When the rise of radio first began, it was all about sharing information with the masses and bringing communities together.
Of course, eventually, broadcasting stations began to discover the profits available in creating programmes to entertain their audience too. Radio started to become less about education, and more about finding a way to take your mind off the issues of the era.
Some stations went the musical route, showcasing the latest singers and bands on their shows. We still tune into radio today to listen to the music at the top of the charts. Other companies began to focus more heavily on “talk radio,” using opinionated conversations, competitions, and discussions with their audience to drive deep relationships between channels and their listeners.
While all talk radio seemed to have an emotional impact on the radio listeners of the day, few concepts had the same effect as the infamous disc jockeys known as shock jocks.
So, what is a shock jock?
That’s what we’re going to discuss in today’s article.
Come with us on an electrifying journey through one of the most controversial radio personalities ever to hit the airwaves.
The shocking truth: What is a shock jock?
Shock jocks started just like any other kind of talk radio presenter.
They communicated with their audience, discussed the latest news, and even gave opinions on the events of the day. However, the difference between a shock jock and a regular presenter is that shock jocks have no problem using offensive, dramatic language to get their point across.
Shock jocks are radio hosts who ignore and even pervert social etiquette, just to get a rise out of their listeners.
Usually, the phrase “shock jock” refers to two kinds of radio host. On the one hand, you’ve got the comedic shock jock like Howard Stern. An often offensive individual who uses shocking language to make people laugh. Usually, disc jockeys like Stern can be found on FM hard-rock stations and late-night shows. On the other hand, you’ve got the political shock jock like Rush Limbaugh.
The political shock jock radio hosts are some of the most aggressive in the market – particularly in the United States.
Over the years, we’ve seen countless popular representations of shock jocks in media, like the people on The Jamz on Netflix, for instance. However, the more you learn about the shock jock radio personalities of days gone by, the more negative the term becomes.
According to many radio experts, the political media icon of the “shock jock” was born in New York, and it was a product of the era. People like Rush Limbaugh were a response to heated conversations about “Politically Correct” conversations that ruled the airwaves at the time. Radio companies were responding to finally getting their freedom after the Fairness Doctrine was abolished in 1987.
The Fairness Doctrine dictated that all radio stations had to cover both sides of the story when giving their opinion on a trending topic. That meant that no-one could have a single, focused view on a political concept or idea. People were sick of this exceedingly balanced approach. They wanted a radio presenter that was capable of being authentic with their thoughts and feelings.
Thus, one year after the Fairness Doctrine ended, Rush Limbaugh launched his show in 1988, and the age of the political shock jock began in earnest.
The comedic shock jock radio hosts like Howard Stern came from a slightly different background. They built on a history of something called “blue humour”, where dirty jokes and inappropriate comments appealed to a certain kind of audience.
Building on the painfully honest heritage of people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, Stern birthed the new age of the comedic shock jock with sex talk, cutting wit, and a willingness to cover any topic. The result was legions of followers that sill obsess over Stern’s work today.
The rise (and fall) of radio shock jocks
While the shock jock definition you get today may differ depending on who you talk to, there’s one very important factor that remains true with any “shock” based disc jockey. These are the people who are willing to entertain and inform by breaking taboos, being deliberately offensive, and crossing every line.
The “Blue Comedian” concept that Howard Stern was born from has existed throughout history, with notoriously offensive performers like Benny Bell and Petey Greene. Some reports suggest that Greene was a huge influence on Howard Stern, whose shows in the 1980s inspired the first official use of the term “shock jocks.”
Whether from a political or comedic stance, the appeal of the shock jock is obvious. Rebels are appealing to us as a community. We love people who are willing to break the rules, whether that means telling us what we want to hear despite issues with political correctness or discussing taboos.
Conservative talk radio in the US and shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh tap into a vocal minority of people who want someone to share their outrage and hate. Limbaugh rose to fame because he was willing to ignore the rules to echo the sentiments of people who felt as though they weren’t being heard. Shock jocks in the US even have the power to control and drive political movements. Limbaugh and other radio hosts like him combined forces in 2013 to address the immigration reform in America.
Since then, Limbaugh has also continued to make various comments about the way that presidents like Donald Trump should handle illegal immigrants. As we’ve seen through Trump’s promises to build walls and keep immigrants out over recent years, the shock jock in America has enough of an impact to earn the attention of people with real power.
While political shock jocks in the US have a resounding impact on changes in the country, comedic radio hosts have had more problems than successes. Stern has lost his job countless times over the years, and he’s faced numerous law suits for the things he says. In part, this seems to further cement his bad-boy image and attract the attention of listeners. In his first Letterman Appearance (Late Night), Stern claimed that he didn’t care about being fired.
Every time Stern moved to a new radio station, he brought his fans and listeners with him, further developing his reputation as a man with no limits.
What ended the era of shock jock radio personalities?
On the one hand, the era of the political shock jock is still going strong in the United States. However, it’s not as “shocking” as it once was. As David Wiegel of the Washington Post once said, the language of shock jocks like Limbaugh has been so adopted in the mainstream, that it’s difficult to truly shock anyone anymore. Donald Trump appears to be the perfect political candidate for the shock jock industry in the US. Some already call him the first “shock politician.”
Comedic shock jock radio personalities are in a slightly more dangerous position. People have been fired left and right by broadcasting stations around the world for taking their shock tactics too far. In 2002, Opie and Anthony, one of the most famous shock jock duos in history, held a “sex for Sam” contest. The promotion encouraged people to have sex in public to earn points. While a couple allegedly earned 25 points for having sex in a St Patrick Cathedral, they were also arrested for their trouble. The controversy caused Opie and Anthony to disappear for a short time, until they re-emerged on Sirius XM, then were fired again for apparently “racist” tweets.
Opie and Anthony, like many other shock jocks, have been forced to move into their own podcasts and streaming services to broadcast their thoughts in today’s more sensitive age. The duo wasn’t the only couple losing their jobs either. Bubba, the Love Sponge, also earned a $7,555,000 fines for airing sketches were cartoon characters discussed sex and drugs. He was fired by Clear Channel at the time.
Even Howard Stern is spending less time as a shock jock radio personality, and more time as a family-friendly face on shows like America’s Got Talent.
Generally speaking, people are growing increasingly less likely to listen to content that they deem offensive or inappropriate. We’re living in an age where people are campaigning for acceptance in virtually every community. Minorities are gaining more respect and greater freedoms than ever before. There’s no place for hate in an environment like this – particularly in certain parts of the world.
Even for people who are willing to tune into offensive content aren’t as engaged by antics of shock jocks as they used to be. Comments on the radio aren’t nearly as shocking when you’re living in a world where access to the internet mean that you can find offensive content anywhere on websites like 4chan, for instance.
Famous shock jocks: The hosts with the most
Though the era of the shock jock may be over – at least from a comedic point of view, shock jocks remain to be some of the highest-earning radio presenters of all time. For instance, Howard Stern earned about $90 million in 2018 for his part-time contract with SiriusXM. This makes Stern the world’s highest paid radio host.
On the other hand, Rush Limbaugh, the political shock jock of the century, earns about $84.5 million for his discussions around America and President Trump. Both of these shock jocks are also making significant steps into the digital space too. Devoted Stern fans can find him on Sirius XM’s premium service, and Limbaugh has his own mobile app.
Some of the most famous shock jocks in history include:
1. Opie and Anthony
Mentioned above, Opie and Anthony was an American talk radio show hosted by Anthony Cumia and Gregg Opie Hughes. The show aired between 1995 and 2014, with appearances from Jim Norton, a well-known comedian, starting in 2001.
For years, Opie and Anthony earned listeners from around the world for their candid discussions about sex and politically-charged topics. However, in 2014, Cumia was fired from SiriusXM after viewers reported a series of racist tweets on his account. Following other alleged incidents where Cumia referred to colored people as “savage, violent animals,” Anthony refused to apologise for his behavior and allowed Hughes and Tim Norton to continue the show without him. Eventually, the channel was rebranded to Opie Radio.
2. Howard Stern
Howard Stern is best known as a shock jock radio host for his appearance on The Howard Stern Show. Since 2006, Howard has been on a contract with Sirius XM Satellite Radio and now earns the highest wage for any shock jock or radio host in the world.
As well as being the best-paid disc jockey on the market, Stern is also the one responsible for the largest number of law-suits. When the Federal Communications Commission slapped Howard with fines of $2.5 million for indecent content, he became the most-fine host in history.
3. Robert Weston Smith
Wolfman Jack, otherwise known as Robert Weston Smith, is an American shock jock known for the deep gravelly tone in his voice. Weston Smith is another example of a shock jock that used outrageous acts and comedy to capture the attention of his listeners. His sales pitch was his growling and over-zealous style when on-air.
Often, Smith would punctuate a lot of his discussions with howls and urged his listeners to “get naked” when listening. Part of Smith’s persona was his anonymity. People had no idea what the “Wolfman” looked like for most of his time on the air.
4. Doug Tracht
Referred to by many as “The Greaseman,” a name that he earned during his college days, Doug Tracht is still a well-known name in shock jock history. Today, he has his own internet radio station “Web Radio Classics” where he airs his show between 6 pm and 10 pm.
The original Greaseman show was a fast-paced radio program, which Doug pieced together using calls from listeners. No topic of discussion was too taboo to talk about. Tracht often found ingenious ways of getting around problems with his use of indecent language by coming up with slang terms for sexual comments and body parts. He was able to talk about a lot of taboo topics without getting into trouble with the censorship groups of the day.
5. Barry Eugene Hansen
Known to his fans as “Dr. Demento,” Barret or “Barry” Hansen was an American radio broadcaster that was most popular during the 1970s. While working in a Los Angeles radio station, he played the Nervous Norvus track, “Transfusion” on the radio, and another disc jockey told him that he had to be “demented” to play it. The name turned into a title that stuck with Barry throughout the years.
In 1974, Hansen’s weekly show went into syndication and was also syndicated by the Westwood One Network between 1978 and 1992. The Broadcast syndication of Dr. Demento’s show ended officially in June of 2010. However, the show is still available to listen to online.
Are shock jocks still as influential as they once were?
It’s safe to say that being an edgy shock jock isn’t quite what it used to be. A lot of the young men and women that used to worship shock jocks in days gone by aren’t as glued to their radio shows today as they were in the past. Additionally, many younger people today are looking for opinionated content online, rather than tuning into shows at specific times on their radios.
The changing world and new technology has meant that shock jocks have had to evolve. Comedians like Howard Stern and people like him have moved into digital broadcasting and podcasts. However, many still have a following on traditional radio too. On the other hand, political shock jock radio personalities can capture the attention of their dedicated listeners almost anywhere, thanks to the growing demand for “authentic” political news today.
In the US in particular, the demand for shock jocks is still there, although it might not be as strong as it once was. Many of the genre’s biggest stars remain locked behind paywalls with satellite radios, podcasts, and applications. However, in the UK, it seems as though we don’t have as much of an appetite for shocking content as our American counterparts.
According to reports over the last few years, radio listeners have even switched away from broadcasting stations when exposed to shock jock tactics. A report published in 2013 found that 85% of radio listeners in the UK wanted bad language and harsh treatment of listeners to be banned on radio stations.
Some radio experts argued that UK listeners now have hundreds of stations to tune into, and they’re looking for quality and insight from their radio hosts – not antics intended to shock and offend.
Perhaps the US is simply more open-minded when it comes to shocking radio than the UK. Or maybe the issue comes down to the way that each country is responding to changes on a cultural and societal level to the idea that we treat each other as humans.
What’s next for shock jock radio hosts?
Some people still love the honest and authentic approach of shock jocks more committed to sharing information and entertainment than being politically correct. There are listeners out there who believe that the only way to get a genuine radio host is to connect with someone who isn’t afraid to offend people with their version of the truth.
Other consumers feel that now is the time for all communities to be more accepting of each other. These people think that shock jocks aren’t about entertainment anymore, but instead, simply allow for the spread of hate among communities.
Whatever your opinion, it’s safe to say that shock jocks aren’t dead yet. Although the world has changed a great deal in recent decades, there still seems to be a place for voices on our radios that are willing to cross any line to make their point. Both from a political and comedic standpoint, shock jocks are still finding ways to reach the ears of their intended audience.
However, it seems that many of the most famous shock jocks in history are beginning to move away from traditional radio stations and towards alternative ways of reaching their fans. While political shock jocks remain on the radio, the new environment for comedy disc jockeys may be on premium radio stations and podcasting networks instead.
The good news?
Radio gives us the freedom and diversity to choose what we want to listen to. Whether you’re looking for opinionated rants, current affairs or music, there’s something out there to suit everyone.
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