Disc jockeys have had an interesting transformation since the dawn of radio. They started off as subdued voices that introduced songs or talked about the news in a calm, respectful manner. After a few decades, things evolved (or devolved, according to some), and pushing the envelope on-air became a big business. This led to an era of scandals that shocked the listening public.
10Don Imus And The Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team
Being live on the radio gives you the opportunity to say something completely stupid to a rapt audience—and to be recorded doing so. One of the best examples of this was Don Imus. The popular radio personality hosted Imus in the Morning starting in 1971. It was on and off the air for a few years, but in 1988, the show became nationally syndicated on CBS Radio. The show was also broadcast live on television on MSNBC starting in 1996. By 2004, he had millions of listeners, and his show was bringing in $14 million a year.
On April 4, 2004, a substitute sportscaster reported on the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Championship, where Rutgers had lost to the University of Tennessee. MSNBC showed clips of the game, and the following exchange happened between Imus and his executive producer Bernard McGuirk:
Imus: I watched the basketball game last night between—a little bit of Rutgers and Tennessee, the women’s final.
Sid Rosenberg: Yeah, Tennessee won last night—seventh championship for Pat Summitt [Tennessee’s Coach], I-Man. They beat Rutgers by 13 points.
Imus: That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos and—
McGuirk: Some hardcore hoes.
Imus: That’s some nappy-headed hoes there. I’m gonna tell you that now, man, that’s some—woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like—kinda like—I don’t know.
McGuirk: A Spike Lee thing.
McGuirk: The Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes—that movie that he had.
Imus was suspended after the show before being fired.
On November 1, 2007, Imus signed a multi-year contract with Citadel Broadcasting. He is still doing Imus in the Morning, even though he was diagnosed with Stage 2 prostate cancer in 2009.
9DJ Star And DJ Envy Rivalry
At times, radio can breed some intense rivalries. In big cities, multiple stations play the same type of music, so sometimes it may come down to which radio personality the listeners like the best.
New York City saw a long rivalry between WQHT’s DJ Envy (Raashaun Casey) and former WQHT jockey DJ Star (Troi Torain), who moved to WWPR. Things took an ugly turn on May 3, 2006, when Torain talked about Casey’s wife and children. He made sexual remarks and used racist epithets about Casey’s wife, who was partly Asian. Torain also said he was coming to molest Casey’s children. He offered $500 to anyone who could tell him where Casey’s four-year-old daughter went to school.
City councilors wanted criminal charges pressed against Torain. He apologized and said “of course” it was a joke. However, he was fired a week later, and the police ordered him to turn over his personal handgun and license. The Hate Crime Unit charged him with endangering the welfare of a child. While in handcuffs, Torain told reporters that he was the “new Lenny Bruce.”
Torain is currently a DJ on Shot97, an Internet radio station.
8Mayhem In The AM Mocks A Disabled New Orleans Saint
Football rivalry is classic fodder for morning radio. What fan doesn’t like to hear their most loathed team trashed by a gang of funny people? The problem for the Mayhem in the AM team in Atlanta was that they lost sight of where to draw the line.
On June 17, 2013, the three hosts of the show—Steak Shapiro, Chris Dimino, and Nick Cellini—came up with a bit they thought would be a funny way to mock their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints. They did an imitation of former Saints player Steve Gleason. Gleason, suffering from ALS, speaks using a voice box that he controls with his eyes. Cellini mocked Gleason using sound effects to modify his voice:
Synthetic Voice: Knock, knock.
Host: Who’s there?
Synthetic Voice: Smother.
Host: Smother who?
Synthetic Voice: Smother me. Do me a favor.
By the end of the day, the three were fired. They all issued apologies to listeners and to Gleason. He accepted their apology, saying, “We have all made mistakes in this life.”
7Marconi & Tiny And Nick Burke’s Death Video
Marconi and Tiny were a pair of shock jocks who did the morning show on KNRK-FM in Portland, Oregon. They got into some trouble on May 12, 2004, when they played an audiotape of an American who’d been murdered in Iraq.
Nick Berg was a freelance radio tower repairman who’d gone to Iraq after the United States invasion. On May 7, 2004, he was beheaded. His body was found the next day. On May 11, a video was found on a website associated with Al-Qaeda that depicted the decapitation while Berg screamed for his life.
The DJs played the death of Berg. They played it a couple of times. They then added music, gave a play-by-play, and joked and laughed about the death and his bloodcurdling screams.
The pair, along with their producer, were suspended immediately and were fired the next day. Marconi issued an apology, saying that he had become numb to the world. Since being fired, Marconi is back on the radio as a cohost on 101.9 KINK-FM in Portland.
6Rush Limbaugh And Michael J. Fox
Rush Limbaugh has been a disc jockey since he was 16, and in the ensuing 47 years, he developed a radio personality that is quite divisive. His critics think of him as a loudmouth, right-wing racist and a bigoted hypocrite. Other people think he’s just speaking the truth.
Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, recorded ads in 2006 supporting candidates who backed stem cell research, which could be helpful in fighting Parkinson’s. During the ad, Fox trembles and nearly flails because of his symptoms.
Rush Limbaugh thought Fox was faking it. He said Fox was putting on an act, exaggerating the illness; either that, or he didn’t take his medication. For evidence, Limbaugh said he’d never seen Fox do something like that before. Regardless of the reason, according to Limbaugh, Fox was shameless for making the ads.
Later on in the show, people responded to Limbaugh’s comments. Parkinson’s experts confirmed that Fox was not exaggerating, and people with Parkinson’s do have symptoms like that. Limbaugh apologized when he was proven to be wrong. However, he maintained that Fox was exploiting his disease for the benefit of Democratic candidates.
The controversy was only a speed bump in the career of Rush Limbaugh, who still hosts his nationally syndicated show. He makes $38 million a year, on top of the $100 million signing bonus he received in 2008.
5Howard Stern And Selena
Howard Stern’s name is synonymous with controversy. He is the most fined radio personality in the history of the FCC. He’s been rude and offensive on almost a daily basis, but he is also one of the most popular and famous hosts in the history of radio. As a result, it is hard to pinpoint one moment in the history of the Howard Stern Show that is more controversial than the rest. However, one segment in particularly poor taste came after the murder of singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez in March 1995.
On the day she was buried, Stern mocked her and her music, saying Alvin & the Chipmunks had more soul. He added, “Spanish people have the worst taste in music.” He then put on a Hispanic accent and began mocking Mexicans for their poverty, dirty water, corrupt government, bestiality, and “cardboard box houses.” He even went so far as saying the mourners were so famine-stricken that they ate the dead singers’ fingers and toes.
The Latin community and Selena’s fans were outraged. Howard actually did something he doesn’t normally do: He apologized. However, the Latin groups rejected his apology. A judge in south Texas issued an arrest warrant against Stern for disorderly contact. (The warrant was never served.)
4Opie And Anthony’s ‘Sex For Sam’ Scandal
Comedic duo Gregg Hughes and Anthony Cumia, better known as “Opie and Anthony,” got their start when they were hired by WAAF in Boston as the afternoon drive team in 1996. The pair made a very lucrative career from juvenile pranks. For example, on April Fools’ Day 1998, they told their listeners that the Mayor of Boston had died in a car crash. Friends of the Mayor’s showed up to comfort his family. That stunt got them fired, and they were hired on at WNEW-FM in New York a short time later.
This led to one of their biggest scandals, which was their “Sex for Sam” stunt. “Sex for Sam” involved couples having sex in notable, public places in New York City. They were followed by a comedian or someone from the show who’d call and report the location. There were no complaints the first two times they did it. But the third time’s the charm.
Comedian Paul Mecurio encouraged a couple from Virginia to have sex in the vestibule of St. Patrick’s Church while Mass was going on. A security guard came across the couple. At first, he thought the man was urinating, but then he saw the woman in front of him, naked from the waist down. He told the two to stop, and Mecurio—still on the phone with the station—argued with the guard. All three were arrested and charged with public lewdness.
The Catholic League was quite upset with the stunt and tried to get the station’s license revoked. When the station fired Opie and Anthony, the Catholic League stopped campaigning. However, the station was fined $357,000 by the FCC.
Opie and Anthony were off the air for two years before finding a home on satellite radio in 2004. Anthony was fired in July 2014 after a series of tweets that the station called “racially charged.” According to Anthony, he was taking pictures in Times Square, when an African-American woman who didn’t want her picture taken assaulted him.
3Alan Freed And The Payola Scandal
Alan Freed, otherwise known as “Moondog,” gave rock and roll its name and helped popularize the genre. Freed also helped write songs, his most famous being “Maybelline” performed by Chuck Berry.
In 1959, it was revealed that Freed had been accepting payments (commonly known as “payolas”) from a record company to play certain records. At the time, it wasn’t illegal, but it was quite controversial. There was also a conflict of interest with Freed being a DJ and a composer. He would receive royalties from the songs he co-wrote, so if he promoted the songs on his radio show, he would be advertising his own music.
He was fired from the radio station in 1959, and payolas were made illegal the following year. In 1962, Freed pleaded guilty to two counts of accepting commercial bribes. He was given a fine and a suspended sentence.
His career never recovered, and he bounced around to several different radio stations until his death in 1965 from complications stemming from alcoholism. His ashes were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but were removed in 2014 to make room for outfits worn by Beyonce, including the famous black leotard from her “Single Ladies” video.
American Bandstand host Dick Clark was investigated at the same time as Freed regarding payolas. During the congressional hearings, Freed didn’t cooperate, but Clark did. And as most people know, Dick Clark remained a beloved and revered television personality until his death in 2012.
2The Suicide Of Jacintha Saldanha
On December 4, 2012, Catherine (nee Middleton), Duchess of Cambridge, was hospitalized with acute morning sickness at the King Edward VII Hospital. One of the nurses on duty was 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha, who was tasked with answering the phone during the night because there was no overnight receptionist.
At about 5:30 AM, Saldanha answered the phone. It was Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles calling to check in on the Duchess. Saldanha passed the call on to the nurse who was attending to the Duchess, who told them the details of the patient.
It wasn’t really the Queen and the Prince on the other end of the line. It was Mel Greig and Mike Christian, two Australian radio hosts. The prank, which the station’s lawyers had approved, was played on-air in its entirety. The call made news around the world, and the hospital was criticized for being so easily duped. The hospital countered that nurses shouldn’t be held responsible for others’ dubious journalistic practices
Saldanha was devastated. She hanged herself in the nurses’ living quarters.
She was survived by her husband and her two teenage children. In her suicide note, Saldanha blamed Greig and Christian, saying that they should be held responsible (and should pay off her mortgage).
Greig and Christian resigned, and the show was canceled. Greig is still receiving counseling and hasn’t worked since. Christian went to work at another radio station and won an award for best young radio presenter in 2014.
Denver DJ Alan Berg was, at times, abrasive in sharing his liberal views. In one of his 1984 shows, Berg, who was Jewish, confronted members of white supremacist group The Christian Identity. The Christian Identity believes that Jews are descendants of Satan. The argument between them predictably got heated.
On June 18, a few days after confronting The Christian Identity, the 50-year-old radio host was returning home after dinner with his ex-wife. Shots rang out. He was shot 13 times with an automatic weapon in his driveway.
Four members of the Order, an Aryan Nation splinter group, were arrested in connection with the murder. Prosecutors said that Berg was targeted because he was Jewish and had humiliated The Christian Identity and other white supremacist groups on-air.
Out of the four people arrested, only two were convicted—David Lane, who drove the getaway car, and Bruce Pierce, who was the gunman. Lane was given 150 years in prison and died in 2007. Pierce was given 252 years and is still involved with the Order, despite being behind bars.