Is Washington too sensitive for "shock radio"?

At first glance, the furor over "The Greaseman's" colossal Martin Luther King Day blunder might lead you to think so. But a strong case can be made that Washington is actually among the most accepting of communities when it comes to radio antics.

The fact is that Washington has tolerated far more than its share of controversial radio personalities. There are probably no more than a dozen truly outrageous "shock jocks" at the nation's nearly 10,000 radio stations, yet three of them have worked in Washington -- "Greaseman" and Howard Stern at DC-101 and Gary Dee at the former KIX-106. If anything, having them in our midst has no doubt raised our threshold of outrage.

These personalities have routinely peppered the airwaves with jokes, insults and innuendos that many would call offensive. But the Washington market has reacted strongly only to a handful of the grossest, most tasteless remarks.

The kind of controversy all three sparked here is certainly not unique to Washington. Many stations and communities across the country have risen up and struck back at the radio performers who went too far. Just the other day, in Los Angeles, KRLA fired morning man Bob Hudson and a sidekick for quipping that the Challenger exploded because the crew was "freebasing Tang."

The fact is that shock jocks are few and far between, and most radio industry professionals deplore their most extreme behavior. That's why you don't hear more of them on the air. Radio is in the business of attracting audiences, not alienating them.

Don't look to the FCC for help. This administration's commission wants nothing to do with regulating program content. It dearly wants to extend full First Amendment freedoms to radio and television.

The commission even refused to call to account a Dodge City, Kansas, station that aired sermons preaching violence against blacks and Jews. Chairman Mark Fowler cautioned, "It is in such situations, when public rebuke is at its greatest, that the First Amendment becomes so important . . . protected free speech may not be punished."

The Fowler commission places great faith in the "marketplace" to dictate audience tastes and needs. And the marketplace has treated "The Greaseman" very well. His is the second most popular morning show in Washington (behind WMAL) and is the runaway leader among teens and young men. Obviously, a lot of people like his brand of radio.

Nobody, especially "The Greaseman," defends his remark about killing black leaders. Indeed, it may well rank as one of the most egregious radio slurs of all time. He and the station have apologized profusely and offered to make amends. There doesn't appear to be a pattern of consistent abuse here, but rather a terrible, isolated mistake, magnified because it marred the first celebration of a holiday filled with so much meaning for so many Americans.

Those who are justifiably outraged seem particularly unforgiving in this instance, even though logic argues that a chastened "Greaseman" will be choosing his words more carefully in the future.

By demanding "The Greaseman's" firing and refusing to settle for anything less, the protesters are forcing us and, I hope, themselves, to confront some key questions:

Do we really want all of radio to play it safe, to be reduced to the lowest common denominator of taste and opinion by drumming out "The Greasemen" who play close to the edge, and infrequently fall over?

If any other Washington radio personality had made the same remark, would picketers still be demanding his or her scalp a month later?

If a radio talk host or commentator, rather than a flamboyant disc jockey, expressed views that outraged or insulted us, would we also throw up picket lines and demand that he be sacked?

>Would the "public interest" (which DC-101 is licensed to serve) be furthered by denying thousands of listeners their favorite morning radio companion because a relative few (who aren't forced to listen and probably weren't "Greaseman" fans to begin with) can't or won't accept what, to cooler heads, appears to be a sincere apology?

Finally, we must face the possibility that enduring an occasional indiscretion, however painful, may simply be the price we pay if we are to continue enjoying live, free-wheeling entertainment over the airwaves.

-- Brad Woodward is Washington editor of Radio & Records,an industry weekly.