There was once a time when a rare breed of radio DJ could scare up controversy and big ratings–not to mention FCC indecency fines–using just his voice, a few on-air cronies and whole lot of bravado, innuendo and hot air. Remember Howard Stern? Arguably the original “shock jock” he was one of the few American radio DJs able to make a nationwide name for himself, including late night talk show appearances and even producing an autobiographical feature film. He made big news in 2004 when he abandoned broadcast for Sirius satellite radio. But once Stern made the transition at the beginning of 2006 he pretty much faded from the mainstream limelight. CBS Radio made attempts to fill the void–such as tapping former Van Halen signer David Lee Roth, who lasted about four months. But no new jock has been found who can replicate Stern’s nationwide morning show dominance.
Chicago-based Mancow Muller was one potential candidate for the King of All Media’s throne. Just as Stern prepared to exit the broadcast airwaves Mancow was experiencing a boost in the number of station’s carrying his “Morning Madhouse” program, and was even beating Stern in the ratings in his home market. Yet only a half-year into Stern’s absence from terrestrial radio Mancow was booted from his home flagship station, Chicago’s Q101. Though the Madhouse continued to air in syndication, Mancow’s candidacy to replace Stern seemed to fade.
Things looked better for Mancow when he was hired on for the morning drive slot on Chicago’s AM talk powerhouse WLS in October of 2008. In the last decade Mancow had tried to de-emphasize his shock jock origins–with minimal success–while playing up his conservative/libertarian political views and Christian faith. That made him not a horrible match for WLS’s mostly conservative talk line-up, although still much more obsessed with potty humor and dick jokes than even ol’ Rushbo.
But the new Mancow show wouldn’t last. Despite the ‘cow scoring good ratings for listeners age 12 and up, the station as a whole was slipping in the more prized 25-54 demographic. So this past week WLS sent Mancow out to pasture. In a memo to station staff, WLS GM Michael Damsky wrote,
While Mancow and Pat consistently put on a highly entertaining and often attention-grabbing two hours, the content and delivery simply did not fit the expectations of the WLS listener.
During this same week Howie decided to get himself some free publicity by quite publicly considering dumping satellite radio to join up as a judge on American Idol. Although there are now reports circulating that Stern was never actually offered anything by the American Idol producers, that doesn’t change the basic fact that Stern is no longer of interest as a morning radio shock jock. He can only get press by threatening to crash media parties where a lot of folks don’t want him invited.
This all leads me to conclude that it’s nearing sunset for the morning radio shock jock.
Now, I’m not arguing that the shock jock morning show is about to disappear altogether. As long as there are rock radio stations looking to pander to young white male listeners aged 18 – 35 there will be some demand for third-rate Stern and Mancow imitators well versed in poop and penis jokes, reactionary politics and thinly-veiled misogyny. But these shows have become mostly local or regional. Increasingly shock jocks are not leading the ratings the way Stern and his brethren once did. Instead they’re contentedly leading their young male demographic, which is also a declining audience.
One can come up with any number of theories for the descent of the shock jock. As someone who listened to Stern regularly back in the 1980s I would argue that the whole genre became overly distilled down to certain titillating elements that were once just a part of the King Of All Media’s shtick. In my opinion Stern was innovator, bringing a novel degree of occasionally smart irreverence, uncomfortable candor and self-deprecation to a genre of radio that had otherwise been dominated by silly characters in between short music sets. Part of Stern’s shtick included strippers and potty talk, and as he got more successful he realized that brand of shock was a sure-fire ratings getter, and it sadly became a bigger part of his program. His imitators mostly left out any intelligence, honesty or true candor, distilling the formula down to toilets and boobs, with a side of jingoism.
Still, what was shocking in 1989 isn’t so shocking in 2010. Just like there’s still an audience for classic rock cover bands, there’s still an audience for shock jocks. But now that it’s mostly aimed at adolescent boys the morning shock jock show is not a growth industry.
If it’s true that Stern fabricated the offer to join American Idol, then I think that will be the strongest proof that the reign of the King of All Media is over, leading to the dissolution of the shock jock empire. It will show that Stern and the shock jock are now just sideshow clowns who are only interesting when they threaten to stomp their big floppy feet into the center ring. Stern may go laughing all the way to the bank with Sirius’ money, but it might be his last laugh.
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