The Silenced Greaseman
A Year After His Racist Slur, the Deejay Remains an Outcast
By Frank Ahrens
He wants the fame and the fans, the glamour and the glitz, the rapid-fire life of the million-dollar shock jock who makes a living shooting off at the mouth and firing people up, and putting 'em down, of making 'em laugh and making 'em mad, of saying just enough of the wrong thing to make his show outrageous and dangerous and to keep listeners coming back so they can hear what he'll say next.
That's how you make it big in the shock jock life. That's how you stay on top.
Except when you go too far. Except when you step over the line and say the absolute wrong thing at the absolute wrong time and it blows up in your face.
And then you've got a problem like Doug Tracht's, a k a the Greaseman, who until last year was the morning star at Classic Rock 94.7 in Rockville.
But last year the Greaseman crossed the line with a horrible racial slur. A day later, amid a firestorm of protests and outrage, he was fired.
Since then Tracht has been trying to rub the word "racist" off his life.
Just how do you erase the Scarlet R? Especially when this is your second offense, when this is the second time you've make a joke about black people dying.
Tracht's been moving from one venue to the next looking for a way to clean up the mess he made. And, he and his wife, as well as others around him, say he's done his time, performed his penance.
But there are plenty of people who don't care if the Greaseman ever hits the airwaves again. Who believe he's more than used up his time.
Two weeks ago was a case in point.
Tracht flew to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, for a fresh start, or so he thought. A radio owner finally was going to put him back on the air.
Tracht made it as far as Puerto Rico. News of his impending arrival had beaten him to the tiny Caribbean island and hit with hurricane force. Residents protested and local politicians warned of a riot if he went on the air. The next day the station owner rescinded his offer.
An Attempt at Redemption
Flash back to one year ago.
On Feb. 24, 1999, Tracht played a clip of a song by black performer Lauryn Hill and said, "No wonder people drag them behind trucks," referring to the 1998 murder in Texas of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck driven by three white supremacists, dragged at high speeds and decapitated. Tracht made his comment a day after the first of those men had been convicted in Byrd's slaying.
The outrage and his subsequent firing shocked the shock jock. So Tracht tried to fix it. He apologized. And apologized.
Local black businessman Rock Newman, convinced that Tracht was sorry, spent the next several days ferrying him from one interview to another. Black media figures grilled and chastised him. Black Entertainment Television asked viewers what the Greaseman could do to prove he is sorry. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said "nothing." WTEM sports-talk host John Thompson suggested he seek counseling. Tracht wanted to apologize to the congregation at Union Temple, but the Rev. Willie Wilson wouldn't let him.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the flurry of activity was over.
At the D.C. Central Kitchen, at Second and E streets NW, staff member Susan Callahan heard Tracht say on television that he wanted to show he was sorry.
"It's hot and sweaty and dirty here, and if he wants to prove himself, this is the place to be," Callahan thought. Another staff member who knew Newman made a call, and suddenly Tracht was cleaning toilets at the kitchen, wringing out mops alongside George Whitson.
Whitson is the same age as Tracht, 49, but that's just about all they share. Tracht was born in the Bronx. He was reared and confirmed as a Lutheran and grew up in a neighborhood that was changing from white to racially mixed. It's where he developed an ear for mimicking multiethnic dialects. He was a skinny loner, a straight-arrow kid who got beaten up a lot. He graduated from Ithaca College in New York and went right to work in radio--the only career he's had. He rose steadily and, by the late '80s, was at the top of the Washington area market doing mornings at DC-101. After an attempt at national syndication failed, he returned to Washington radio in 1997, landing at Classic Rock 94.7 for a cool $1 million a year.
He has a home in Potomac and one in Los Angeles. He has a boat. His wife is beautiful and so are his female "workout partners" at the Rockville Pike gym where he exercises. He has blond highlights added to his hair.
Whitson is a black man. He was injured on a construction job, lost it, lost his apartment and moved into the Central Kitchen, a place that feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless. He is tall and slender, with graying stubble and a quick smile. He lived in the shelter for some time but now proudly shows off the keys to his new apartment. For three months, he worked alongside Tracht at the Central Kitchen.
Tracht volunteered four hours a day, two or three times a week, for about four months. Would this be his path to understanding and forgiveness? And would he learn a few things?
"It's the kind of place where you can rediscover yourself," Tracht says. "I did things I'd never done in my life. I went in there like an idiot, and now I know how to clean and mop, how to shovel and unload, how to slice and dice."
Years before, when Whitson drove a truck for Interstate Van Lines, he had laughed at Tracht's jokes. Now he knew that lots of people were mad at Tracht.
"Couldn't nobody tell me exactly what he said," Whitson says. "So I said, 'I'm just going to talk to the man and find out what's up.' "
Whitson says Tracht won him over, once taking him to his Potomac home.
Tracht remembers that day. "I took him to my house because we needed to borrow my truck to haul some supplies for the kitchen," he says in an e-mail. "I had driven my Cadillac to the Kitchen that day, and since George and I were building a project together, I took him with me, switched vehicles and off we went. We sat and talked for a minute, had soda."
"The only thing he ever did to me was be nice," says Whitson. "Sometimes, when you tell a joke, it comes out wrong. I don't think his whole life should be destroyed."
But what if it's happened before? Flash back even farther, to Martin Luther King Day 1986. While doing the morning show at DC-101, Tracht said: "Kill four more and we can take a whole week off."
That slur brought protests and death threats, but Tracht kept his job; the station suspended him for a week and offered scholarships for Howard University as a way to make amends. The Greaseman went on being the Greaseman.
The obvious question last year and now: Why would he do the same thing again?
"I always kept a certain sensitivity in mind that I got in trouble before," Tracht says. But then, he says, he noticed that more deejays were getting away with more racially offensive material.
"I mistakenly thought--not that I wanted to join the ranks of the race-beaters--that with those kind of broad parameters, I could slip in something that I intended as a joke, given what the business has come to," he says.
Joe Madison, a black morning show host on WOL, sees it another way: "What really bothered people about the Greaseman was, it wasn't just two off-color jokes but that both of the jokes undervalued the life and death of two black people."
'I Became Insensitive'
Tracht also decided to take up John Thompson's counseling suggestion. Through Newman again, Tracht started meeting with Lee Crump, a black clinical psychologist at Howard University Hospital. After about five visits, Crump, Tracht says, told him he that wasn't racist but invited him to continue the visits. A year later, Tracht still sees Crump about once a week.
Crump doesn't recall that specific language but says that "I saw nothing consistent with what I would expect to find with someone who is a 'racist.' " He adds that " 'racist' is an emotional term with no universally agreed-upon definition."
So what has Tracht learned about himself? He is unusually quiet for a moment, then reaches back to his first, short-lived marriage nearly 30 years ago, and rambles forward to the moment he joked about Byrd's murder:
"I became a little insensitive over the years," Tracht begins. "I was saddened by my first marriage and divorce. The whole thing tore me up in a big way. It almost makes you want to get a little shell around your heart in order not to be hurt like that again. And then, if you get into another relationship that ends badly . . ." He trails off, then resumes:
"Your heart goes out to anybody in a tragedy, anybody, but maybe you have enough hardness around your heart, you think, 'Well, you know, I'm brokenhearted for this person, but Lord knows I went through some hell of my own.' You become a little cynical, so you can find a joke like the one I told--that got me in trouble--fun."
Fear of Advertisers
"I've always been just a joke-teller," Tracht says. For years, he prospered by combining sound effects, a range of voices and an unusually fast wit to create theater-of-the-mind comedy radio. His taste ran to the risque and often raunchy, and, to get around Federal Communications Commission decency regulations, he substituted code words for potentially offensive ones. For instance, male sexual organs on the Greaseman show became "hydraulics."
It was during Tracht's first job after college in the '70s that he invented the Greaseman, a character unlike any other on radio. It was the Greaseman who paved the way for the Howard Sterns of the world.
But in the year since Tracht's firing, the radio industry has not come calling. A part-time actor, he appeared in an episode of "The FBI Files" on the Discovery Channel and did a comic turn on a cringingly bad infomercial for an Internet dating service.
Several radio companies, Tracht says, "expressed interest," but that's as far as it went. There are a couple of reasons for that, industry folks will tell you. Economics, more than anything else, is the main one.
Racist comments are part of the shock-jock world, where it's equal opportunity offensiveness. The most popular shock jocks make fun of women, foreigners, people with disabilities, senior citizens--you name it. Their audiences can be racially diverse but are mostly young and mostly white male. The N-word is often heard on Stern's show.
"If [Tracht] had some ratings like I do, he'd be able to get away with it," Stern said last year. It's true--about the ratings, at least. Tracht averaged half of Stern's ratings the year before he was fired.
Today there's no longer any guarantee that Tracht, with his skits and funny voices, can deliver the numbers he did 10 years ago. After the 1986 incident, Tracht got "30 to 50 job offers," he says. After last year's blowup: none.
The industry argument goes something like this: Tracht was fired by a station owned by a huge, publicly held corporation--CBS/Infinity--whose stock price could be hurt by allegations that it employs racists. Tracht was expendable.
A recent survey of a half-dozen local radio general managers and national syndicators showed a consensus: Tracht is a "hugely" talented radio personality whom they would not hire.
"The fallout from the advertisers alone would be tremendous," says Mark O'Brien, general manager of DC-101. "It would not be a good business decision to put him back on the air." O'Brien has not ruled out bringing Tracht on DC-101's morning show, but only as a guest.
Phil LoCascio, program director of Classic Rock 94.7, who helped fire Tracht last year, declined to comment.
Virgin Islands radio owner Jonathan Cohen says he reconsidered his offer to put Tracht on the air after being convinced it would do more harm than good. But, he adds, he was angry about being forced into that decision.
"It's a political year here," he says. "A lot of people are using this to gain some momentum in the upcoming election."
If Joe Madison were a radio station program director, would he hire Tracht?
"As a black man with a social conscience, no, absolutely no," he says. "Now, if I were a white PD in a predominantly white city who had no social conscience and was only thinking about the buck, then I might."
Soon after his firing, Tracht switched on a radio at home. He heard the Rev. Crosby Bonner, pastor of the nondenominational Love International Church in Springfield, home to 1,000 souls and one radio show. Bonner was talking to Louvon Byrd Harris, sister of the slain James Byrd Jr. Tracht called the show and asked for Harris's forgiveness.
Harris said on-air that she could forgive Tracht but couldn't speak for the rest of her family.
The next day, Tracht and his wife, Anita, came to the church and met Harris. That began a surprising friendship. Harris and Anita Tracht now talk on the phone at least once a week. The Trachts set up a gospel event for Byrd's family at the House of Blues restaurant in Los Angeles.
A year ago, though, things were much different.
"The whole family was upset" when they heard about Tracht's slur, Harris says. "We heard he was apologizing on TV and our first reaction was, 'He's trying to get publicity to cover what he said.' Our family was very accessible; he could have picked up the phone directly to call us. So we thought this was more of a media stunt than anything."
Today, Harris says her family won't carry a grudge against Tracht.
"A lot of times we try to judge what's inside of a person, but the best way is to let them go out there and see what they're going to do."
Doug and Anita Tracht joined Love International. Tracht emphasizes: He is no Holy Roller but points to his heart and says, "Something's going on in here.
"No one wants to forgive because they realize they're going to have to make some changes in themselves first," Bonner says. "That legislator [who protested his hiring] over in the islands has never even heard Doug, but she won't even listen."
Madison knows that Tracht has spent the past year seeking atonement, but he wonders if Tracht still just doesn't get it.
"I believe in redemption, but this country can't afford a Greaseman," says Madison, who spent a pleasant afternoon with Tracht, Newman and others aboard Tracht's boat last spring.
"We've come through slavery, we've come from being recognized as less than human, we've struggled through Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights. We've come too far to go back."
Maybe, Tracht thinks, it's time to move on. He's considering setting up an Internet-only broadcasting studio in his basement. He just wants to get back on the air. He needs to be the Greaseman again.
Two weeks ago, just before heading to St. Croix, Tracht again appeared on "BET Tonight," hosted by Tavis Smiley.
Smiley told his viewers of Tracht's attempted return to radio. The host demanded to know what Tracht had done to prove he was sorry for what he said. The callers were angry and upset. For the first time in the year since his exile began, Tracht was combative.
"Let me down off this cross, will you?" Tracht told one caller.
After the show, in a dark parking lot outside BET's Northeast Washington studio, Tracht exhaled heavily and asked, "This can't go on forever, can it?"
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company