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Catching the Mancow fever

A newly syndicated Chicago talk show host says his 'shock jock' days are over, but fans are counting on him to be the next Howard Stern.

June 19, 2005|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

FOR the last decade, citizens of Chicago have come to know Mancow Muller as the scrappy morning drive host of "Mancow's Morning Madhouse," a loud mix of libido and religion, libertarian politics and celebrity interviews, call-ins and rants.

To his fans, it all makes sense somehow that he advocates free speech but has cleaned up his act, can put "Jesus" and "dirty joke" in the same sentence, and bitterly denounces both the FCC and Howard Stern.

It's still too early to tell what Angelenos will make of Muller, whose newly syndicated show is slowly being rolled out on Talk Radio Network and will be carried by more than a dozen of the nation's top 30 markets by the time Stern leaves the airwaves for satellite Jan. 1.

"It's a show you grow into," said Don Martin, general manager of XTRA Sports 570, the sports-talk station that has been airing "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" for the last month. "You can't get it the first, second or third time. It takes you a good week of listening."

His backers are banking on Mancow to be the next Stern -- cleaner and, perhaps, even bigger -- as more FM stations turn from music to talk.

"After Howard Stern goes away Jan. 1, you're going to see Mancow in over half of the top 30 markets," said Mark Masters, chief executive of TRN-FM, a division of Talk Radio Network that is syndicating the show.

Master said the search for an heir to Stern has been tricky. Muller was the only one whose ratings beat Stern in the top 10 markets on a sustained basis but who was safe enough to please advertisers. "We spent five years looking for FM hosts who weren't audio voyeurism events artists," he said.

Still, as ad salesmen for the Chicago-based WKQX-FM know, his image as a "shock jock" lingers.

Last August, station owner Emmis Communications paid the U.S. government $300,000 to settle not only $42,000 in Federal Communications Commission fines based on complaints against Muller but also to clear the record and pave the way for license renewal. (As indecency fines went last year, it was relatively small. Media giant Viacom agreed to pay $3.5 million to erase proposed indecency fines, including some against Stern and the "Opie & Anthony" show.)

Emmis further agreed to ban crude and graphic sex-related references. Salesmen now pitch the show with charts titled "Mancow's Morning Madhouse -- Controversial Programming? -- Not Anymore!" and a "no" checklist for "pornography, nudity, extreme political attacks, sexual content, inflammatory remarks and racism/prejudice."

"People who call it 'shocking' are wrong," Muller said during a recent quick trip to Los Angeles, partly to help revise his "shock jock" reputation. Up since 2:30 a.m. and fresh off a plane, the dark and tousled Muller picked up a plastic coffee cup and glanced restlessly out the window of his publicist's Beverly Hills office.

"When I was 22, it was interesting to talk to porn stars. Then you realize they have nothing to say. I'm just not there anymore," said Muller, 37, who is married, with twins on the way, and an outspoken Christian.

A working stiff's escape

Though his show may be "FCC safe" now, it still has the power to provoke.

On a recent morning, listeners of XTRA 570 heard Muller -- and sidekicks, skits, interviews, callers and ads for cheap suits -- race by at 100 mph in 15 directions. One sidekick placed a prank call to a sex shop asking for toys that might "cut" or "burn" women. Later, Muller engaged actor and fellow believer Stephen Baldwin in a conversation about why the word "Christian" offends people. "We know the truth," Muller told Baldwin. "People are offended because they know it's the truth."

Erich Muller ("Mancow" came from a mythical character he played as a theater major at Central Missouri State University) is often described as a showman, raised by his salesman father to appreciate old-time radio. He uses politics, sports, religion and pop culture as elements of entertainment, presented in a stream-of-consciousness format.

And with the skill of a P.T. Barnum, he can take a question and move it around, like a pea under a shell, until his interrogator is thoroughly charmed, distracted and ready to give up.

His show is meant to be an escapist diversion for men driving to work, he said. "It's tough making your way through this life. It's a lot of work, paying the bills, raising families. I'm saying things they can't because they're trapped in a cubicle, because they've been neutered, because they have to be politically correct, because they can't speak up."

In retrospect, the sex shop skit was probably not one of his proudest moments, he acknowledged. But, he said, some questionable things get through when you're writing 25 hours of original material a week. He's also known to rant -- at Bush, at the FCC, at the Sept. 11 terrorists and at Stern.

"They hate each other," said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers, a talk-radio trade publication. "It's professional, but it has overlapped into personal. They've attacked each other on the air."

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