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SHOCK RADIO : Is It Satire or Just Bad Taste?

February 22, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

When J. C. Corcoran arrived in St. Louis as the new morning deejay on rock station KSHE-FM, management asked him to appear at several fund-raising activities for local charities.

He immediately refused. "I said to them, 'You guys are missing the point. We have to make people think I'm some kind of wild man, you know, like I'm satanic or something.'

"When I'm off the air, I'm a very straight, boring homebody," Corcoran explained. "But when I'm on the air, my mission is to be very crazy."

Just how crazy?

When the 33-year-old deejay first hit the St. Louis airwaves in 1984, he launched an attack on Jack Carney, a veteran deejay at KMOX-FM, a traditional talk-radio station that had long been top-rated.

Corcoran recalled, "I said that old (bleep) is so ancient that he's gonna die any day now." Eight days later, Carney suffered a fatal heart attack. "Of course, I felt bad," Corcoran said, "but the local columnists blamed me, as if I'd had something to do with it. All of a sudden everyone was attacking me, saying, 'You killed Carney.' "

Corcoran was also singled out in a complaint to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee by the Florida Coalition for Clean Cable TV. The citizen pressure group criticized one of the his routines in which the organization charged that he "laughed throughout a recital of 388 pet names women have for the male reproductive organ."

"Sure, we're a little dirty sometimes, and silly too," Corcoran responded. "But if we weren't consistently funny, it would never work. I've been called a scoundrel and a degenerate, but all I'm trying to do is be funny."

A few years ago, Corcoran might have been run out of town. Instead, he became a major drawing card for album-rock KSHE-FM, which in about a year tripled its ratings.

In radio, ratings attract advertisers and advertisers make stations money. And in dozens of cities across America today, morning radio is riding high on what has been called a "wave of stupidity." Eager to be taunted and titillated, millions of listeners are tuning in deejays who specialize in stretching the boundaries of bad taste.

Welcome to Shock Radio.

In Tampa, Fla., when convicts are put to death in the state's electric chair, WRBQ-FM morning men Cleveland Wheeler and Terrence McKeever play the Eddie Grant hit "Electric Avenue."

In Washington, WWDC-FM deejay Doug (The Greaseman) Tracht, in a widely reported incident, took the air on Martin Luther King's birthday last year and joked that if killing one black leader was cause for a day off, then killing "four more" would create a holiday "all week long." (After a large public outcry, including picketing of the station, he publicly apologized several times.)

In San Diego, KSDO-FM deejay Randy Miller responded to news stories about a wave of illegal aliens crossing the border from Mexico by performing a new version of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." He titled it "The Mexican National Anthem," including lyrics that focused on various demeaning Latino stereotypes.

In San Antonio, the KISS-FM "Rude Awakening" morning team of John Lyle and Steve Hahn reported a local incident where a family of ranchers were convicted of kidnaping hitchhikers, torturing them with cattle prods and forcing them to manufacture key chains. The deejays proceeded to give away key chains adorned with the slogan, "Rude Awakening Slave Ranch."

In Providence, R.I., WHJY-FM deejay Carolyn Fox--one of the country's few women in this sort of work (see article on Page 4)--hosts a dating game feature called "The Fox Hunt," where she plays match-mate for swinging singles. Recent versions have included a "Gay Fox Hunt," a "Blonde Nymphet Hunt," an "Elvis Impersonator Hunt" and a "Menage a Trois Hunt," where "we tried to put together a married couple with a young guy or girl."

In New York, WXRK-FM deejay Howard Stern has achieved the status as prime offender of the genre. His gags, jibes and put-downs are so relentlessly offensive and tasteless that Calendar couldn't find any safe, PG-rated examples to publish for this survey. Trust us.

Fans of these comic wild men (and an even rarer species--the outrageous female deejay) call this graphic humor "inspired satire," geared toward radio's most sought-after audience, the big-spending 18- to 34-year-olds who grew up reading the National Lampoon and watching "Saturday Night Live" and "Animal House."

Their critics dismiss it as filthy and offensive, loaded with racial and sexual innuendo. In fact, the humor is so full of potentially offensive material that Calendar can only print a small percentage of the most widely quoted jokes. However, on the radio, anything goes, whether the laughs come from jokes about sexual misadventures, the Catholic Church, ethnic minorities or mass murder.

As Providence deejay Carolyn Fox likes to tell her listeners: "I have to act like a moron. That's what I get paid for!"

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