III. The Formats and the Personalities

A. The Relationship Show: Public Therapy

Private psychotherapy was a common part of the U.S. landscape in the 1980s and 1990s, legitimizing the airing of matters in a clinical setting that previously had been considered too embarrassing to discuss with anyone. Radio talk show hosts such as Bill Ballance in Los Angeles began in the 1970s soliciting titillating stories from callers in return for on-air advice from other callers.

1. Call the Doctor

Some talk show hosts even dispensed therapy during or after their free-for-all programs. Scientifically toned radio advice programs offered advice about health, romance, personal finances, and sex. Hosted by experts Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dr. Toni Grant, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and their imitators, these programs would invite anonymous callers to share their most intimate problems in a public, on-air radio therapy session. While Donahue sometimes justified his voyeur content with serious-sounding public opinion polls, these programs claimed redeeming social value for sex talk through expert counseling. Intimate discussion shows became a staple of morning and late-night television in the late 1980s. Donahue’s success inspired scores of new relationship talk shows, making superstars out of hosts Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer Montel Williams, Ricki Lake, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, Geraldo Rivera, and others.

People were encouraged to abandon both their privacy and their good manners in order to talk frankly on these programs, whether it was to ventilate anger at the movements for women’s, homosexuals’, or ethnic minorities’ civil rights (which had “gone too far”), frustration with big government, or disappointment about their most intimate relationships. By the 1990s, the anonymity of radio had given way to total exposure, in person, on television. People would tell all on television because “things aren’t really important unless you can see them on T.V.,” observed therapy host Dr. Joyce Brothers. Talk shows “made America one giant group therapy,” according to comedian Joan Rivers.

People were willing to expose their private lives in order to gain instant (if fleeting) fame and what they hoped would be a sympathetic ear for their complaints. Indeed, many guests were delighted to get attention they could not find from their loved ones or official institutions. One woman said she turned to the Rolanda talk show to tell the story of her mother’s murder because the police and other media were not interested in pursuing the case. “Rolanda made an on-air promise to further assist me in the search for my mother’s killer,” Danielle Parker wrote in Electronic Media in September 1994. “After 17 months of screaming into a media abyss, I’m finally feeling heard.”

2. Oprah Winfrey: The Host as Fellow Sufferer

In 1984 Chicago television personality Oprah Winfrey emerged as Donahue’s most successful competitor by infusing a new, more personal element into her talk show: she explored her own emotional struggles with her audience, including a history of sexual abuse and excessive weight gain. The audience rooted for her as she went on diets and exercise programs, at one point hauling on stage a wagonload of animal fat representing the weight she had lost. Her ability to share her emotions with the audience made her the richest woman on talk television. She earned over $100 million from her syndicated program, according to Gini Graham Scott; she had approximately 10 million viewers on 200 stations in 1987-1988.

3. The Ambush

But soon frank talk about sex and relationships was not enough. As producers competed for the largest possible audiences, relationship shows became showcases for deviant, taboo revelations that were titillating and dramatic. Geraldo Rivera televised a man’s sex change operation; a transsexual lesbian from Kentucky appeared repeatedly on five different talk shows.

The ratings soared, especially when the sex chat turned nasty, enflaming participants in the studio. Guests who thought they were booked to talk voluntarily about one topic would find themselves ambushed on live television with a national audience, as some antagonistic family member or other acquaintance would expose the guest’s embarrassing secrets. Jerry Springer was televised trying to revive a mother after she collapsed on-air following her daughter’s accusation that “She doesn’t even know who my father is!” TheSpringer and Jenny Jones programs developed the ambush into a high art. In some cases, the guest would react violently, spinning the show out of control with hair-pulling, fist fights, and other audience-titillating mayhem. During aGeraldo Rivera show on “teen hatemongers,” one guest throttled another, a chair flew, and Geraldo’s nose was broken.

4. The Kaiser Study

A Michigan State University study commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed 200 tapes and transcripts of daytime television talk shows over the summer of 1995. Not only did the study confirm that sexual disclosures were the staple of most of the programs, but hosts revealed an average of 16 surprise disclosures per hour about their show’s guests. Of these surprise and ambush disclosures, the study found that typically five were about sex, four about a personal attribute such as addiction or health, three about abuse, two about an embarrassing situation, and two about criminal activity.

5. The Jerry Springer Show

It was host Jerry Springer who became particularly notorious-and popular internationally-for his show’s salacious disclosures, fist-fighting, and other out-of-control behavior. But when Studio USA, who produced the Jerry Springer Show, ordered him in 1998 and again in 1999 to cut back on his foul-mouthed, face-slapping, hair-pulling, and chair-throwing tantrums, the ratings dipped. For the week ending June 13, 1999, the ratings on his chastened program fell 8% from the previous week and 27% from the same week a year earlier, to an average of 6,613,000 viewers.

People seemed to watch these angry relationship shows the way one might watch for a fiery car crash at the race track. Would someone’s life be ruined? Would there be blood on the floor? Would the woman who was about to discover her husband’s homosexuality–by unexpectedly meeting his male lover on national television–scream, cry, and punch his lights out? These were real life dramas, unfolding before everyone’s eyes.

The combat talk show trend was popular around the world. Springer’s syndicated program was watched with fascination by audiences all over Europe. Local Springer imitators proliferated, from Romania to Venezuela and Brazil. The Chrystal Rose show in England aired a program on January 26, 2000, with four bisexuals discussing whether there is a bisexuality gene. A Peruvian show,Laura in America, hosted by attorney Laura Bozzo, specialized in physical battles and insults. In a typical program, two sisters fought tearfully over a man, while the audience shouted insults at them.

In some countries, the free-for-all Springer format spilled over into the political programming. On the
Russian talk show One on One, a politician called a controversial presidential candidate a “scumbag” and a
“bastard.” The men then threw orange juice in each other’s faces. The film clip was shown on CNN all around the world.

In Mexico, salacious talk shows on Televisa and TV Azteca featured such soap opera themes as “Man by day, woman by night,” “My children care only about their inheritance,” and “My husband got our servant pregnant.” The programs combined sentimental dreaming and scheming about the lifestyles of the rich with crude hair-pulling fights reminiscent of Springer’s original shows. By July 2000 such talk shows took up more than 40 hours of Mexico’s television programming per week. One Mexican media scholar decried these programs as likely “to discourage people from getting beyond their problems.” But producers defended their high-rated programs, saying they give Mexico’s poorer citizens new access to the media spotlight.

6. The Jenny Jones Murder Case

By the late 1990s, U.S. talk show culture had careened out of control. The corporate owners of the Jenny Jones Show were held responsible by a Michigan jury on May 7, 1999, when one guest, 24-year-old Lake Orion, Michigan waiter John Schmitz killed another guest three days after the March 1995 taping of the Jones show. Even though the program never was aired, Schmitz told police he was “humiliated” when he discovered the “secret admirer” he was to meet for the first time at the taping was another man, his neighbor, bartender Scott Amedure. Schmitz was convicted of second-degree murder. At his trial, the prosecutor said the Jenny Jones Show was also to blame because it “ambushed the defendant with humiliation.”

7. Faking It

Ironically, the talk show format that stood for spontaneity and down-to-earth authenticity was becoming just the opposite. Shows were carefully set up to promote conflict and scandal, either by ambushing unsuspecting guests with surprise information or by other dramatic devices. Springer himself acknowledged that some of the programs were staged. The violence “seems real to me. The people are real, the stories are real, and when they are wrestling, it looks like it’s real … but the show is produced,” Springer said in June 1999 testimony before critics on the Chicago City Council. “Has there ever been a case where there’s been what you would call a fake guest? Yes. Has there ever been a case when someone made up a story? I’m sure. But I’m telling you, overwhelmingly, the show is real.”
International spin-off shows also were rocked by scandal. The Caracas daily El Nacional revealed that guests on one popular Venezuelan show, who had told an emotional story, had been given a script and their story was completely fabricated. Producers of the popular BBC chat show Vanessa were disciplined after the London Mirror revealed that one actor had turned up on two different BBC talk shows just days apart, once as a “worried father” and once as a romantic advisor. A spousal abuse victim turned out to be a struggling actress who had never been wed, and her two feuding sisters were actresses who had never met before the program, the tabloid revealed.

8. The O.J. Simpson Orgy

The O.J. Simpson murder case in 1995 was the talk show culture’s dream theme. Nearly one in four Americans was regularly watching the criminal trial, which was televised. Thousands of hours of talk show speculation flowed around the case, as the trial dragged on for months. Producers said they were performing a social service by airing views about racial prejudice and spouse abuse. But a more honest appraisal was that the O.J. murder mystery was television’s perfect real-life soap opera, combining sex, race, celebrity, and violence in the kind of smoldering mix that had fueled tabloid newspaper sales throughout the 20th century. The O.J. phenomenon overwhelmed other news about world events for months and spun off new talk shows about crime and the law that survived even after the second verdict was returned. The story so dominated U.S. media that when the second (civil) verdict was returned, declaring Simpson responsible for the crime, virtually all television networks interrupted the President’s 1996 annual state of the union message to broadcast the verdict.

In the end the judicial process, as well as the news, seemed overtaken by the presumption of guilt on the talk shows. What mattered, it seemed, was not what the jury said, but what most people believed. And what they believed was influenced by the endless speculation outside the courtroom, on all those endless O.J. talk shows. Naturally some of the key figures in the trial ended up with their own talk shows. Indeed, former Iran Contra scandal figure Oliver North, Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy, former governors Jerry Brown and Mario Cuomo, presidential children Michael and Maureen Reagan, and nearly everyone else in America had found a talk show to host.

B. Radio’s Shock Jocks: Stern and Imus

Meanwhile, back on radio, Howard Stern, Don Imus, and others emerged as sex shock jocks, pushing the legal limits of obscenity with their constant barrage of irreverent, comic, and disgusting comments. Stern, who began in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s, led the way as he entertained commuters stuck in morning traffic.

Reveling in the discomfort he was causing traditionalists and FCC regulators, Stern relentlessly battered away at even the most minimal standards of taste and decorum. He created degrading parodies of television programs, such as “Hill Street Jews,” and “Beaver Breaks.” He joked incessantly about sex of all kinds, body functions, sado-masochism, his own genitals, and anything else considered taboo by the mainstream culture. Imitators sprang up in local markets, to piggyback on his success.

1. Backlash and FCC Fines

Stern’s show was canceled in 1985 after he flaunted his embattled manager’s request to “clean up” his act, instead sponsoring a new “Bestiality Dial-a-Date” program. But he reemerged to even greater fame in New York, was syndicated to a national audience, and earned a fortune for Infinity Broadcasting, despite continuing complaints from the FCC and conservative Reverend Donald Wildmon. The FCC fined three stations $2,000 for carrying his Christmas show in 1990, which featured a man purportedly playing the piano with his penis. In 1995 the FCC extracted a $1.7 million fine from Infinity, hut Stern’s popularity as a cultural iconoclast was only reinforced by the action.

2. Don Imus

New York radio host Don Imus innovated a nationally syndicated program that managed to combine gross sexual banter with important political interviews. He ridiculed and wooed the media elite, attracting call-in chat from Meet the Pressmoderator Tim Russert, 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, CBS anchors Dan Rather and Connie Chung, and many others. NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw said listening to Imus was “part of my daily education.” It was not just Imus’s own humorous views that he liked, but the “real people” who called to talk about national issues. President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, and even talk show critic Senator Joseph Leiberman called Imus to chat on the air, recognizing that it was an important listening post for the key political players of the 1990s.

3. Mike Barnicle and the Slide of Journalistic Standards

The journalistic and ethical standards of talk show hosts such as Don Imus and Boston’s Mike Barnicle were often criticized, but to little effect. Barnicle, a beloved and controversial Boston Globe columnist, became an even higher profile Boston radio and television talk show host after being fired from the Globe for making up his “true” stories and lying about his deceptions. While press critics pilloried his journalism standards, his success as a media personality continued, thanks to talk show culture.

4. More Polite Radio Call-In Programs

There remained some oases for serious discourse with higher journalistic standards and respectful treatment of diverse views, particularly on National Public Radio. NPR’s syndicated Diane Rehm show in Washington, the nationalTalk of the Nation, and WBUR’s The Connection with Christopher Lydon in Boston were call-in programs appreciated by audiences for their expert guests, provocative topics, and polite discourse, without commercial interruption. Their audiences were dwarfed, however, by the national audience participating in the more entertainment-oriented shock and combat shows on radio and television.

C. The Anger Show: Tapping the Public’s Frustrations

1. Joe Pyne

During the antiwar counterculture of the 1960s, underground radio stations such as KPFK in Los Angeles and other Pacific radio stations featured anti-Establishment, protest programming from the political left. While some of the audience rage was driven by the anti-conformist movement of the 1960s, a backlash audience was developing at the same time against Americans who seemed to flaunt traditional values. Capitalizing on this, conservative Joe Pyne pioneered the “insult show” on KLAC radio in Los Angeles and syndicated it nationally in the mid-1960s. Taking the show to television, Pyne goaded members of the studio audience to vent their verbal insults on his guests. Once he even waved a gun at a black militant guest on the show.

2. Morton Downey Jr.

Picking up where Pyne left off was Morton Downey Jr., who specialized in berating his television talk show audience in the 1980s. On one program, for example, Downey goaded a man in the audience, who suggested that even rapists should be forgiven. Downey taunted him, saying aggressively that he would murder rather than forgive a man who raped his wife and children. “You’re a murderer!” shrieked the man in the audience over and over again. “Why don’t you suck my armpit, all right? Get outta here. Get out, get, get, get … or I’ll show you violence!” Downey shouted back. While Downey eventually failed in daytime television, he survived as a radio talk show host, going on to scream insults at his callers in Washington and Dallas.

3. Radio: From Talk to Target Practice

Talk shows helped to keep radio alive during television’s rise. Michael Deaver said he believed Ronald Reagan, whose radio commentaries were syndicated in the 1970s, was elected president in 1980 because he was on the radio reaching 50 million people each week for five years.

According to Broadcasting magazine, the number of stations describing their formats as “talk” in 1992 jumped to 875 from just 238 five years earlier. Unlike popular radio newscaster Paul Harvey, who told stories about ordinary people, the new talk show hosts in the 1990s actually put folks on the air. Soon talk shows in every community were providing a platform for talkers–made up disproportionately of angry, conservative, white men. About 70% of the estimated 8,000 hosts identified themselves as conservatives, according to one talk magazine survey.

Government and the journalism establishment were the most popular scapegoats. What had been a popular political target in previous eras-big business-may have been more acceptable in the 1980s and 1990s because much of the angry talk came from the pro-business conservative right, and for many Americans, the economy was booming.

a. Rush Limbaugh

Conservative host Rush Limbaugh emerged as talk radio’s number one force in national politics in 1992, using a mixture of humor and anti-Establishment rhetoric to win an estimated 20 million listeners each week on 625 radio stations across the United States.

While his facts were sometimes distorted to fit his colorful opinions, he touched a deep chord of discontent with the mainstream political Establishment. He made fun of journalists, Democratic politicians, the 1960s counterculture, and the women’s and civil rights movements. He ridiculed “feminazis” and adopted the label “the most dangerous man in America.” As biographer Philip Seib observed, Limbaugh lived the politician’s dream of having authority without responsibility. He selected callers’ comments not to show the true diversity of public opinion, but in order to showcase his own conservative ideas.

Fans who called themselves “Dittoheads” met in special rooms set aside in restaurants around the country to have lunch together and listen to Rush on the radio. Sometimes they made their unhappiness heard in Congress, flooding the switchboards with calls on such subjects as federal spending, foreign affairs, and homosexual rights. Yet Limbaugh himself seemed reluctant to use his political muscle. He preferred to call himself an entertainer rather than a politician. “Remember, this is a business, not some boring public service foray,” Limbaugh told biographer Seib. “My success is not determined by who wins elections; my success is determined by how many listeners I have.”

b. Bob Grant

Even more controversial than Limbaugh’s politically potent barbs was a new forum for hate speech and rebelliousness that was hosted by Bob Grant on WABC in New York. In the mid-1990s it drew the biggest local talk show audience in the country, according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-wing consumer group. FAIR, which monitored his broadcasts, sought to get him fired for his slurs against blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays, and others. They reported, for example, that Grant said after a gay pride parade in 1994, “Ideally, it would have been nice to have a few phalanxes of policemen with machine guns and mow them down.”

Grant was fired in April 1996 after he expressed his “pessimism” that black Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown might not have died with the others in a Bosnia air crash that did, indeed, kill Brown and everyone else on board. But a few weeks later Grant was back on the air, earning ratings at rival WOR-AM.

c. Chuck Baker

Another incendiary anger show on radio was hosted by Chuck Baker on KVOR in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the 1990s. Broadcasting on occasion from the Monument Gun Shop, he encouraged the anti-government “patriot” movement, militias, and callers who contended there was a government conspiracy headed by Attorney General Janet Reno to spy on citizens with black helicopters, plant microchips in babies, and restrict guns. He liked to imitate a firing pin sound on the air, and when a caller complained that this might he inciting people to “an armed rebellion,” Baker corrected her: “An armed revolution.” When self-professed Baker fan Francisco Martin Duran drove his pickup truck from Colorado Springs to Washington and fired 30 bullets at the White House on October 29, 1994, Baker stopped broadcasting for a month to let things cool off. By December, he was back on the air.

d. G. Gordon Liddy

Perhaps the most notorious talk show host of the 1990s was G. Gordon Liddy, a convicted felon from the Nixon Watergate break-in. An FCC complaint filed against him said he instructed listeners on August 26, 1994, how to kill agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: “They’ve got a big target there, ATF. Don’t shoot at that because they’ve got a vest on underneath that. Head shots, head shots… . Kill the sons of bitches.”