The bane of the Federal Communications Commission, shock radio exploded on the American scene in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Some hailed this format as a refreshing example of free speech at work—its very outrageousness proof that any message can be disseminated over America's airwaves if there is an audience willing to receive it. Others decried the success of shock radio as a sign of the coarsening of the nation's popular culture—and pointed to its origins in broadcast hate speech as evidence of its secretly poisonous nature.
Shock radio has a thousand fathers (all of them illegitimate, its detractors might add). From the mid-1920s to the 1940s, Father Charles Coughlin spewed anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, and crypto-Fascist venom to an audience of millions via his national radio program. The so-called "father of hate radio" was one of the first broadcasters to divine the nexus between controversial opinions and a large and avid listenership. Coughlin also established a pattern followed by other successful radio hosts of leaping into other media. He established his own newsletter, Social Justice, to disseminate his views. When Franklin Roosevelt dared him to run for president in 1936, Coughlin did so, as the head of the xenophobic Union Party. But America's involvement in World War II dealt a severe blow to the vituperative priest, whose tirades against "international Jewry" began to take on a seditious connotation for a nation committed to the struggle against Fascism.
After Coughlin and his imitators departed the airwaves, American radio largely slept through the serene 1950s. The advent of rock and roll presented the only challenge to the heterodoxy of somnambulant top forty fare being offered up on a local and national basis. That all started to change in the 1960s, when big-city markets began to buzz with the controversial opinions of hosts like Joe Pyne. Working out of KABC in Los Angeles, America's first all-talk station, Pyne was one of the first radio hosts to fuse conversation, confrontation, and conservatism in an effort to boost ratings. He once famously directed a caller to "go gargle with razor blades." Pyne's right-wing rants continued in the political tradition of Father Coughlin, a path many subsequent shock jocks followed as well. Others, by contrast, opted to depoliticize their programs in an effort to move beyond an audience of like-minded adherents while still maintaining a high shock value.
In the late 1970s, WNBC in New York became the proving ground for this latest wave of shock radio hosts. Two deejays in particular, Don Imus and Howard Stern, helped perfect the form that each would later take to an even higher level of popularity. Imus, an ex-Marine and one-time rhythm and blues performer, was one of the first to devote the bulk of his show to outrageous, scatological, and offensive humor. Often he would start a conversation with a female guest by asking what she was wearing. Inquiries into breast size and sexual history would invariably follow. There was also an abundance of anti-clerical material, as personified by Imus' popular "Rev. Billy Sol Hargus" character, a lapsed minister whose riffs Imus later expanded into a best-selling book and comedy album. All of this chatter was accompanied by a cacophony of quacking noises and sound effects that were to become standard fare for the shock radio genre. A peanut gallery of sidekicks and joke suppliers was on hand to prop up the host when his alcohol and cocaine addictions rendered him unfit to broadcast, which was often.
Playing second fiddle to Imus in those heady days was gangly Long Island native Howard Stern, who at first merely aped the "IMan's" high-volume shtick but would later outstrip him in influence. Stern's daily program took Imus' audacious sex chatter to its logical extreme. Anchored around a running commentary on the news of the day, The Howard Stern Show also featured mock game show segments like "Guess the Jew," in which callers try to pick the Semite from a group of three celebrities. Stern's own sexual obsessions, such as lesbianism and the size of his own sex organ, were also given copious attention. "Conversations" with guests like Jessica Hahn often devolved into simulated sex acts or on-air stripteases. Despite constant scrutiny by the FCC, Stern managed to remain on the air and export his show to markets across the country. By the early 1990s, he was dubbing himself "the King of All Media."
During the 1980s, thanks largely to Stern, "shock" became a hot format among radio programmers. Every city, it seemed, had its "morning zoo" crew dedicated to keeping alive the art of the prank phone call. Some were fairly tame, never straying far from the standard repertoire of "big boob" and dumb politician jokes. Others ventured dangerously far into the minefield of racial and sexual humor. Two St. Louis deejays, Steve Shannon and D.C. Chymes, shocked themselves out of a job in 1993 when they accused a caller to their show of "acting like a nigger." The incident sparked a massive protest by the NAACP and the Urban League and illustrated the perils of on-air confrontation. Most hosts had a better understanding of where their bread was buttered. Even the nascent sports radio format was not immune to the allure of shock. Jim Rome, a host at 690-AM in Los Angeles, was one of the first to bring the arts of insult and confrontation to the task of covering professional athletics. His daily four-hour "smack-talking" session proved highly successful and inspired a slew of imitators.
In the 1990s, shock radio reached the apex of its influence. However, in all but taking over the talk radio airwaves, it became a genre increasingly hard to define. Politically oriented hosts like Rush Limbaugh and New York City's conservative firebrand Bob Grant argued that their purpose was not to shock, but to inform and rally support for their viewpoints. Their critics on the other side of the ideological aisle rejected this claim and dismissed their output as "hate radio." Stern and his many imitators treated politics as a mere lark, subservient to their primary mission to titillate and break taboos. Imus, who had blazed the trail in this arena, largely forsook such adolescent shenanigans altogether. His daily forum Imus in the Morning, originating out of WFAN in New York beginning in 1988, took on an increasingly topical tone over the years. Gone were the phone calls to semi-nude women, replaced by conversations with U.S. senators and political commentators like Jeff Greenfield and Tim Russert.
Whatever its format, however, there was no denying shock radio's influence on the American pop cultural landscape. The newand-improved Don Imus became something of a cult figure with the C-SPAN crowd after a well-publicized interview with then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton during the New York Democratic primary in 1992. In 1993, Imus in the Morning entered national syndication. Within three years, it aired on over eighty stations across the country. The I-Man's daily audience was estimated at 10 million. Not unexpectedly, Imus later squandered much of his newfound political capital in 1996 during a speech at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents dinner in Washington, calling now-President Clinton a "pot-smoking weasel" to his face. Still, his brand of shock continued to sell around the country. A fawning 1999 Newsweek cover story on the grizzled shock jock even trumpeted "The Importance of Being Imus."
Howard Stern was even more successful. The era of political correctness gave an additional impetus to his transgressive brand of comedy. His listeners were among the most loyal and dedicated in the medium, often prank calling TV phone-in shows to drop the name of their dear leader. Stern briefly stood for election as governor of New York in 1994, but realized his extreme brand of libertarian politics was too idiosyncratic for even a liberal electorate and quickly withdrew. Instead he published a best-selling autobiography, Private Parts, and later starred in a movie adaptation well-received by critics. And by adding a weekly national television show in 1998, he seemed perilously close to fulfilling his prophecy to become "king of all media." Stern's meteoric rise in stature, like that of Imus, cemented shock radio's place in the forefront of American popular culture at the turn of the twenty-first century.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
Reed, Jim. Everything Imus. New York, Carol Publishing, 1999.
Stern, Howard. Private Parts. New York, St. Martin's, 1997.