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A shock jock is a type of radio broadcaster or disc jockey who entertains listeners or attracts attention using humor and/or melodramatic exaggeration that some portion of the listening audience may find offensive. The term is usually used pejoratively to describe provocative or irreverent broadcasters whose mannerisms, statements and actions are typically offensive to many members of the community. It is a popular term, generally not used within the radio industry. A shock jock is considered to be the radio equivalent of the tabloid newspaper, for which entertaining readers is as important as, or more important than, providing factual information. Within the radio industry, a radio station that relies primarily on shock jocks for its programming is said to have a hot talk format.
Confusingly, the term has been used in two broad (but sometimes overlapping) contexts:
- The radio announcer who deliberately does something outrageous and shocking (to improve ratings).
- The political radio announcer who has an emotional outburst in response to a controversial government policy decision.
The idea of an entertainer who breaks taboos or adopts a career role in the realm of the frequently offensive is not a new one. Despite the claims of decency activists, there are few eras of history in which there have not existed blue comedians; notoriously offensive performers (George Carlin, Petronius, Benny Bell, Le Pétomane, Redd Foxx and Lenny Bruce for example). African-American Ralph Waldo Petey Greene (1931–1984), who started broadcasting in 1966, has been called the original radio shock jock by some, although the term was not used until 1986, two years after Greene's death. Greene was an influence on Howard Stern, whose radio shows in the 1980s led to the first widespread use of the term "shock jock."
Shock jocks also tend to push the envelope of decency in their market, and may appear to show a lack of regard for communications regulations (e.g., FCC rules in the U.S.) regarding content. But nearly all American broadcasters have strict policies against content that is likely to draw indecency forfeitures, and air personalities are often contractually obligated to avoid broadcasting such content. Indecency fines are, in fact, rarely issued by U.S. regulators—no broadcaster has been issued a forfeiture for indecent content since 2003, although several earlier cases are in appeals court.
Many shock jocks have been fired as a result of such punishments as regulatory fines, loss of advertisers, or simply social and political outrage. On the other hand, it is also not uncommon for such broadcasters to be quickly rehired by another station or network.
Shock jocks in the United States have been censored under additional pressure from the United States government since the introduction of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which increased the fines on radio stations for violating decency guidelines by nearly 20 times.
Notable incidents: North America
- 1994: Mancow Muller orchestrates a stunt blocking off the westbound lanes of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge during rush hour while his on-air sidekick got a haircut, in response to a story about then-President Bill Clinton pulling a similar stunt with Los Angeles International Airport.
- 1995: Howard Stern responds to the death of singer Selena with a comment on how "Alvin and the Chipmunks have more soul" than Latin musicians and that "Spanish people have the worst taste in music." Stern survived the resultant outrage from the Hispanic community, which extended so far as an arrest warrant from Harlingen, Texas that the local justice of the peace left open for a year but, because Stern never entered Harlingen, went unenforced.
- 1998: Stern is banned from CHOM-FM in Montreal after remarking that "there's something about the (French) language that turns you into a pussy-assed jack-off." His only other Canadian affiliate, CILQ/Toronto, sustained a barrage of complaints for three years afterward before dropping the show in 2001.
- June 12, 2001: A rumor that Britney Spears was dead was scotched by her publicists after the story was spread by two US radio DJs and a hoax website using the BBC logo. Dallas shock jocks Kramer and Twitch told listeners to their KEGL-FM evening show that pop singer Spears and her then boyfriend Justin Timberlake had been involved in a car accident in Los Angeles. The hoax sparked panic among fans, who called police and fire departments in their hundreds. The story was then turned into a spoof version of a BBC News Online web page, and the link was sent around the world by e-mail. The BBC lodged a strong protest, and the spoof page was removed.
- August 16, 2002: Opie and Anthony sponsored a contest where the goal was to have sex in notable public places, called Sex For Sam. The contest went without a major outcry until Sex for Sam 3 after a couple had sex in a vestibule at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The resulting controversy, coupled with an earlier controversy stemming from a raunchy party in Buffalo, New York, led to Infinity Broadcasting cancelling the Opie and Anthony Show. Infinity was fined US$357,500 for the incident.
- 2003: Tom Leykis outs the name of the accuser in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case. The woman's name had been redacted from all other media reports about the case to date.
- January 2004: Bubba the Love Sponge receives a $755,000 fine from the FCC for a series of sketches that implied cartoon characters were having sex.
- April 8, 2004: Howard Stern's show was dropped by Clear Channel Communications after they were fined US$495,000 for a number of statements made during a Stern show. Stern later used his remaining market share to criticize Clear Channel and the Bush Administration, and left the public airwaves to move to satellite radio, which is not subject to the same FCC decency regulations.
- On May 12, 2004, Portland Modern Rock station KNRK came under controversy when the morning show The Marconi Show played a clip from the violent beheading of Nick Berg over and over, adding their snide commentary to it. The station was flooded with angry phone calls and emails from listeners. KNRK General Manager Mark Hamilton fired both hosts of the show, as well as their producer, and asked listeners to call or write in their suggestions on how to shape the station for the future. The result was the elimination of shock jocks, as well as a removal of most of the hard rock music that made up the playlist for the station at the time.
- December 2004: The Federal Communications Commission proposed fines totaling $220,000 against Entercom Communications for alleged indecency violations during multiple broadcasts in April and May 2002 of the Johnny Dare Morning Show on KQRC-FM in Kansas City, Kansas. The FCC claimed that the material included repeated graphic and explicit sexual descriptions that were pandering, titillating or used to shock the audience. As justification for proposing the maximum fine, the Commission noted "the egregious nature of the violations and Entercom's history of prior indecent broadcasts."
- 2006: J. R. Gach described an employee at a restaurant he was patronizing who had suffered serious burns on-air, which later escalated into a series of insults. The subject of Gach's discussion sued him over the comments, citing severe emotional distress and won a US$1,000,000 settlement in December 2007. The lawsuit effectively ended Gach's career.
- April 2007: Don Imus is fired for a racially charged comment referring to members of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." Eight months later, another network hired Imus.
- March 2, 2012: Rush Limbaugh, not typically considered a shock jock because his show predominantly deals with conservative political commentary, was criticized and faced with an advertiser exodus after making misogynistic comments toward activist Sandra Fluke. Limbaugh was not disciplined for the remarks and survived the controversy, with only two small stations (out of nearly 600) dropping the program.
Notable incidents: Great Britain
- June 2005: Radio DJ Tim Shaw propositioned glamour model Jodie Marsh live on-air on his Kerrang! FM show by announcing he would leave his family for her. This enraged Shaw's wife, who promptly sold his Lotus Espirit on eBay for 50p. Earlier that year he had been suspended for staging a mock burglary at the home of former programme director Andrew Jeffries, and in 2004, after being challenged by listeners, he phoned his sister-in-law live on-air to boast that he fantasized about her during sex with his wife.
- October 18, 2008: (UK) BBC Radio 2 host Russell Brand resigned after calling actor Andrew Sachs and leaving four answering machine messages claiming that he had had sex with his granddaughter.
Notable incidents: Australia
- July 29, 2009: On his morning breakfast radio show, Australian DJ Kyle Sandilands provoked outrage when his "Lie Detector" segment featured a 14-year-old girl who, when quizzed on her sexual history by her mother, broke down, revealing she had been raped at the age of 12. Kyle then said her mother meant any intercourse other than rape. The show was suspended for one week. Sandilands provoked further outrage three days after his suspension expired when he made a slur about Jenny Craig ambassador Magda Szubanski, saying she could have lost more weight in a concentration camp. Sandilands was suspended for ten days without pay, and after a review on September 18, had his suspension extended by three weeks. Sandilands returned to air on October 8, apologized for the incident, and was blessed by a priest at the start of the show.
- December 4, 2012. Australian DJs Mel Greig and Mike Christian made a prank call to a hospital in London where the Duchess of Cambridge was treated for "acute morning sickness", recording and playing the call later on air. After the nurse involved was suspected of suicide the incident received international media coverage.
- June 13, 2013. A Perth radio host Howard Sattler was sacked after he asked prime minister Julia Gillard if her partner Tim Mathieson was gay because he was a male hairdresser.
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- Marks, Kathy (June 14, 2013). "'Is your partner gay?' Shock jock sacked over Gillard interview.". The Independent (London). Retrieved 14 June 2013.