If Z-104 listeners heard yesterday's morning show from its 5:30 start--or if they were loyal fans--they would have known what was going on. But the unprepared listener landing on the Top 40 station at 9 a.m. probably was alarmed to hear host Billy Bush saying:
"The water has broken."
Bush was broadcasting live from the lobby of Columbia Hospital for Women at 24th and L streets NW. A few paces away his sidekick, Janet Elliott, was giving birth to her third child, live and on air.
It was a provocative act; its sheer audacity raised the radio stunt to the level of Media Moment. The six-hour segment--that is, Elliott's labor--was simultaneously riveting and indecorous, heartwarming and off-putting. It stretched the limits of broadcast taste, whatever that may be anymore, though it should be noted that nary a dirty word or vulgar joke was heard. It was a woman's most private moment made unabashedly public by the mother herself. It was--for better and worse--show biz.
Elliott, 34, has been Bush's partner for three years. The Bush League Morning Show has a reputation for edgy comedy, but hardly shock--the station is owned by Bonneville, which is owned by the Mormon Church. Over the past nine months, Elliott has worked her pregnancy into the show's broadcasts, keeping listeners up to date on her bouts of morning sickness and so on. Radio stations strive to have their listeners bond with their deejays; Elliott's reports were well received.
Having the baby on air seemed the natural end to the story, she says.
"Our listeners have lived through nine months of hormone hell that comes along with pregnancy," Elliott said from her home Monday night. "I thought, 'Gosh, it's not really going to be fair if I ride off into the sunset and have the baby and they don't hear from me for two months.' "
So Elliott proposed the idea of having her baby on air. She was scheduled to have her labor induced yesterday at 6 a.m. anyway, she says, which fit nicely within the morning show's 5:30-10 time slot. She wasn't afraid to do it: It was her third birth and the baby was healthy in utero.
The idea was eagerly received at the station. Ratings were never discussed, she said. The act was tailor-made for the medium. Radio's great strength has always been to establish characters, build a plot and hold listeners rapt while the narrative arc proceeds to its finish.
Elliott said the on-air birth was "a way to tastefully have everyone share in the experience," and insisted she was "not that much of an exhibitionist." Asked if she would have broadcast the birth on, say, the Internet, she said: "No, there's too much of a visual element to that."
It was established that Bush would broadcast live from the hospital lobby, then make periodic trips back to Elliott's room, putting her on air, via telephone, to talk to callers. As the moment of birth approached, Elliott was to be given privacy, to be left with her doctor and family.
"Logistically," said Elliott's husband, Jim, "it's in very good taste."
At about 7:25, Elliott was given an intravenous drip of Pitocin, a drug that induces labor. Out in the lobby, nurse Martha Brown showed up carrying a cooler labeled "biohazard." She said, "I'm here to collect the cord blood," thankfully not on the radio.
It would only get weirder.
A few minutes later, a television reporter, Holly Morris of WTTG's"Fox 5 Morning News," appeared in the lobby. Before coming to Z-104, Elliott had done traffic reports for WTTG and, as Morris chirpily reminded Elliott, "once a member of the Fox 5 family, always a member of the Fox 5 family."
Morris and her cameraman rehearsed their shot in Elliott's room, while Bush and his crew were otherwise occupied.
"I'll come in the door," Morris said to her cameraman. She walked out.
A moment later, the door cracked open. Morris's head, hand and microphone peeked around the corner.
"Jaaaaanet?" Morris gushed, creeping in. She asked Elliott several questions and remarked how "beautiful" she looked. Elliott had a fetal monitor attached to her belly; a machine to the left of the bed recorded her baby's heartbeat at 145 beats per minute. The Pitocin was starting to kick in; the contractions were coming faster.
By 8:45, Morris's report was playing on the TV in Elliott's room: All the people in there were watching themselves on TV, taped in that same room moments earlier. Art was life, life was art. Or at least what passes for TV news. Elliott's husband, hands on hips, uttered what may have been the day's most insightful comment:
"This is the strangest thing in the world."
Janet Elliott said, "I can't believe anyone cares about this." Given the benefit of doubt--that she was heavily medicated--it was still a somewhat disingenuous observation, considering her previous nine months on the radio.
Husband Jim, 34, a software salesman, may be the biggest sport in the world. He wasn't totally on-board with this whole radio thing from the get-go, but eventually went along. At one point, with his wife's room bursting with media, he looked around resignedly and said, "You guys wanna sit down?"
At 9:32, the epidural was injected into Elliott's spine. An hour later, she was on the air again, self-admittedly "loopy." By then, the station had received more than 100 calls of support, about 80 percent of them from women. One caller, Marcy, was about to have her labor induced and called to support Elliott.
By 9:50, Bush was announcing on air that Elliott had dilated to 5 centimeters. News director John Nolan mused about the dividing line between "respectful" and "entertaining" radio.
Things flat-lined until about 11:30. Suddenly, Bush interrupted Z-104's lunchtime program:
"We are here. The moment has arrived." Though he was not in the birthing room, he was in an adjacent one, separated only by a door. He put the phone up to the door so listeners could hear inside. They heard:
"Push! Push! Janet, if you push like that one more time, the baby will be here!"
Jim Elliott may have thought the broadcast setup would give his wife some privacy, but, at the moment of birth, the entire Washington region could hear everything he was hearing. A moment later:
"There you go! There you go! Hi, sweetheart!" It was unclear who was yelling. The room erupted in cheers. Bush entered it with the phone, which he put up to the seconds-old infant's mouth.
"Waaah! Waaah! Waaah!" cried Patrick Shay Elliott, 7 pounds, 1 ounce, 20 inches long. It may not have been the most private moment, but at least it wasn't on the Internet.
(Mother and son are doing fine; Elliott will be on maternity leave for the next few months.)
CAPTION: It's all in the delivery: Morning show hosts Billy Bush and Janet Elliott at Columbia Hospital for Women.
CAPTION: The waaah that went round the Beltway: Patrick Elliott and dad Jim.