If, as Moliere said, the purpose of comedy is to correct the vices of men, Michael O'Shea and his partners are on a mission to clean up radio.
They're behind All Comedy Radio, a Hollywood-based service debuting this weekend that streams comedy bits 24/7 to radio stations throughout the country -- allowing those local stations to change formats completely to all-humor, or to lighten up a few minutes or hours of their current programming. Locally, KLSX-FM (97.1) is picking up the service for overnights Saturday and Sunday, using its clips of stand-up comedy from stars and newcomers, song and commercial parodies, prank phone calls, news satire and comedian interviews.
O'Shea, former vice president of programming for Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasting and a 30-year industry veteran, is chief executive of the venture, which he says will probably find its best audience stuck in traffic and seeking relief.
"There's so much single commuting going on, you're just kind of there with your sense of humor," he said.
Late last year, Kent Emmons and Howard Levine, co-founders of Comedy World, an Internet venture that was the precursor to All Comedy Radio, brainstormed with O'Shea about creating a comedy format for radio. Emmons and Levine, who have backgrounds in broadcast production and entertainment law, respectively, suggested discrete programs, while O'Shea argued the stream needed to be continuous.
"Here's really the way people listen to radio -- it's tune in, tune out," not appointment listening, as with television, he said. So he suggested the operation be run just like a music radio station but with stand-up snippets instead of songs.
To that end, All Comedy Radio has computerized a library of 1,500 humor bits, and -- using listener testing -- rated each of them on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "mildly amusing" and 5 being "a gut-buster," he said. Then they mix to a pleasing consistency, just as at a music station.
So what are their equivalents to "Stairway to Heaven" or "My Girl"?
"There are a couple of (Jerry) Seinfeld bits that test almost off the wall. There's a couple of phony-phone-call bits that are very, very funny that I'd put in heavy rotation," he said.
But because even O'Shea admits the routines can grow stale quickly, the computer helps schedule the bits so they're not overused or always aired at the same times.
And All Comedy Radio even has its own DJs, called CJs, or comedy jocks -- including Kerri Kasem, daughter of Top 40 countdown king Casey Kasem.
"They're there to be companionable and make it sound like a radio station," O'Shea said. They'll anchor the broadcast by giving artist information, background stories, concert listings and other details. Without them, he said, the service would sound like a comedy club or the audio-only portion of a cable TV program.
All Comedy Radio also has Budd Friedman, founder of the Improv comedy clubs, as chairman of its advisory board and plans to use his connections with comedy stars to get them on the air.
In addition, the service has created a network of local morning shows around the country that are feeding All Comedy Radio snippets from their programs every day to keep the content fresh.
"If Michael Jackson's nose falls off, we're on the air the next day with 13 bits," he said.
This feeder system consists of stations in mostly small- and medium-size markets, O'Shea said, in part because morning-show hosts in the major markets are already locked into their own syndication deals, such as Rick Dees on KIIS-FM (102.7).
"If I had gotten Rick 30 years ago, he would've been great for us," O'Shea said.
He said KLSX, the local home for outrageous talk hosts Howard Stern and Tom Leykis, is an ideal outlet for All Comedy Radio in Los Angeles, because so many of the comedians he knows already listen to the station. But in many of the dozen or so markets debuting the service, the early adopters are more sober news/talk stations.
"The world's getting too serious," said Tim McNamara, general manager of KXL-AM, a news/talk station in Portland, Ore., that is looking at using the service for weekends and for a rush-hour diversion. "Take a break. What the heck -- a little comedy will be a good idea."
Noting that the bottom line isn't forcing him to rotate the 200 top hits of classic rock, for example, McNamara adds, "with AM you can take some chances."
One station, KLFJ-AM in Springfield, Mo., is swallowing the service whole -- changing formats from travel information and CNN news to all-comedy.
Stations get the comedy programming for free; All Comedy makes its money by selling ads that run with service.
O'Shea said the idea has been tried before -- in the 1980s, a pair of all-comedy radio stations went on the air, KMDY-AM in Thousand Oaks, and WJOK-AM in the Washington, D.C., area. That they were able to stay on the air several years, even with low budgets and low power outputs, has encouraged O'Shea and his partners.