsborough state attorney Mark Ober and the Tampa Police Department bowed to pressure from animal rights activists.

"They were out to get me," he said. "It was politically motivated."

It was also, he argued, vastly different from what happened to Tracht. One was caused by an incredibly insensitive racist remark, the other by a stunt involving the death of a wild animal. And though Tracht's show was in decline, The Bubba the Love Sponge Show has been among the top two morning shows in the Tampa Bay market for several years.

"I think what he (Tracht) did was just absolutely irresponsible as a broadcaster," Clem said. "And you will never hear me say that about another DJ. I mean, what in the hell is the upside of what he said? There is none. You can't put your management in the position to defend that.

"And you can't defend what he said. You can't. Fortunately, for what I'm accused of doing, we have a defense.

"He talked about killing black people," Clem added. "Not a nuisance animal that's killed by the hundreds every day.

"I don't think you could ever equate the killing of a wild boar and the killing of an African-American person.

"That's idiotic."

Preliminary indications are that ratings for The Bubba the Love Sponge Show have remained high. But Clem still faces the animal cruelty charge, and some in the radio industry wonder whether stunts like tossing a chicken out of a third-story office window (which happened last year at a Denver radio station) or killing a boar may have finally pushed things too far.

* * *

Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of Inside Radio, a radio industry publication, thinks two factors led to both the Greaseman's and Bubba's troubles. The public is getting tired of shock jocks, and radio in general is gradually losing its appeal.

"Does it take more to offend an audience? Yes," Del Colliano said. "Is radio as powerful as it used to be? No."

To older listeners, especially baby boomers raised on transistor radios, radio has been a staple. They grew up taking their radios to bed with them to listen to baseball games. Or they waited patiently for the third song by the Rolling Stones and then tried to be the 10th caller.

But the boomers, Del Colliano argues, are being replaced by young people who didn't grow up with radio and don't have the same allegiance.

"Go to a college campus, and you'll find that kids don't need radio," Del Colliano said. "They need computers and e-mail. They create their own music files and act as their own disc jockey.

"I'd like to kick the radio industry in the butt, because it's sad what's going on."

Another part of the problem, Del Colliano says, is that a handful of corporations own most of the stations. (Clear Channel owns eight stations in the Tampa Bay market.) And since profit is the major motivation, stations play music and air programs that have a sameness to them.

Fifty-seven stations and nothing on.

"What radio has done," Del Colliano said, "is become less relevant than ever. And I think it'll get worse before it gets better.

"It hurts to see what's happening."

Randy Palmer, Clear Channel vice president of corporate communications, says shows like Clem's are retaining their popularity and that community standards, not Clear Channel guidelines, dictate what is aired.

"Radio is very much a local business, and keeping it fresh, so that the audience can relate to it, is the main challenge," Palmer said. "Talk radio is locally driven, and that's where the radio station has to know how to relate to its audience, its community.

"We own almost 1,200 stations," Palmer added, "and we do entrust our radio personalities to use good judgment. In this (Clem's) case, it appears maybe he didn't use the best of judgment."

Said Del Colliano: "Radio needs to reinvent itself and not continue on with these Happy Gilmores (disc jockeys) running around. It could not be that way unless they (the companies that own the stations) agree to it."

Palmer acknowledged that stations are under pressure to generate high ratings, which are then used to set advertising rates. And that the pressure is mounting.

According to Arbitron ratings, radio has lost 15 percent of its listeners in the past five years.

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