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Drive Time / Ambition, ratings and money push radio jocks toward the edge

As an intern for a Long Island radio station, Gregg Hughes

adhered to a detailed plan for his future career as a disc jockey. The kid

everyone called "Opie" knew what he wanted and was determined to get it, former

bosses recalled.

He wanted a show at WBAB/102.3 FM, and got it 10 years later. He asked for

a pay raise after 12 months because his plan called for one, and he got it.

Hughes also identified an obnoxious but funny caller, Anthony Cumia, as a

sidekick. In 1994, the duo started "The Opie and Anthony Show," which drew tens

of thousands of listeners with high doses of raunchy humor and outrageous

stunts. Six months later, they left for Boston for more money and a better time

slot.

"Opie was extremely driven to succeed," said Bob Buchmann, former

programming director and disc jockey at WBAB. "He had an actual year-by-year

plan for where he wanted to be in terms of his professional life. He just drove

himself," Buchmann said.

The plan, however, didn't call for what happened more than two weeks ago.

Hughes and Cumia were fired by the largest U.S. radio station operator -

Infinity Broadcasting Corp. - after staging a contest that allegedly led a

Virginia couple to have sex inside St. Patrick's Cathedral, airing the stunt

live on WNEW/102.7 FM. The subsequent outcry turned radio-land's successful bad

boys into pariahs in a matter of days. Other stations have announced they want

nothing to do with the jocks.

The two self-described average guys from Suffolk County created a firestorm

of controversy that goes far beyond them. The sex-in-public contest caused

problems for other shock jocks and the big conglomerates that dominate radio by

reigniting the national debate over decency on the public airwaves. Regulators

at the Federal Communications Commission now are under fire to take some

action against such radio personalities who push the limits in search of fame

and ratings.

Radio-industry veterans doubt Hughes and Cumia will be unemployed for long.

They were fired once before, in 1998, for falsely reporting that Boston's

mayor had died in an automobile accident. WNEW quickly signed them to a

contract that eventually became a national syndication deal involving some 20

stations and worth about $30 million over three years.

Hughes and Cumia, through their agent, declined to be interviewed. "No

comments are being made, right now," said a spokeswoman for agent Robert

Eatman. "We're laying low."

Experts also are skeptical that the FCC will yank WNEW's operating license.

They said the station's quick termination of Hughes and Cumia would placate

regulators, though it was done more for business reasons than wanting to uphold

decency standards.

"It's shocking on the one hand that this happened, but on some level it's

also all too familiar," said Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at

New York University. "This is the product of a struggling media cartel. They

will do whatever it takes to get an audience and if you stoop low enough, you

will get that immediate payoff," he said.

Miller and others attribute talk radio's growing reliance on material that

pushes the boundaries of decency, such as skits about sex with animals or

children, to the widespread buying and selling of stations. This merger mania -

made easier by the 1996 Telecommunications Act - created a few conglomerates

saddled with huge debts that require more advertising dollars. These only can

be gotten with larger audiences.

Radio has come a long way since the days of comedian George Carlin, whose

famous monologue on "the seven words you can't say" on the airwavesbecame a

cultural touchstone in the 1970s.

Miller puts the blame on the stations, not the listeners. "The coarsening

of mass culture is economically driven. This shouldn't be attributed to

depraved audiences," he said.

The consolidation of 12,000 radio stations into the hands of a few

corporations, such as Infinity owner Viacom Inc., also has led to the false

perception that shock jocks are pervasive and wildly successful. But some

industry observers contend that the growth of irreverent talk shows has

stalled, and perhaps even reversed.

There are plenty of reasons for this, and certainly one has to do with the

ever-changing definition of what is "shocking" in talk radio.

Don Imus, considered a founding father of the genre, now is downright

respectable - an elder statesman whose only shocking characteristic, perhaps,

is his haircut.

Howard Stern spent a decade shocking listeners - or at least listeners at

the FCC, which levied fine after fine - but even he seems to have mellowed in

advanced middle age.

And what about "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem, who went to trial (and was

acquitted) for broadcasting the slaughter of a boar in a Tampa, Fla., parking

lot? No trials, or controversies, for him recently either.

One industry executive who asked not to be named said, "If anything, the

rap against radio is that it's too safe, that we're not taking enough chances,

that our personalities are too quiet, are playing it too safe, and trying too

hard to be all things to all people. That's why this is an odd occurrence," the

executive said, referring to the sex-in-church stunt.

Some experts say shock jocks tempered their act after the Sept. 11

terrorist attacks, but others insist the more relevant development is pressure

from investors. As one executive explained, if the station's owner is "publicly

traded [there is a] different accountability. You don't want to upset the

apple cart too much because Wall Street has expectations that you'll do the

right thing, and be good stable long-term players," the executive said. "You

need to strike a balance between drawing attention and standing out of the

crowd."

Still, being heard above the cacophony is important for every commercial

medium, perhaps more so for radio.

Major markets such as New York have 40-plus stations vying for listeners,

and one of the most sought after are men between the ages of 18 and 35, who

have high disposable income. Like teens, their media loyalty is tenuous at

best, and their attention span is brief and relatively fragile. Bore them for a

second and they switch to the next station. It would also appear that many are

interested in beer and sex. Enter the shock jock.

"The United States is a low-art country," said Robert D. West, a retired

radio executive and professor of popular culture at Kent State University in

Ohio. "Our basic humor is built on insults and vulgarities. It's always been

that way, from the 1700s through vaudeville, shock jocks and rap music," he

said.

The shock jock phenomenon dates to the late 1950s, when sports talk-show

hosts Joe Pyne and Pete Franklin began throwing around insults about athletes

and team managers. A few years later, California jockey Bill Ballance sought to

spice up his show by asking guests about their sex lives.

How many shock jocks there are today is a matter of debate. They fall under

the heading of talk radio, which is the fastest growing format - an estimated

1,000 stations nationwide. But for every Howard Stern, there are 10 religious,

political, sports, advice or news talkers. Many of them - indeed most of them -

post higher ratings then their shock counterparts.

"The fact is, radio stations are finding less successful avenues for

playing music and are looking to talk radio as being kind of the growth area of

the business," said Ron Rodrigues, editor in chief of Radio & Records, a trade

publication.

Some experts said the Opie and Anthony controversy has sparked the

beginning of an ice age in shock talk radio.

"The weather just got chilly," said Tom Taylor, longtime industry observer

and editor of the trade journal Inside Radio. "I talked to big-market stations

in the past week who've seen the cold weather and probably are going to be

conservative," he said.

Walter Sabo, a consultant and former president of the ABC Radio Network,

disagreed, predicting the brouhaha over sex in the church would have no lasting

impact.

"I have to tell you, it's never precedent-setting," he said. "It's highly

situational and depends on many factors - the station owner, the advertisers,

the economy that week, who was offended, the sun, the moon, the tides. It's all

subjective."

The Opie and Anthony case, however, stands out because it centers on a

contest where listeners were supposedly encouraged to commit a crime - engaging

in public sex. Brian Florence and Loretta Lynn Harper were charged with public

lewdness for the supposed act in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Comedian Paul

Mercurio was charged with acting in concert in furtherance of public lewdness

for using his cell phone to transmit the encounter to "The Opie and Anthony

Show."

A precedent exists for holding WNEW accountable. In 1975, the California

State Supreme Court held a Los Angeles station liable in the death of Ronald

Weirum. He had been killed in a traffic accident five years earlier, when his

car was forced off the road by two teenagers racing to locate the station's

mobile transmitter truck in order to win $25. The judges ruled that the station

wasn't protected by the First Amendment right to free speech because it had

sponsored a contest involving real-world harms.

"The California precedent will be in the background of this dispute in New

York City," said Rod Smolla, a media law professor at the University of

Richmond in Virginia. "The radio program went beyond offensive; it encouraged

people to break the law."

The professor and others predict the FCC will slap WNEW with a hefty fine

but won't take away its operating license. This also appears to be the

conclusion drawn by WNEW's parent, Infinity.

Still, Infinity executives and their superiors at Viacom quickly sacrificed

"The Opie and Anthony Show," fearing the mushrooming controversy would

undermine the broadcaster's reputation on Capitol Hill. A veteran

communications lawyer in Washington, who asked not to be named, said: "You

always want to have a clean deck as you move towards a major initiative, with

Congress, the FCC or even the White House," he said.

Viacom has been in trouble before. In 1996 it donated $1.7 million to the

FCC, in effect settling obscenity fines leveled against Howard Stern during a

10-year period. At the time, it was seeking approval for a rapid expansion of

its Infinity radio division.

That Hughes and Cumia, two potty-mouthed dudes from Long Island, would

spark a controversy that threatened Viacom's $23-billion empire and defiled the

most famous church in America is unimaginable to friends and former

co-workers. They continue to describe them as fun-loving, regular guys.

Hughes, 39, graduated from Harborfields High School in Greenlawn in 1981.

He enjoyed basketball, Islanders' games, skiing and movies, according to his

yearbook entry. He hated lifting weights, math and disco.

After interning at WBAB, Hughes landed a job as a disc jockey in Buffalo.

He honed his skills there before returning to WBAB to be closer to his family,

according to friends.

Hughes is clean-cut and blond with a guileless smile and a hearty, helpless

laugh. Former employers described him as "talented and able to really connect

with listeners." They also said he was successful before meeting Cumia, now 41,

an inspired mimic and master of song parodies.

Cumia, who attended John Glenn High School in Elwood, was installing air

conditioners and playing in a rock band when he began calling Hughes' show. The

duo clicked creatively and soon became close friends.

Hughes convinced WBAB to make Cumia a regular on the show but the station

couldn't afford a second salary. So, Cumia received $25 a week for gas money.

"They were just hysterical....I really enjoyed watching them meld together

as the show went on," said Buchmann, the former program director at WBAB.

He last saw Hughes and Cumia about a month ago when they showed up for the

opening of The Radio Grill, his restaurant in Smithtown. The shock jocks

appeared to have the world by the tail. "I told them, 'You are in 17 markets

now and I'm sure you will triple that in the next year.' They winked," Buchmann

recalled.

He described the sex stunt "as a lapse in judgment" but questioned the

jocks' firing. "They've crossed the line before and not been punished in any

way. Why this time?"

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