It's wednesday at 5:30 PM. cars are crawling along I-66 and the Beltway. In the WJFK studio in Fairfax, Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara, the "radio gods" of drive-time, are ready for the "JO [jerk-off] test."
To win a pair of wrestling tickets, a listener on the phone has to guess Mike's answers to a series of questions:
Has Mike JO'ed today?
Has Mike JO'ed in front of someone else?
Has Mike ever been caught JO'ing?
Has Mike ever JO'ed while thinking about a coworker?
The day before, Don and Mike did a "prison-sex quiz'':
Have you ever participated in an interracial gang rape?
Have you ever fantasized about your codefendant?
Do you consider taping a sock in your partner's mouth with duct tape a legitimate form of foreplay?
Television just rediscovered game shows–radio never forgot them. Every week, Howard Stern's morning show has studio guests or celebrities playing games like "Black Jeopardy" or "Who's the Jew?"
Recently Stern had three "contestants," named Kareem in my Coffee, Link, and Amos Alien, playing "Black Jeopardy":
This ass-kisser drove OJ during the high-speed chase. Who be?"
The hot piece of white ass who was having sex with OJ during the trial. Who be?"
The nice brother of that arrogant Gumble on the Today show. Who be?
For Final Jeopardy, the contestants had to spell "barbecue." All three got it wrong.
Elliot Segal, the Gen-X Shock Jock DC-101 hired to rev up its morning ratings, prefers to ask his studio pals and his listeners more profound questions, such as "If you could get a million dollars for cutting off a finger, would you do it? Which finger?" Segal recently asked his sidekick Diane Stupar: "If you were in the morgue when JFK Jr. came in, would you touch it–the 'humma humma'? Would you kiss it?"
Washington's inquiring minds must want to know the answers–shock jocks dominate the radio dial. Don & Mike and Howard Stern are number one in their time slots, catapulting WJFK-FM, "guy-talk" radio, into second place in the Washington-area Arbitron ratings.
Talk radio is booming all over. "It is a growing power in our society. It is fun and easy and lucrative to perform," says author and former Washington radio talker Peter Laufer.
Radio's talking heads fall into three camps. There are the ideologues, such as Rush Limbaugh, who tell you how to think. There are the moralists, such as Dr. Laura Schlesinger, who tell you how to live. And there are the entertainers. Shock jocks are first and foremost entertainers.
They aren't heirs to Edward R. Murrow. They are the sons of Saturday Night Live. The lewder, cruder, and ruder they are, the higher their ratings. According to one study, Howard Stern haters listen for the same reason that listeners who love him do: "I want to hear what he'll say next."
Q:Who has a large penis in Hollywood?
A: Don Johnson. I hear Sean Connery has a large penis.
Q: Which one of the 'Friends'?
A. Lisa Kudrow.
The only way Bill Bradley could get attention now is to take his penis out.
–Don Imus, Imus in the Morning
Howard Stern arrived in Washington in March 1981. "He came in and set the market on its ear," recalls longtime radio personality Jim Elliott. "Washington had never heard anything like it before. Howard's idea was to piss people off; ours was to hug ladies and babies."
Stern's rise in Washington was meteoric. He proved that Washington is a good audience for raunch radio. Based on the ratings, a lot of people listen to Howard Stern whining about his tiny penis or Don Imus on WTEM-AM asking New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman her bra size. Whitman isn't the only public figure to be embarrassed this way. It's open season on celebrities on shock-jock radio.
Monica Lewinsky–I thought she was a spokesman for Jenny Craig. She looks like she swallowed Jenny Craig. Which wouldn't be the first time she swallowed something.
John McCain wouldn't be a candidate if he had just been a better pilot.
–Howard Stern show
Washington is not only a good audience for shock jocks, it is also the biggest incubator for them. Howard Stern became a star here. Doug "Greaseman" Tracht started–and ended–here. No other city could produce a G. Gordon Liddy, who dispenses wit and wisdom for four hours a day on topics ranging from the ways to kill a person with your bare hands to what a man should wear when the invitation calls for "elegant casual."
Liddy's answer to the latter: "designer jeans, they would be tailored, and an expensive shirt."
Washington's other export is the Don & Mike show. Geronimo and O'Meara paired up at WAVA 11 years ago. Their show is now broadcast on WJFK and in 56 other radio markets. Six million listeners all over America are taking the "JO test."
This month, Geronimo and O'Meara are going to New York, the mecca of all mike guys. Two or three days a week, they'll be broadcasting from the studios of WNEW, once the symbol of elegant urbanity, where William B. Williams paid homage to his idol Frank Sinatra by coining the nickname Chairman of the Board.
The buttoned-down, politically correct Washington is a fertile field for shock jocks, says Jane Hall, an assistant professor in American University's School of Communication and a former media reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "The shock value is perceived as an antidote to correctness.
"A lot of talk shows appeal to the angry white guy," Hall says. The shock jock "gives voice to the really ugly thoughts: 'Minorities have gotten too much.' 'I'm not doing as well as I used to.' "
Many of these men resent "objective journalism" that rarely reflects their views and the arrogant journalists who they believe talk down to them, Hall adds.
Local shock jocks also explode the myth that Washingtonians are obsessed with politics and policy issues. "People could give a rat's ass about politics, unless it's Bill and Monica," Don Geronimo says.
Elliot Segal agrees. "I'm not going to spend the next eight months talking about George W. Bush. PlayStation2 is coming out. To me, that's interesting."
Nobody understands this better than WJFK-FM: "The station with less BS."
Kenneth Stevens, former manager of WJFK, bragged that his stars talk "generally the way their audience talks." Otherwise, "They would hardly be accepted as real," Stevens said.
Not just real people–real men. WJFK is the tower that testosterone built. More than 70 percent of its listeners are male. Macho radio attracts the listeners that advertisers like–men ages 25 to 44; educated, successful men with money to spend. Most WJFK listeners have college degrees and earn more than $75,000 a year. With stats like that, Don Geronimo can afford to say "Eat my shorts, Linda Wertheimer!"
WJFK Stars, like Other Shock Jocks, pride themselves on being equal-opportunity offenders. They say things that get professional athletes in trouble and guys in suits fined or fired.
This is the last bastion of loudmouthed bad boys who see themselves as an endangered species. This is the revenge of the white guys–they own the playing field. They get to win.
So you're half Arab, half Jew. What do you do, negotiate with a sheep before you hump it?
I have been working to solve the problem of the retarded: Send them to Jeffrey Dahmer's house.
–Howard Stern show
The only bad thing about the Rodney King incident is that Clarence Thomas wasn't in the back seat.
–Howard Stern show
Shock Jocks say their comments are inspired by humor, not hatred. People who know them personally often take less offense than people who hear them on the air.
Don Imus is an example. A few years ago, Imus referred to Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz as a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jew boy.'' Kurtz did not see it as anti-Semitism. "While Imus sometimes goes over the line, most listeners understand that he is in the satire game–and that makes all the difference," Kurtz says.
But it's the shock jock's message, not his motives, that blasts out of radios. Sometimes that message is so obnoxious that the offended want to get the shock jock fined or banned from the airwaves.
In August, when a Texas border town decided to conduct its city meetings in Spanish, Don and Mike called a town official on the air. Residents who don't speak English "should get on their burros and go back to Mexico," they said.
A complaint was filed with the Federal Communications Commission. A few stations dropped the Don & Mike show. WJFK and the two jocks apologized, and the show went on as before.
Greg Edger [WJFK board operator] wields his penis like the Three Musketeers wield their swords. He would take it and make a giant Z on you, like Zorro.
–Don & Mike show
I don't mean to belittle anybody, but have you ever seen somebody who has a finger coming out of their arm? . . . You could use it to scratch your head . . . "Sing Us a Song of Thalidomide."
–Elliot in the Morning
You should have been aborted. I wish I could go back in time and visit your mother with a coat hanger.
–Don & Mike show
Can they say that on the radio? It seems so. The FCC has to bend over backward to protect free speech, no matter how obnoxious that speech may be, according to the FCC's David Fiske. The First Amendment protects programming that stereotypes or offends people "with regard to their religion, race, national background, gender, or other characteristics."
Obscenity and indecency guidelines that stations are supposed to follow are so loosely worded that Don and Mike's frequent caller "Cheryl the Big Dyke" can easily slide through them. "Contemporary community standards" are supposed to define the acceptability of material about "sexual or excretory organs or activities."
If contemporary community standards include women's magazines selling sex on every cover–including a step-by-step guide to oral sex in a recent issue of Cosmopolitan–the shock jocks don't seem so shocking.
The FCC almost never revokes a radio license for these offenses. Anything goes on raunch radio, unless it crosses a line–one that nobody can quite define.
But the public seems to know indecency when it hears it. When Doug "the Greaseman" Tracht made wisecracks about the killing of a black man in Texas, the outcry was immediate. Despite his many apologies, Tracht's radio career as a shock jock may be history. Recently, he was hired by a small station in St. Croix–and fired before he started working.
But there is no such outcry about bad taste. Howard Stern can say to a studio guest, "I like black women with straight hair. What about your pubes, do you straighten those too?"
Don and Mike can interview a man who runs his business from his bathroom and mention that his wife is on the toilet during the interview. They can give a colleague a birthday surprise involving two adult entertainers and broadcast a play-by-play of the birthday boy enjoying his gift:
"Jimmy is wearing the penis mask . . . the girls are naked . . . he's turning her knobs . . . Jimmy is handcuffed . . . the penis mask is near his no-no place . . . she's riding the penis mask. That thing looks like a Bob Evans sausage . . ."
Based on the ratings, Washingtonians think this show is a riot. The Don & Mike show has topped all competitors in 27 of the past 30 Arbitron books.
As H.L. Mencken observed, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Or the taste of radio listeners.