By Tyler Currie
Sunday, February 26, 2006
One by one the Junkies slump into the cramped radio studio, plop into their cushioned seats and plug in their headphones. It's 4:50 a.m. in early January. Outside, the highways are still mostly empty; not even Starbucks is open.
"Okay, we start with a 12-minute segment, boys," says J.P. Flaim, the most organized and least disheveled of the crew. He's the only Junkie who bathed this morning. "I just don't feel right if I don't shower," he explains.
The others stick to familiar routines, too, trying to calm their nerves. Eric "E.B." Bickel fiddles with the machine that routes phone calls onto the air. Jason "Lurch" Bishop, who is 6-foot-6, props his size 13 feet up on the table and tries to read the sports page. John "Cakes" Auville sucks down his second Diet Coke of the morning and readies hundreds of digital sound effects.
Starting this morning, these four 35-year-old average Joes from Prince George's County are taking over Howard Stern's long-running -- and highly lucrative -- morning rush hour slot on WJFK (106.7 FM) in Washington and WHFS (105.7 FM) in Baltimore. Before he defected to satellite radio, Stern was the king of FM raunch. It's not clear if the Junkies, despite a new contract worth millions, are up to the challenge of holding on to Stern's listeners in the Washington-Baltimore market. "The next few months will be the most scrutinized of our careers," says J.P. Indeed, just trying to shake off their pre-show jitters and get some sleep last night was a bear.
E.B. was so keyed up that he popped a Xanax before crawling into bed. The anti-anxiety drug, he says, was supposed to ease him to sleep. It didn't.
J.P. also went the pill route, taking a sleeping medication called Ambien. He was wide awake by midnight. "It must have been a sugar pill," he says.
Two bottles of Miller Lite were Cakes's choice of narcotic. But his 18-month-old son kept crying, and throughout the night he and his wife split baby duty. "This shift will haunt me, will put me in an early grave," Cakes declares.
Lurch lost his fight with insomnia around 1 a.m. He got out of bed, cooked some eggs and turned on ESPN.
Now their producer, Chris Kinard, stands behind the control board and gazes at the four old friends. "This is surreal," Kinard says. "We're about to take over Howard Stern's spot."
In the studio, a digital clock measures time by thousandths of a second. The whizzing milliseconds crash into 5:00:000, and the Junkies are live.
"That's right, donkeys, we are back," crackles J.P. He announces that they're "fresh" and ready to go.
"Nobody's fresh," Cakes screams at J.P. "It's 5:01."
"One question. Can we reconsider?" gasps E.B.
"There's no turning back," warns Cakes.
The Junkies reminisce about their early days at WJFK, when they were on the air just one night a week and didn't get invited to the station's Christmas party. Not that an invitation would have mattered to Cakes. "How about, I didn't make it to the Christmas party because I was still working at Toys R Us, slinging toys during the holiday season," he says.
They'll run their mouths like this for the next five hours, delving into some of the least pressing issues of the day: How many inches from the urinal did E.B.'s eighth-grade social studies teacher typically stand? (18.) Why doesn't Lurch wear his wedding ring? (He's not a "jewelry guy.") Would medicinal marijuana make getting glaucoma worthwhile? (Absolutely, says Cakes.)
The Junkies' aim isn't sophistication; it's ratings, though they won't learn how they've done until April.
"We could fart over the air, and [management] wouldn't care as long as we bring in the numbers," E.B. yells at J.P.
"No, we couldn't fart," retorts J.P., who's a lawyer versed in the Federal Communications Commission's decency regulations. Running afoul of those rules is a constant fear for the Junkies. And it's partly why Stern abandoned the commercial airwaves for satellite radio.
"Fine," E.B. shoots back, "we could burp."
J.P. doesn't respond, ending what is probably the only business discussion in Washington that concludes with a strategic belching plan.
Until recently, you could turn on your FM radio during the morning rush hour in practically any big U.S. city and listen to Howard Stern describe his penis. He talked to the country about his manhood for almost 20 years, becoming the most bankable property in radio and making a reported $100 million a year in advertising revenue for his employer, CBS Radio. Stern spawned a legion of imitators who proved every bit as immodest, creating an on-air genre that millions find hilarious and millions more find disgusting.
Now FM radio is facing a momentous question: Can anyone replace Howard Stern?
To understand the challenge facing the radio industry, consider the role it plays in the lives of American commuters. The country's roadways can be scenes of remorseless alienation, especially for those who journey to work each morning within sight of thousands of others but essentially without company. This is the void that radio seeks to fill.
"Sometimes I think the purpose of cars is to be a listening chamber for radio," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, who points out that the morning rush hour -- roughly 6 to 9 a.m. -- is the most important time in radio, accounting for about half of most stations' revenue.
There are other choices of media in the car, from cassette tapes to compact discs to iPods. They offer a distinct alternative to radio: Commuters choose which CD goes into the slot or which recorded book to play. But commuters are still alone as they cruise down the road. Only radio penetrates the bubble, filling the car with a live human presence and engaging listeners' emotions in powerful and unpredictable ways.
Every day Stern delivered exactly what radio executives crave: programming that grabbed an audience by the ears. He voiced desires that most adults carefully repress. He displayed unrestrained contempt for his bosses. He fantasized shamelessly about sundry women, even when he was married. He paraded his unshakable feelings of inadequacy before the world. And his audience adored him for it.
"Stern has a pure, direct, honest approach," Harrison says. "There's so little inhibition. His listeners feel like they're hearing from a friend."
Those bonds translated into big-time advertising dollars. A recent Baer Stearns analysis predicted that Stern's former stations could lose up to 30 percent of their advertising revenue now that he's gone. "If you're listening [to talk radio], you're listening to some degree emotionally," explains Walter Sabo, president of Sabo Media, a consulting firm that works with radio stations. "The result is that commercial messages that are on talk stations sell. The local retailer can move product off the shelf when he puts a commercial on a talk station."
When Stern was on FM, he reportedly made $27,000 for each reading of a live commercial. One of his biggest accounts was with the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. The lesson: Shock radio isn't really about shocking anyone. It's about getting listeners to buy snuggly stuffed animals and other products.
Will any of the radio personalities who have been dwelling in Stern's shadow emerge to tap the emotional needs of the American commuter? If not, Stern's inheritors may share the fate of disc jockeys who used to play cutting-edge music. First, they'll become irrelevant, then they'll become extinct.
Threats to FM abound. Podcasts, still in their infancy, are sprouting faster than anyone can count. Stern swears that satellite radio is the wave of the future. Maybe FM is becoming the new AM, a dustbin for dull, utilitarian radio. The Junkies find themselves at the center of these crosscurrents every weekday morning, when their alarm clocks ring around 4 a.m.
The idea for the Sports Junkies began 11 years ago with an offhand remark by E.B.'s future mother in-law. She was channel surfing and came across a political talk show on BCTV, Bowie's cable access channel. I think you and your friends can do that with a sports show, Alicia Chin recalls saying to E.B., who was in graduate school studying to be a school counselor.
E.B. ran across the street to pitch the idea to J.P., who was home from law school for the summer and interning for a Maryland judge. E.B., J.P. and Cakes grew up within a few houses of one another in a middle-class Bowie neighborhood of modest ranchers and Cape Cods. All three were born in 1970; all three were obsessed with sports. But there were differences among them, too.
J.P.'s father was an Italian immigrant, and his mother had been born in Puerto Rico. Even as a kid, J.P. was a motormouth and a neatnik, says his mother, Lourdes. She marveled at the way he always picked up his toys and organized his closet.
His parents sent J.P. across the street for piano lessons with E.B.'s mom, Shirley, who played the organ at the United Parish of Bowie, where her husband, Carl, was the pastor. Though E.B. was destined to become the raunchiest of the Junkies -- his computer wallpaper shows a pair of copulating hyenas -- he spent every Sunday in the front pew of his father's church. He still does. "We raised him to believe in God," Shirley Bickel says.
Cakes lived around the corner from E.B. and J.P., on the way to the boys' elementary school. Cakes, who'd been adopted at five weeks, was sunny and easygoing, says his father, Gene, but never very tidy. J.P. came over once after school and "straightened up [Cake's] drawers and closet because he couldn't stand" the mess.
When it came time for high school, Cakes and J.P went to Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt; E.B. went to DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, where he soon became friends with a basketball player nicknamed Lurch, who easily fit in with the Bowie crew.
All four friends thought the idea of launching a sports talk show sounded fun. "Growing up, that's what we would do, sit around talking sports, arguing, debating," recalls Lurch, who at the time was living with his parents and working two boring part-time jobs.
In August 1995, they made their cable access debut in crisp white button-down shirts and paisley ties at a table draped with a Heath Shuler Redskins jersey.
Behind them a piece of poster board was propped on an easel, proclaiming the name of their program, "The Sports Junkies," in clunky block print.
Lurch sat with his hands neatly folded on the table, E.B. wore glasses with lenses the size of flapjacks, and J.P. had a grin plastered on his face. (Cakes had to work at Toys R Us, so he skipped the first show.) J.P. led off the program: "Hi. Don't turn that dial because we'll stay here for a while 'cause we're about to get funky. We are the Sports Junkies . . . First we're gonna start off talking some baseball."
They debated whether the acquisition of slugger Bobby Bonilla would make the Orioles a better team and then moved on to other topics, working hard to sound like professional broadcasters. It wasn't until near the end of the show that something crude ignited. The subject was then-troubled tennis star Jennifer Capriati, who a year earlier had been busted for marijuana possession.
"I think I saw her last night on 14th Street smoking crack," Lurch announced. (At the time, 14th Street NW in Washington was notorious for prostitution and drug-dealing.)
"What were you doing down there?" demanded E.B.
"Job interviews," Lurch deadpanned.
The moment lasted mere seconds, but it's a glimpse of what the Junkies would become -- once they ditched their ties and stiff spines.
The Sports Junkies nearly disintegrated a few months later. E.B. remembers calling an emergency meeting at his parents' house to urge Cakes, who'd recently gotten married and wanted to focus on earning a paycheck, not to bail. E.B. felt, he says now, that the show was a "Hail Mary pass" to keep from getting a "real job." As a kid, he'd dreamed of owning a baseball card shop. Having his own sports talk show didn't seem like a bad alternative, if only he could figure out how to make a living from it. Then E.B. came up with a way to promote the show. He sent tapes to local sportswriters, hoping one of them would find the Sports Junkies noteworthy. It worked.
In 1996, Washington Times columnist Dick Heller wrote about the Sports Junkies, describing them as "intelligent, lively and sometimes argumentative. Most important, they're fun . . . They deserve a wider audience than a relative handful of channel surfers in Bowie. The trick is, how do they get one?"
The answer came a few days later, when J.P. got a call from a program director at WJFK who had read Heller's column. The station, which describes its listeners in one marketing pitch as a "wall of men," had been looking for new, nontraditional talent to juice up its lineup. The four boys from Prince George's fit the bill.
They made their radio debut on a Saturday night in May 1996. At first, each was paid only $50 per show. "Gas money," J.P. calls it. (The Junkies won't say precisely how much they make now. "We're not millionaires," J.P. says, "but if you put us together, we are.")
WJFK had been built around legendary talkers: Stern, G. Gordon Liddy, Don and Mike, the Greaseman. Throwing four amateurs into the lineup was a bold statement of confidence, but Ken Stevens, who was general manager at the time, says he knew the Junkies were going to be special. "They were a hit from day one," Stevens says. "They didn't sound formatted. They sounded natural, like four real guys that got along with each other . . . Advertisers came on board right away."
Soon, the Sports Junkies were airing Monday through Friday evenings instead of Saturdays. They'd give out tips for cheating in golf, or reel in listeners with games like "Junkardy," a knockoff of television's "Jeopardy!" with categories such as "Drunks," "Batters," "Mets Who Blow" (cocaine, that is) and "Creepers" (men who cheat on their wives).
Their creative process has always been informal. Ideas for new bits are worked out during commercial breaks or while hanging out before the show. J.P. and E.B. usually serve as the creative engines. Cakes and Lurch often play a supporting role, tweaking the ideas of the other two.
Maybe because they've known each other since preschool, J.P. and E.B. delight in arguing together on the air. "He will disagree with anything I say," says E.B., who describes himself as a conservative and J.P. as a liberal. J.P. is coolly analytical. E.B. runs on hot emotion. Cakes and Lurch have developed their own on-air personas. Cakes constantly puts himself down, reminding listeners, for example, that he once pulled a 1.5 grade-point average at Towson State University. Lurch reveals the least about his private life and is often surly when the subject veers away from sports.
Listening to their show means joining a virtual fraternity, complete with its own lexicon of slang and euphemisms:
Butt-trifling: (adjective) very bad.
Donkey: (noun) a male idiot.
Rough up the suspect: (verb) to masturbate.
In the beginning, one of their favorite bits was "Bother the Pro." This involved tracking down athletes at the hotels where they were staying, persuading the desk clerk to patch the Junkies through and conducting impromptu, slapstick phone interviews. They once harangued a boxing judge for botching an Evander Holyfield fight. Another time, they woke up Jimmy Johnson, ex-coach of the hated Dallas Cowboys. "He hung up on us pretty quickly," says J.P., who laments that "Bother the Pro" fell victim to the station's insistence that athletes be told up front that they were about to be interviewed on live radio.
Jason Blocker was 20 and selling stereos at Circuit City when he started listening to the show in 1996. He's been a fan ever since. "They make you feel like you're hanging out with the guys. They talk about the most ridiculous stuff -- just like the [expletive] most regular guys do. I don't know them personally, but I feel like I do."
The Sports Junkies' appeal extended far beyond young retail clerks. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., then a congressman from Maryland, used to listen as he drove home from Capitol Hill. Sometimes when the Junkies did "Bother the Pro," the now-governor says, he'd have to pull over because he was laughing so hard.
A few months after the Sports Junkies moved to weeknights, Arbitron, the media research company that compiles radio ratings, released its quarterly numbers. The Sports Junkies were the top-rated show in their time slot among an important demographic, men 25 to 54.
After the Sports Junkies finished celebrating, J.P. eagerly organized the Arbitron data into a thick three-ring binder, complete with multicolored dividers.
The rock station was struggling, and its program director had come up with a rescue plan: the Sports Junkies. In 2002, Infinity Broadcasting, now CBS Radio, moved the Prince George's crew from weeknights on WJFK to the all-important morning drive-time slot at a sister station, WHFS (99.1 FM), which had fallen on hard times. For the first time, they would be actors on radio's most cutthroat stage, up against Stern, whose New York-based program had been airing on WJFK since 1988, and Elliot Segal, the fast-talking morning man at WWDC (101.1 FM).
They quickly shortened their name to the Junkies, which sounded edgy, and ripped some pages from Stern's playbook, installing a stripper pole in their new studio at WHFS in Lanham. Porn, masturbation and flatulence became go-to sources of bottomless amusement. The Junkies didn't hesitate to treat long-winded callers roughly, airing the sound of a flushing toilet before hanging up.
"I don't think they're as naturally funny as Stern" or as dangerous, says Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, author of the soon-to-be released book The Radio Generation. "The thrill of listening to Stern is, What will he get away with? What will he do next?" The Junkies, Fisher says, have a much different appeal: "They've got one schtick, which is that they're the guys next door. And it's a great schtick. They're a buddy show."
The Junkies cover a much wider range of subjects than Stern, though they use some of the same politically incorrect language when they talk about women and gay men. They'd already incorporated race-based humor into their show at WJFK, where they had a segment called "What the Brothaz Be Sayin." This involved dispatching a "reporter," Mike Brown, to interview black men in Prince George's about politics, sports and popular culture. Brown, a 33-year-old African American security guard from Forestville, describes his role this way: "I'm coming from the 'hood, keeping it real, talking to the homies about bin Laden, the Redskins, whatever the guys in the 'hood talking about."
Brown, who started listening to the Junkies in 1998 and calling into the show in 1999, says he never considered "What the Brothaz Be Sayin" or anything else the Junkies did on the air racist. "White communities talk about black communities," he says. "Black communities talk about white communities. I never take it seriously. It's all for fun . . . They just funny white dudes."
The Junkies say talking about race on the air feels natural to them because they grew up in Prince George's, then a caldron of racial tension as it shifted from being a majority white working-class county to a haven for the black middle class. By the time they were in middle school, E.B., Cakes and Lurch were being bused to predominantly black schools as part of the county's desegregation program. (J.P.'s parents sent him to a largely white private middle school.) E.B. says he doesn't remember that period as particularly traumatic for him: "Honestly, I enjoyed those years" at Thomas G. Pullen Middle School in Landover, where he made good friends and awful grades.
When he's on the air, E.B. feels free to mine the black-white divide, though he sometimes offends J.P. with his racial humor. "I grew up with a Puerto Rican mom," J.P. says. "Because of my background, I'm more sensitive to the minority view, to defining an entire class of people . . . And I take offense to a lot of the things [E.B.] says."
When E.B. needles Lurch on-air one day about the fact that his mom used to date a black man, J.P. demands, "So what? He was a good man." J.P. gets particularly steamed when E.B. dismisses black neighborhoods as crime-ridden. "He'll say things like, 'I wouldn't go to that neighborhood because it's shady, because it's all brothers.' That bothers me."
"There's a grain of truth to it," E.B. insists.
"To what?" J.P. snaps.
"An all-black neighborhood potentially being a disaster, in my opinion," says E.B. "That doesn't mean it's guaranteed. There's nothing wrong with black places in general." He pauses and says, "This is the [expletive] that will get us fired."
Or alienate black listeners, though there aren't that many to offend. Only about 7 percent of the Junkies' audience is black, according to WJFK general manager Michael Hughes. Six percent is Hispanic. But in radio, which slices and dices its audiences by gender, race, age and ethnicity, the Junkies are not expected to attract minority listeners. (Blacks, in fact, listen to far more radio than whites, which is why Washington's hip-hop stations, WKYS and WPGC, have much bigger audiences than do WJFK, DC101 or WHFS, which are essentially duking it out for the white audience.) At WHFS, the Junkies never came close to the ratings of Stern, who commanded 19 percent of male listeners between ages 18 and 34. And only once did they beat Segal, who claimed 13 percent of that demographic. By the fall of 2004, however, the Junkies were capturing 6.4 percent of their target audience, more than doubling WHFS's morning ratings.
It wasn't enough. A year ago, Hughes called them into his corner office. "At noon today," Hughes remembers saying, "HFS is going Spanish."
The Junkies were unceremoniously sent back to WJFK to spin their show in the purgatory of midday radio. Yet they were hardly despondent. Far greater changes were rocking the industry. Stern had recently announced his switch to satellite. And the Junkies knew that CBS would soon be searching for his replacement.
It's December 16, the morning of Stern's final broadcast on FM radio, and a sendoff crowd of thousands has gathered in the streets surrounding his midtown Manhattan studio, despite the cold and drizzle. And that speaks volumes about Stern's pull. At one point, Stern was reaching about 7.75 million listeners weekly on radio stations across the country, according to Talker magazine. Other radio personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh, can boast a greater reach. Stern stands apart, however, for his ability to draw in young men, one of broadcasting's most sought-after audiences.
But it's not just who Stern reaches. It's how he does it. "Everything you need to know about the power of [Stern's] show came from something I heard one morning 10 years ago," says radio consultant Sabo. "Howard was tired, and his voice was shot, and he came to the Car Cash commercial . . . And he picked up the phone, and he said to a listener, 'You do the Car Cash commercial.' And the listener could do it. He did that all morning, with every account. He just hit a random phone call, and the listener did the commercial."
Stern's ability to plant advertising messages in listeners' minds is the reason radio network owners sucked up the millions of dollars in indecency fines. The fines seemed to be a cost of doing business. And the consensus was: Stern's worth it.
In 2004, after the public outcry over Justin Timberlake baring Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl, the consensus started to crack. Clear Channel Communications, the country's largest radio station operator, formed a zero-tolerance policy toward lewd on-air conduct. Almost immediately, Stern blew through it during an interview with Rick Salomon, Paris Hilton's sex partner in a videotape that was rocketing around the Internet. Among the topics covered: anal sex and the size of Salomon's penis.
Jack Thompson, a Miami-based lawyer, was listening to this exchange on his car radio. He's been crusading against Stern and raunch radio for years, calling it "a degradation of the public square."
"For 20-plus years, Howard Stern illegally aired pornographic material" on the public airwaves, says Thompson, who has filed numerous FCC complaints. "I have a real problem with the distribution of adult material to kids." Plenty of them, he says, listen to Stern's show. Within minutes of the Salomon interview, Thompson was typing out a complaint to the FCC and Clear Channel. The next day Clear Channel announced that it was booting Stern from its stations in San Diego, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Louisville, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
CBS Radio also began to tighten its standards. The political climate in Washington had shifted. It wouldn't matter how much clout Stern had with advertisers if the FCC started revoking radio station licenses.
A few days after Clear Channel booted him, Stern predicted the imminent demise of his radio career. He claimed he was being persecuted and even likened himself to Jesus. The comparison now has a whiff of unintended irony: In October 2004 Stern announced his resurrection. Sirius Satellite Radio, a fledgling company with no profit, hired Stern under a five-year contract for about $500 million, plus millions more in stock incentives. Stern launched an all-out campaign against his soon-to-be former employers and FM radio itself, urging his listeners to pay $12.95 a month for what had always been free. It seemed to have an effect. When Stern inked his deal with Sirius, the company had about 600,000 monthly subscribers. Shortly after Stern's final FM broadcast, Sirius claimed 3.3 million subscribers.
CBS Radio executives tried to play it calm. "There's no talent in all of the media that irreplaceable," said CEO Joel Hollander. "Howard did a great job for shareholders and advertisers for a long time, but it's a new day."
The company did not try to replace Stern with a single shock jock. Instead major West Coast markets went to comedian Adam Corolla, co-host of the long-running radio and TV program "Loveline." Rover, a Cleveland-based talker, got several Midwest stations. David Lee Roth, the ex-Van Halen singer, took the major cities in the Northeast -- except for Washington and Baltimore, which went to the Junkies. They were, WJFK's Hughes explains, "a proven commodity."
A few weeks before they take over Stern's slot, the Junkies usher five couples into the studio. It's Game Show Wednesday, which means it's time for the "Junkywed Game."
There are brief introductions of the contestants, who range in age from their early twenties to early thirties. The men do most of the talking on the air. One is a bartender. Two others are in sales. Another installs home audio equipment. The last guy, Todd, announces that he and his wife, Elena, run a Web site for swingers.
"You mean you let other guys rail her out?" E.B. asks Todd. He nods his head.
Lurch orders the five men out of the studio. "Basically, we're going to embarrass you," J.P. says to the women. They each have to answer some personal questions. Then the men will return and answer the same questions. The couple with the most matching responses wins a gold necklace.
Cakes asks the women: "During an average 30-day period, how many times does your husband/boyfriend rough up the suspect? And you know what I mean."
Kinard, the Junkies' producer, stands behind the control board. At any moment, the conversation could go from dirty to filthy, and he's got eight seconds to push the censor button before anything verboten hits the airwaves. Though most of their fellow shock jocks have been fined or fired for crossing the line, the Junkies have a squeaky clean record with the FCC. Which isn't to say that they aren't pushing their luck.
"I'm pretty sure that we're going to be fired eventually," E.B. says.
"You have to push the edge, but not walk over it," Cakes explains. "It's a high-wire act."
This morning, for example, J.P. wanted the female Junkywed contestants to record faked orgasms so he could ask each of the men to pick out the sound of his partner. It's a routine the Junkies have used before. But this time J.P. hesitated. The Junkies receive a steady stream of memos reminding them about CBS Radio's decency rules, which the company declined to share for this story. The FCC considers material indecent if "it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards."
"There is a vast gray zone that exists within the phrase 'as [measured] by contemporary community standards,'" Hughes says. The faked orgasm routine used to be on one side of the decency line. After consulting with a program director, J.P. learned it might be on the other. So there won't be any moaning in the studio today.
When the male Junkywed contestants return to the studio, the women step out. During the final round, E.B. asks Todd about Elena's preferred style of eating a Popsicle.
Todd is quiet for a moment, looking confused. He says that Elena doesn't care for cold foods. E.B. throws his hands into the air. Popsicle is a metaphor, he sighs.
Kinard listens to the banter with an aloof smile. For now, the metaphor is enough to keep him from censoring the conversation. Later E.B. admits that he has a hard time controlling his mouth; he relies on Kinard to do it for him, saying: "My children's future depends on Chris's ability to press a button."
The Greaseman leans into the microphone, squeezes his eyes and sings his perverted version of a holiday favorite.
"On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me -- five blow-up dolls." His voice hits a perky falsetto, and his hands race across the soundboard, twisting knobs, sliding levers, preparing the next sound effect.
Soon Greaseman, the alter ego of Doug Tracht, ends his daily morning show, which he's broadcasting from the basement of his Potomac home. "AMF," he says. Adios, my friends.
Tracht, 55, steps from his studio, leaving behind an uneaten jelly doughnut and an ashtray of cigarette butts. He's wearing a skintight blue T-shirt with what appears to be a Superman emblem on the chest, except that in place of the "S" there is a "G." He walks upstairs to his kitchen and pours himself a glass of gin. It's 9 a.m.
"That's my ritual," Tracht says, indicating his martini glass. "You gotta take a break after those three hours of intensity, disaster around every corner." Disaster, indeed.
Perhaps more than any other shock jock, Tracht's radio career illustrates the peril of being a professional boundary-pusher.
Greaseman is a creature of Washington, a city that more people connect with policy wonks than hot-talking radio hosts. Yet the capital has always been one of the country's most fertile petri dishes for raunch radio. Stern took on the outrageous persona that would make him famous as the morning man at DC101. That period of his career is chronicled in his autobiographical book and film, Private Parts. One of the defining moments in his evolution was his call to Air Florida the day after one of its planes crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and killed 78 people in January 1982. Stern asked if he could buy a one-way ticket to the bridge, a question that left listeners gasping, either from revulsion or laughter.
When Stern was fired later that year for criticizing DC101's management, Tracht took over. His Greaseman act -- filled with sexual innuendos and wacky, improvised stories -- eventually exceeded Stern's ratings, dominating Washington radio though the 1980s. But his performances drew fire from civil rights groups, especially in 1986 when he said, in reference to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday: "Kill four more and we can take the whole week off." He later apologized for the remark.
Then, in 1999, the Greaseman played a song clip by black hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill and commented, "No wonder people drag them behind trucks." It was a reference to the way James Byrd Jr., a black man from Jasper County, Tex., had been tortured and murdered by a group of white men.
The next day Tracht faxed a written apology to The Washington Post: "In the course of my show, split-second judgment is made over ad-libs. This remark was a grave error in my judgment." He acknowledged several days later that he'd sounded like a racist and that "in my heart I have been guilty of racist comments." But his expressions of regret counted for little. The radio station fired him, and the Greaseman became an industry pariah.
He eventually formed his own syndicate, Dime One, and paid for airtime on WZHF, a tiny, 5,000-watt AM station in Rockville. His show also aired in Binghamton, N.Y., and Portland, Ore. But Tracht says that he never thought about leaving radio. It was too much fun.
Four months ago, Washington's WMET (1160 AM) signed the Greaseman to a multi-year morning show contract. The station has just finished building him a studio at its downtown offices, allowing the Greaseman to move out of his basement. Tracht says that he's going to seize the moment: "What we plan to do is establish dominance in Washington [and] recapture what is rightly mine. Over the years, I've generally done well with men 25 to 54. Soon they'll be knocking down the door."
But has he learned his lesson? "One must keep political correctness in mind in today's America," he says. A moment later he drains his martini glass and heads for a refill.
Cakes unbuckles his 3-year-old daughter, Juliet. She throws her arms in the air, wanting him to carry her up into their house in Olney. Cakes glances at his 18-month-old son, Brendan, who's wiggling restlessly in his car seat. His other son, Kurt, 8, is at school.
All of the Junkies are married with children, but Cakes wins the Mr. Mom title. The others travel in slick luxury sedans, while Cakes drives a grocery-getting Saturn. For fun, the other Junkies once timed Cakes to see how long he spent strapping in his three kids. It took him seven minutes.
This kind of harassment goes on among the Junkies all the time, on-air and off. Lurch is laughed at for not being able to dunk a basketball. E.B. gets dumped on for being the lone Republican. J.P. is ridiculed for being compulsively anal. Cakes even gets needled for being adopted. "You're just lucky someone took you in," Lurch jokes one day during lunch.
Yet all four swear that their 10-year partnership has never been seriously strained. They remain close friends off the air, playing golf and poker together and going to parties at one another's houses. "We're kind of like a big family," says J.P. "The show's going to go away eventually . . . but the friendship isn't."
Cakes flips on the lights in his basement, revealing a chaotic jumble of stuffed animals, dolls and miniature musical instruments. "We're in a perpetual state of pickup," says Cakes, who clearly needs J.P. to come over and get things organized.
From upstairs the thud of contractors' boots reverberates through the walls. Cakes and his wife, Amy, are spending about $80,000 to remodel the kitchen of their unremarkable four-bedroom colonial. The kitchen project is one of the few obvious indications of Cakes's success. He still dresses like a man earning $27,500 a year at Toys R Us, often wearing sports jerseys and freebie T-shirts from the show's sponsors.
Cakes points to a custom-made poker table in one corner of the basement. "It's a guilty pleasure," he says. "I don't go out to clubs. I don't really spend money, except on the kids."
He watches as Juliet mows down Brendan on the way to a plastic french fry, which she places in her mouth. Cakes is suddenly alarmed, remembering how Juliet recently swallowed a small plastic bead. He firmly tells the girl to spit out the fry. What do we call that? he asks.
"Choking hazard," she says in a wee chastened voice.
The Junkies often use the banalities of 35-year-old middle-class family life as fodder for their show. "I'd have another child," E.B. tells listeners one day, "but I'm shooting blanks all over the place." Cakes chimes in, telling E.B. that it could be worse: He's had a vasectomy. He plays the sound effect of a person screaming.
E.B. often leads the charge when it comes to on-air sex talk. His mother, a devout Christian, is proud of her son's success, but the salacious parts of the show bother her to her core. "I once wrote them a letter," says Shirley Bickel. "I told them ways that I thought they should change the program, that I didn't think it was moral, some of the things they talk about . . . Eric doesn't seem to see the conflict between, one, living the Christian life and talking about having sex for fun."
One day E.B. confesses on-air that his 4-year-old son, Stevie, has dropped the f-word. "No way," Lurch gasps.
Soon the other Junkies have E.B.'s mother on the phone, ready to tattle on their friend. But she's already been listening to the show. "I heard your comments about your son, my grandson," she says to E.B. on the air. "I thought that was terrible."
E.B. was repentant. "I do try not to curse around him, but I slip up."
"I think you're setting a really bad example," his mother says.
"I agree, Ma," says E.B., who adds: "There's a part of me that does feel some pride. He used it perfectly, but I know it's socially unacceptable."
The Junkies know they sometimes offend the people they love the most. It's an occupational hazard. J.P. once lamented on-air that he didn't become famous before getting married. Then he could have taken advantage, he said, of all the hot women coming up to him at promotional appearances.
When J.P. came home, he discovered that his wife, Carol, was furious. "What? Do you wish you'd never married me?" he recalls her saying.
"Any time he brings up the sex stuff . . . I just kind of cringe," Carol says. "He'll just say something like, 'I got some last night.' My friends will call me and say, 'Do you know what he's saying?' It's embarrassing when everybody hears that."
Their daughter, Kelsey, who's in kindergarten, is already starting to feel the same way. J.P. told a story on-air about Kelsey pooping on his chest when she was a baby. "That really embarrassed her," says Carol.
Amy Auville says her kids are still too young to understand or even show interest in most of what Cakes talks about on the radio. Sometimes, she says, the children listen simply to hear the sound of his voice. Still, she dives for the volume control as soon as the banter turns racy. "I would never let them listen unless I was with them," she says.
Amy is a reading specialist at a Montgomery County elementary school, so she doesn't always get to hear the show. Not that it matters. "I have a network of spies," she says. "I find out if he says anything I should know about."
One day, the Junkies find themselves on the phone with a former CIA field officer named Bob Baer, an expert in Middle Eastern affairs. Normally the Junkies would have no business talking to him -- and vice versa. Except that Baer's bestselling book, See No Evil, was the inspiration for "Syriana," a just-released movie starring George Clooney.
E.B. welcomes Baer to the show and asks what kind of places he's called home. Baer says he's lived all over the Middle East.
"Sounds like an awful life," says E.B. "You can't go to football games." He asks what's up with this thing called water-boarding, which has been in the news a lot recently.
It's a form of torture, says Baer, that gives a person a sensation of drowning. J.P. wants to know how long before the person being tortured cries uncle.
"About 14 seconds," says Baer. He adds that cardiac arrest sometimes occurs as a result.
E.B. asks some more questions: Why can't we find bin Laden? How screwed up is Iraq? Baer describes Iraq as a complex blend of ethnicities and tribes and starts explaining the implications of that for rebuilding the country. The Junkies look at one another. Cakes flattens his hands and starts swatting the air: "Way above our heads, Bob."
Most of Baer's answers suggest a low regard for President Bush and politics in general. "I guess you don't like Washington," J.P. says.
"I hate Washington," Baer replies. "But you guys know what I'm talking about."
"No, we don't," laughs Cakes. "We know the Redskins."
Baer gets off the phone. And Kinard says on the air, "Come on, Cakes. Can we water-board you for $10,000?" (Once, as part of a radio dare, Cakes stayed inside a coffin for two days. He emerged constipated and $2,000 richer.) "And I risk a heart attack!" says Cakes. "Let me think about it."
The Junkies relentlessly push the notion that they are, in Cakes's words, "four retards." But when the microphones cut off, the truth seems more complicated.
"I've been reading about game theory," E.B. says one day after the show, while he and Cakes are enjoying a sushi lunch. "I still like sports," he says. "But frankly, I'm over reading the box scores every day."
Cakes often sounds like an English major when he talks. "My social life is moribund," he says one day. But he dismisses a suggestion that he's intelligent by pointing out that he scored 960 out of 1600 on the SAT.
J.P., who received a law degree from Temple University, took the bar exam just as the radio show was becoming a full-time gig and decided to let E.B. read the results on the air. He learned he failed at the same time listeners did, though he passed on his second try. Now, behind a stack of law books near his desk at home, J.P. keeps the notecards that he used to study for the bar, just in case he ever decides to practice law. He muses about how he's changed since the Junkies first went on the air. "I used to love going to spring training," he says. "But that stopped being fun a while ago. At some point in your life, you wake up and would rather watch 'Meet the Press.'"
The closest the Junkies come to "Meet the Press" are their regular chats with Maryland's Republican governor, Ehrlich. A former linebacker at Princeton, Ehrlich talks to the Junkies mostly about sports. Last year they lost a football bet to Ehrlich and have agreed to stand at an intersection of his choice holding We Love Our Gov signs. Ehrlich says he probably won't call in the debt until closer to the election.
Ehrlich acknowledges that his calls to the Junkies are an opportunity to connect with an important bloc of voters, many of whom don't pay close attention to state politics. And he reaches them in an extremely friendly media environment. The Junkies usually give Ehrlich a few minutes to plug his policies.
"What's going on in the state, Gov, this week?" E.B. asks during one show. Ehrlich talks about deciding not to intervene in the execution of a convicted murder.
"How long do you take" to make the decision? E.B. asks. "I bet you take two minutes."
"I read all the briefs," says Ehrlich, who rambles a bit about the process, touching on everything from the Bill of Rights to the Patriot Act.
"Sounds like a snoozer," says E.B., who then starts getting steamed up about rising crime levels in Prince George's. He now lives in Montgomery, but his parents still live in Prince George's. "P.G. County is falling apart," E.B. declares.
While the governor delivers a reassurance, E.B. leans over toward Cakes and smiles. "We're grilling him," he chuckles, "like real media guys."
E.B. ogles a passing woman, one of seven who have arrived in skimpy duds at a Fairfax bar. "She's got nice boobies," he mutters.
To help pump up their switch to Stern's time slot, the Junkies are hiring so-called Junkettes, who will give out T-shirts and hug listeners at promotional appearances. Two Junkettes will be selected tonight. There's one main qualification: They have to be hot. The selection is ostensibly being left up to the crowd, which will jeer and cheer while the women prance before them.
The Junkies take the stage, where Cakes stands with Nancy, the first would-be Junkette. "Have you ever kissed a girl?" he asks.
"Yes, I have," she says. The wall of men claps and hoots with approval.
"Have you ever done more than kiss a girl?" Cakes asks.
"No," says Nancy. "However, I would do more with my roommate, who's standing right there." She points to a woman near the stage, and the men cheer in unison, like a single frothing pack.
"Would you do it onstage?" Cakes asks Nancy. His voice rises higher with each word, inciting the crowd. With some quick goading from Nancy, the roommate climbs up; the two women kiss and awkwardly dance. Music begins to thump through the bar. Soon Cakes is twisting right along with the women.
That night Cakes goes home and tells Amy that he danced with hot young women. He knows it'll be a subject on tomorrow's show. "It's called a preemptive strike," he later explains. "Even though it was nothing, it was innocent, I wanted it out there so that it didn't get blown into something out of proportion."
Still, Amy is livid: "I didn't think it was very funny. Any woman who loves her husband would be jealous if her husband comes home and says he's been at a bar dancing with other women."
As predicted, the next day the other Junkies relive Cakes's onstage bumping
and grinding. Cakes tells the others he's in trouble with Amy. You just bought her an $80,000 kitchen, E.B. points out, making her sound like a gold digger.
Amy, who happens to be listening to the show, angrily reaches for the phone to set the record straight. "When I married John he was managing Toys R Us," she remembers saying on the air. "If I was materialistic, I never would have married him in the first place."
The Junkies laugh and tell Amy to take it easy. As E.B. often says: "This is all in a spirit of fun."
Tyler Currie is a contributing writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.