Stern’s comments push limits of shock

It must be frustrating for Howard Stern’s enemies. With his amazing ratings and loyal national following, he says what he likes with apparent impunity even as parents and community leaders plot campaigns against Stern’s advertisers and radio stations.
But this time there might be some consequences, at least in the Denver market. Last week, Stern commented on the Littleton, Colo., school shootings. Needless to say, it wasn’t about gun control.
“There were some really good-looking girls running out with their hands over their heads … Did those kids (the suspects) try to have sex with any of the good-looking girls? They didn’t even do that? … At least if you’re going to kill yourself and kill all the kids, why wouldn’t you have some sex? … If I was going to kill some people, I’d take them out with sex.”
In the past, stations carrying Stern’s show have refrained from criticizing him, choosing instead to make clear the distinction between his show and the management of the respective stations.
But Stern’s latest comments prompted apologies from KXPX, the Denver station which carries his show, and created a number of enemies.
For example, eight major advertisers pulled commercials from his show in Denver, and a television station that carries his show will replace it Saturday with a special about the shootings.
The Colorado Legislature passed a resolution Wednesday condemning Stern and several other talk show hosts who were fired after making comments about the tragedy. The resolution had only a few opponents and also called on KXPX to drop Stern’s show.
Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain News editorialized, “Let Howard Stern make his millions in other broadcast markets. He does not belong in Denver.”
Rather than apologize, Stern told his audience on Wednesday’s show that he had spoken to his parents about the controversy and what he called the “hypocrisy” of the response.
“There has been a tragic shooting in Denver. It’s a national horror, and what are the DJ’s doing? They’re announcing my sponsors. You tell me how sensitive they are. You tell me. You tell me what they’re up to. Are they really caring about the Denver community, or are they really just saying, ‘Hey, maybe we can get Howard Stern off the air’? If I’m so vicious, why would you draw attention to me?”
In addition to claiming the criticisms were designed to oust him from the air, he insisted he was not trying to make light of the situation.
“I had zero intent to make fun of the situation,” he said. “The point in making that comment was an attempt to try to understand a motive. If you’re going to rob people, the motive is money. If you’re going to have sex with a person and then kill them, the motive is perversion. We didn’t know anything about motives (the morning after) and were trying to consider all possibilities.”
Stern was not the only one to feel the consequences of joking about such a serious incident.
Michael Graham of WBT radio in Charlotte, N.C., was fired after making a joke just hours after the shooting.
“They were targeting minorities and athletes which, the athletes part, (is) one minor benefit to this otherwise horrible story,” he said. The following day, he apologized, saying his feelings of “remorse and stupidity” grew as the tragedy unfolded.
Randall Bloomquist, WBT’s program director, said, “There was a pattern of nonsensical remarks by Michael that were the result of his mouth working faster than his brain.”
Indeed, one can picture this easily happening to live performers. Perhaps he caught the news on television during his show, or his producer brought the story to him while the show was airing. Or he might have made a conscious decision to say what he did.
The threat of being fired “creates a tension that is palpable, that the audience appreciates,” said John Ziegler, a controversial Philadelphia broadcaster.
Another point of view holds that in these times of unpreparedness the listeners get a glimpse into the host’s personality. This could be a draw for Stern and other shock jocks — that the fans enjoy the honesty of insensitive people saying what’s on their minds and perhaps empathizing with the listener.
“Shock jocks make people feel comfortable with their prejudices,” said Steven Rendall, who works for a media watch group.
He said talk radio was born as a form of backlash against the civil rights movement of the 1960s and grew in reaction to the peace and women’s movements of the 1970s.
The primary demographic these shows receive is in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old bracket. But often the host’s flamboyant personality or abrasive style comes out in extremely offensive or racist comments.
For example, in February, radio shock jock Doug “Greaseman” Tracht was fired after making light of the dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas. In criticizing a song by black singer Lauryn Hill, he said, “No wonder people drag them behind trucks.”
A spokesperson for the Federal Communications Commission said Tracht’s comments did not violate FCC standards of decency. Their guidelines expressly state that free speech protects “programming that stereotypes or otherwise offends people with regard to their religion, race, national background, gender or other characteristic.”
But not everything is protected. For example, in 1995, Stern’s bosses at Infinity Broadcasting Corp. agreed to pay $1.7 million to the government to settle more than 100 claims of indecency against his show. Prohibited speech includes indecent speech as well as any language that depicts in a blatant or offensive way sexual activities or sexual organs.
“This type of broadcast depends on being shocking and disgusting and occasionally will hit a nerve at the wrong time, and somebody will get suspended or fired,” said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “And then things will go back like they were.”
Especially when the money is so good, and the advertisers don’t usually feel the heat from upset listeners.
Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, said that even when a radio personality gets reprimanded or fired, the advertiser wins. Either the listeners tune in to hear the controversy, or the advertiser cancels and issues a statement that generally gives it a public-relations boost.
But it can sometimes be bad business to pull out of a show, as Snapple found out. When they ended their sponsorship of Stern’s show, he began Snapple-bashing on the air until a new management began sponsoring Stern again.
Those Twin Cities residents who want Stern off the radio might get their wish.
When Stern came to this market, it was expected he would give Tom Barnard, KQRS’s Morning Crew leader, a run for his money — perhaps even crushing him, as Stern has done in many other markets. But that has not happened.
Now, although WRQC had predicted Stern would be number one within a year among 25- to 54-year-olds, the show has dropped to eighth place with only a year left in his contract with the station.
Media critic Brian Lambert suggests that Stern’s failure could be due to effective anti-Stern strategies by KQRS and Tom Barnard’s show. One of their tactics was to become more prurient, with more jokes about body parts and toilet humor.
I have always found Stern’s sexually explicit comments acceptable, but I have also been disgusted. While he can legally say what he likes, that doesn’t mean people must listen. His comment was amazingly obtuse, but I believe he was truly surprised by the public’s reaction and might learn from his mistake. The KXPX management faces a tough decision and must weigh revenues against the alienation of portions of the Denver community.
In the end, listeners offended by shock jocks like Stern have limited power to control them, especially when outrage is relatively small. But the reaction in Denver shows that when somebody clearly steps over the line, it is possible for a community to give him a wake-up call through advertising boycotts, media attention and ultimately by not tuning in.

Brian Close’s shock column runs on Thursdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]