On Radio, Scandal Talk Is Free and Unfettered
By Marc Fisher
For more than 90 minutes, the scene, complete with very serious federal agents barking commands to "move that to the curb," was broadcast live to listeners of Washington Top 40 station Z-104.
"This is our Monica Stunt Number 2," said morning deejay Billy Bush, nephew of the former president. "Last time, we delivered a mattress to the reporters camped outside the courthouse. This is the hottest thing going. Listeners are glued to it."
In an era of media excess, in a moment of coverage so intense it topped the Princess Diana story for a while, there are -- even if they're hard to discern -- limits. Network TV newscasts have toyed with and even promoted stories on oral sex and adultery but backed away from explicit detail. Newspapers, including this one, have refrained from printing articles that focus on oral sex, sex addiction and other explicit themes. Several newspapers have killed "Doonesbury" comic strips in which a "scandal facilitator" discusses a "semen-streaked dress" with elementary school students.
There appears to be no such restraint on the radio regarding the Lewinsky scandal. With barely any public outcry, radio stations here and around the nation have turned allegations that the former White House intern had sex with the president into the greatest running joke and conversation piece since the Los Angeles murder trial of a certain former pro football player.
In Los Angeles, KIIS held a Monica Lewinsky look-alike contest, and a modest prize of $1,000 attracted dozens of women dressed in black with black hair and rosy red lips. Some of the contestants sported kneepads.
The stakes are much higher in Cincinnati and Minneapolis, where stations are offering million-dollar prizes to any woman who can prove she slept with the president. And in Las Vegas, talk station KVBC has offered Lewinsky $5 million if she talks first on the station.
The "intern scandal," says Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk radio industry, is not only the Number 1 topic on the air but accounts for five of the most-talked-about people on talk programs -- the president, Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, the first lady and Linda Tripp.
The White House crisis has breathed new life into the programs of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative mainstays of talk radio just at a moment when the industry had been worrying that ratings for political talk shows were sagging.
"I cannot tell you how much Rush appreciates Monica Lewinsky," Limbaugh's boss, Jacor Communications Chief Executive Randy Michaels, said recently. "Although we don't have the ratings yet for 'Zippergate,' the number of people calling and saying, 'Hey, what's 'ditto' mean?' tells you how much new audience we've got on that show."
In the overwhelmingly conservative world of talk radio, the latest scandal has not brought about any dramatic change in the political line -- Atlanta talk king Neal Boortz, for example, this week regaled his listeners with quotations from an article in the Chinese journal Ideological and Political Work Studies in which a leading Chinese propagandist urged his comrades to study the speeches of Hillary Clinton to see how they won applause and votes even though they contained "little or no substance and had no reasoning whatsoever."
But the anti-Clinton juggernaut that crested in the president's first year in office has a powerful revival in the Lewinsky matter. Talk hosts like G. Gordon Liddy of WJFK here and Janet Parshall, whose program airs locally on WAVA, have latched onto Hillary Clinton's evocation of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," with some talkers proudly claiming membership in such an organization and others citing it as evidence of administration paranoia.
Talk radio has exploded with criticism of the president numerous times since he took office, but no other allegations have so galvanized both the semi-serious world of political talk and the raunch-fests of the nation's radio morning shows, which, from Howard Stern to Chicago's Madcow to Washington's Greaseman make up the most sexually explicit programming available without restriction.
While nudity and cuss words abound on cable TV, and newsstands are loaded with skin mags, and the Internet is aswim with porn, in each of those cases an action must be taken to gain access to stuff kids shouldn't see or hear. An adult has to subscribe to HBO. A parent can use blocking software to screen out some Web smut.
But radio's shock injections are available to anyone old enough to hit the scan button.
White House nasty boy Dick Morris offered his startling speculations on the first lady's sexual interests on a Los Angeles talk show. New York's WABC is repeatedly playing a pseudo-serious announcement by its general manager offering to administer a lie detector test to the president at the station's studios.
And those are the more tasteful examples.
On New York's WAXQ, morning deejay Darien O'Toole has used language that would win praise for its originality at even the bawdiest of frat houses. Here are some samples, expurgated for a family newspaper: "That skank who was [expletiving] the president. . . . Hillary is gay or frigid. . . . Is the Secret Service going to tell because the president is getting [expletived] by an intern?"
In Washington, where the "morning zoo" shows are much tamer than in most big cities, the Lewinsky-Tripp saga dominated the airwaves for the first week and by now has become a comedy side dish, a steady source of radio merriment but no longer enough to carry an entire program.
By last week, the Greaseman on WARW was down to a token sneer about Clinton dropping his pants, a throwaway line slipped into a lengthy interview with a female wrestler about how she achieves "multiple Shangri-Las."
Over on WKYS, Russ Parr ignored the crisis at the White House to joke about people with enormous foreheads and to tell the stomach-turning tale of a Seattle man who tried to siphon gas from a mobile home but ended up sucking a sewage line.
Howard Stern worked the Clinton situation at some length, but has never gone wall-to-wall with it the way Don Imus has -- Stern knows his apolitical audience well. So the self-anointed King of All Media stuck to his usual fare -- alluding to Lewinsky's age with an "ad" for "Roman Polanski's Day-Care and Dating Service," offering men 10-year-old girls who "love hot dogs, Quaaludes and Barbies."
By comparison, Imus's antics seem almost charmingly mild.
On "Imus in the Morning," heard here on WTEM, the president and first lady were featured this week in a duet to the tune of "I Got You Babe," as quoted in the online service Talk Daily:
"Hillary": "They say you won't be president, if they can prove we've been fraudulent."
"Bill": "Yeah, well, that's another right-wing plot that won't pan out unless we both get caught."
Together: "Babe, I got you babe, I got you babe."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company