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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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?"