Robert Hays looked nervous. Hays runs the sombre memorial on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas, which commemorates the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy— “one of America’s greatest tragedies,” as Hays observed in a hushed tone. The exhibit marks the spot where alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald knelt behind a stack of cardboard cartons, thrust a rifle out an open window and shot Kennedy to death on a sunny afternoon 29 years ago last week. On this day, the source of Hays’s discomfort sat in front of a microphone 40 feet away from Oswald’s perch, wearing a red polo shirt and grey slacks: radio talk-show host Morton Downey Jr.
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For three days, Hays had fought a legal battle to keep Downey, once branded “the pit bull of talk-show hosts,” from airing his syndicated call-in program from the site. But the broadcaster had won a court order, based on his constitutional right to freedom of speech, allowing the show to proceed. Now, he was about to hit the air.
The gravel-voiced Downey can certainly be unsettling. On occasion, he has referred to political liberals as “pablum-pukers.” And although he muted his style last week while broadcasting from the Book Depository, any concern that Downey might slip into his outrageous persona was well founded. America’s radio waves have become a hotly contested battleground in recent months, as rival personalities compete daily for hugely profitable national audiences, with an escalating arsenal of strident opinion, outrage and often tasteless comedy.
Downey’s eight-month-old show, in fact, is a comparative latecomer to a field now dominated by two New York City-based broadcasters. Rush Limbaugh, who claims that he possesses “talent borrowed from God,” has emerged as the suited-and-tied darling of conservatives— his politically potent mix of anarchic humor and right-wing ranting sends shivers up the spines of moderates. Long-haired and foul-mouthed Howard Stem, meanwhile, is adored by his mostly young, male listeners, one of whom heralded him on-air last week as “the viscount of voyeurism and the oligarch of onanism.” His jockstrap humor has now caught the attention of the U.S. Federal Communications Commis-
sion (FCC), the broadcasting regulatory agency.
In jostling for fortune and influence, the Missouri-born Limbaugh is far and away the front-runner. His four-year-old, three-hourlong weekday radio show—basically an extended monologue salted with satire and the very occasional guest—is broadcast on more
than 500 U.S. stations to 13 million listeners. A book that Limbaugh dictated to a ghostwriter and titled The Way Things Ought To Be has been near the top of The New York Times bestsellers’ list for 10 weeks (page 25). Earlier in the fall, Limbaugh also launched a daily halfhour television program that is now carried in more than 200 centres (including on CFMT in Toronto). “There is absolutely no one and nothing else out there like him,” said fan Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s Nightline, “anywhere on the political spectrum.”
Where Limbaugh sits on that spectrum is clear. The pudgy Jonathan Winters look-alike is a full-throated Reagan Republican, pro-business and pro-(American) military, while staunchly opposing welfare, “environmental
wackos” and feminism. On the last of those subjects, he has enraged many activist American women by adopting the caustic term “femiNazis,” spurring prominent Los Angeles lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred to assert that his humor is “harmful to women.”
Clearly, Limbaugh’s pointed comedy is a major reason behind his expanding success. On one recent TV segment, he introduced what he called “environmental wacko football picks.” Speaking over video clips of cavorting marine mammals and spreading oil slicks, Limbaugh reversed the favored odds to place the NFL’S Miami Dolphins ahead of the Houston Oilers, explaining with tongue in cheek, “When you compare the innocence and loveliness and beauty of dolphins with the evil of oil discovery and pollution, it’s obvious: you take the Dolphins and you lay them 3V2 points.”
Stem’s brand of humor is usually less innocent. Over an expanding network of stations that now includes 10 of the largest U.S. markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Dallas, Stem spews a corrosive mixture of sexual innuendo, racially charged derision and bathroom humor that has carried him to the top of the ratings in most of the cities where his daily morning show airs.
Celebrating his first-place rating in downtown Los Angeles last week with a mock public execution of his two nearest local rivals, the selfdescribed “king of all media” declared, “I will guillotine these guys at the end of this.” Then he told a woman who had won a contest to appear on his show by penning a sexually explicit song: “Why don’t you bend over and start singing. I’ll
bang you when it’s right.” Despite the sexism, Stem is popular. In Dallas, where Stem has been on the air for only a month, KEGL program director Brian Krysz said, “He’s showed a 33per-cent increase [in listeners] without any prepromotion.”
But where Limbaugh has critics, Stem has outright enemies. For the past year, professional musician AÍ Wescott has made a crusade of bringing Stem to heel. A year ago, after taping 47 examples of Stern’s sexual, racial and excretory humor broadcast on Los Angeles station KLSX-FM over a period of six weeks,
Wescott filed a complaint with federal regulators. Declared Wescott: “I heard material that offended women, that offended minorities and that quite frankly offended me.” After reviewing the excerpts, in which Stem referred to his Los Angeles rivals as “bitches” and “pussies” and feigned on-air masturbation, the FCC acted, serving the station with fines totalling $126,000.
Stern came under attack from another quarter in November. When the curly haired host said of the Philippines that “I think they eat their young over there,” the Congress of Filipino-American Citizens filed a $78-million suit for damages in New York Supreme Court. Said Gonzalo Velez, a spokesman for the group: “When he makes insinuations against a whole people, I
don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s disgusting.” Stem, who declines to be interviewed, responds to his critics on-air. “Nobody has asked me to tone down,” he said last week, adding, “I don’t think this radio show is obscene.” Indeed,
Stem’s reach appears to be growing rather than shrinking. In addition to a television show that aired for the first time late last week, Stem promotes the latest in a series of videos: Butt Bongo Fiesta. Plugging its contents recently to his listeners, Stem said: “It’s got ‘Lesbian Love Connection,’ ‘Guess Who’s the Jew’ and the
vagina tribute.” KEGL’s Krysz, meanwhile, predicted that protracted litigation would prevent the FCC from ever collecting any fines directed at stations that carry his show. Added Krysz: “If you don’t like what he’s doing, you can turn the dial to another station.”
In contrast to Stem, Downey’s bad-boy reputation, earned during the brief run of an at-the-time controversial television talk show in the late 1980s—called the Morton Downey Jr. Show—seems undeserved. That program ended after 23 months in September, 1989, when its host acknowledged faking an assault against him by skinheads in an attempt to revive sagging ratings. Downey returned to radio in March (he is aired on 84 stations) and he plans to revive his TV show in January. He claims to have g mellowed—to a degree. “I haven’t become softer,” he said last week. “I’ve become more tolerant that there are 8 other opinions that people have.” Americans may be taken aback by the thought of Downey as the voice of sweet reason on their increasingly virulent airwaves. But in comparison with Limbaugh and Stem, he may well merit that description. What is far less certain is whether, between Limbaugh’s bombast and Stem’s raunch, there is room for anything else.
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