With Howard Stern making the rounds to promote his book (and telling everyone he regrets how he behaved during his popular radio years), and Bubba losing his last Florida radio affiliate, it got us wondering — what happened to radio’s shock jock format? To answer that question we turned to our panel of programming experts: Fred Jacobs, Walter Sabo, John Sebastian, Lee Abrams, and Jon Quick. Here’s how they answered that question.
Fred Jacobs says companies are more risk-averse now. “No one wants to offend advertisers or audiences. The king of the shock radio movement – Howard Stern – is now apologizing to the many people he’s managed to offend. What does THAT tell you? And finally, Donald Trump is the “shock jock in chief.” No DJ has the ability to provide the daily surprises, attacks, and other mischief the president does. You can’t out-shock Trump.
Walter Sabo tells Radio Ink it all began with the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. That resulted in a Congressional hearing that started to put the fear into radio executives in the U.S. The genre (it’s not a format) continues to thrive and grow in Australia and other countries. As more jocks pushed the boundaries in the U.S., it became normal rather than shocking. A host can say “douchebag” on the air now and nothing happens; when Howard Stern said it in the 80s it got him suspended for a week. Watch daytime TV, you’ll see segments on The View reviewing vibrators. In fact, daytime TV — Ellen, The Chat, The View, TMZ — is so far ahead of radio content in terms of candor and sex, it makes radio seem quaint. And that’s a problem for radio. While FOX TV demanded that radio hosts get punished for mocking sportscaster Erin Andrews, TMZ said EXACTLY the same thing about Erin Andrews on FOX owned-TV stations and nothing happened. Radio is way behind broadcast TV in terms of ‘shocking’ content.”
John Sebastian says there are several factors that are contributing to the demise of the “shock jock.” “Howard Stern, by far the biggest shock jock of all time leaving commercial radio, was the beginning of the end for the pervasive shock format. Other Shockers demanded salaries way higher than today’s operators are willing to spend. Fear, fear, fear. Operators today, generally, are afraid to take any risks, any controversy. At a time when ‘safe is unsafe,’ radio is playing it so safe they’ve starved radio from its creativity and ingenuity.”
Lee Abrams tells Radio Ink that while many of the originals are thriving (i.e. Howard Stern and Mancow), the market became inundated with wanna bees of low quality and many of the shockers retired or moved on. “There’s no ‘next generation of Howards’ in the bullpen to replace the first generation, and most of the new comic minds aren’t looking at radio, but you can find them on YouTube.”
Jon Quick says the shock jock format isn’t so shocking anymore. “In an era when there is daily news about the president of the United States paying off a porn star, and telling Billy Bean on a bus that he is such a celebrity that he can feel free to grab a woman’s most private parts, shock radio has become reality. So how can we be any further shocked? Speaking of Private Parts, some of the stuff Stern did years ago would hardly be shocking today. Others, like Anthony Cumia, as I learned during my interview with him, have moved to the Internet, satellite services, and podcasts — places where they can do their thing and not feel vulnerable to the FCC acting as a judge of speech and morals.”