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Before Donald Trump, There Were Shock Jocks

Published: 
December 23, 2015

Long before “schlonged,” before the idea of a blockade on Muslim immigration, Donald Trump stood in the skyscraper that bears his name and bemoaned that Mexico was “not sending its best” people across the Southern border.

“They’re bringing drugs,” Trump said. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

It was the first day of his presidential bid, and to many traditional news organizations it seemed as if he had stumbled from the gate. That was not how it looked to Joe Walsh. The conservative radio host, who spent two years as a Republican congressman from Illinois, saw the calls and tweets rolling in — people just like him taking Trump’s side.

“My instant reaction was to think, ‘He’s going to be leading in the polls within two weeks,’ ” Walsh said. “I thought, ‘This is going to put him on the front page.’ ”

On his AM-560 Chicago talk radio show, Walsh called Trump a “clown,” right before defending his argument. Somebody had to. Nobody had defended Walsh when he’d tried to talk about immigration and political correctness and had been temporarily thrown off the air.

“If you say that America’s becoming a browner country, all of a sudden you’re racist,” Walsh told his listeners. “He’s right. He’s right. We’ve opened up our border to Third World immigrants.”

Whether he moves to the White House or returns to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s campaign for president has challenged and changed the way politics is covered. Political media have adapted slowly, treating nearly every Trump eruption as a gaffe — the kind a normal politician might make on his way to defeat.

The world of talk radio never saw Trump this way, because the phenomenon ran through it more than a generation ago. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine, which had defined boundaries for political talk. In August 1988, Rush Limbaugh began appearing on 56 stations across the country. His success, alongside the march of the “shock jock” through morning radio, changed the way people heard the news and the mores of conversation itself.

In the peak years of Howard Stern’s radio show, the FCC fined his employers nearly $2 million, but the market overwhelmed the regulators. Conservative talk was just as immune to controversy, with Limbaugh’s joyful use of parody songs (the theme from “The Jeffersons” introducing updates on the scandals sinking the Senate’s only black woman, Carol Moseley Braun) and insults like “feminazi” scoring him a TV show. In a 1993 cover story for the National Review, Limbaugh was dubbed the “Leader of the Opposition” for Clinton-era conservatives. “When Rush Limbaugh talks, you know you’re listening to the real world,” said then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, three years before he won his party’s presidential nomination.

“When Limbaugh came onto the scene in late 1988, he was saying things that resonated with a huge group of people who thought their voices were not heard anymore,” said Gabe Hobbs, a 35-year radio consultant who helped put Trump on the air, in an early-2000s series of radio commentaries for Clear Channel. “Limbaugh would not only capture that; he’d state opinions for them. Donald Trump appears, to me, to have something very similar going on.”

If that is true, it is happening long after the “shock jock” movement faded. The popularity of Stern in the 1980s and 1990s spawned schools of imitators: Erich “Mancow” Muller launched from Chicago in 1994; Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia from Boston one year later. Within a decade, Stern and Opie and Anthony had decamped for satellite radio. In 1996, Talkers magazine estimated Limbaugh’s total audience at 21 million listeners. This year, it was pegged at just 13.5 million — in¬cred¬ibly influential among conservatives, but no longer shaping the culture.

Republican presidential contender Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton got "schlonged" by then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. Here are other times he's insulted women, from Rosie O'Donnell to Megyn Kelly. (Sarah Parnass and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

But between the peak and the valley, the shock jocks changed the way people expected to hear other people talk. Their rise coincided with the growth of “political correctness” on campuses and in pop culture; their decline coincided with that concept’s senescence. By the late 1990s, it was no longer shocking to hear graphic talk about sex or insults on the radio; conservative talk, at the same time, tore into the details of Bill Clinton’s intimacy. In the Obama years, the speed of cultural change created an opening that only Trump seemed to see.

“We’ve gotten so PC again in the last five to 10 years,” Hobbs said. “Most people spend time preparing speeches, checking then double-checking for something that might offend. I’ve seen somebody get fired for something that they might have gotten furrowed brows for 10 years ago. Now it’s, ‘Sorry, we have to let you go.’ ”

Political talk had already wrestled with this; mainstream politics did not until Trump arrived. The people least surprised by this were the ones next to microphones, taking calls, waiting for someone to break through the standards that had been imposed by some unelected authority.

“It’s very easy to be funny or entertaining in an environment that is highly structured,” said John Ziegler, a veteran of multiple national talk shows who now hosts a weekly program on Sundays. “Anybody can be funny in a church. Rush took radio at a time when the norm was basically NPR. He comes into that church and blows it up. Our presidential politics have become a kind of church. The media says, ‘You’re not allowed to say this, or this, or that, because we’re in church.’ People are sick of that. If you were really allowed to say what you wanted, there would be no way for Trump to differentiate himself.”

When Trump began running for president, no pundit suggested that “political correctness” would be a rallying point for 2015. Yet in the conversation that takes place on social media — the conversation born out of the “shock jock” era — the perceived ban on talking about it was in-cred¬ibly potent.

“Talk radio is successful because it lets people speak like people think,” said Simon Conway, an influential host based in Des Moines, Iowa. “The influence Trump is having right now is not just a reaction to what he’s saying. It’s a reaction to the MSM [mainstream media], telling us what to think. Telling us we should all be horrified and shocked and that’s the end of him. In a lot of cases, people don’t agree with him, and won’t vote for him, but they appreciate the directness of him.”

Said Walsh: “People all say to me: ‘Joe, you were the local Trump before Trump.’ I had spoken like Trump as a congressman. The national media hated it, and they went after me, but people found it very refreshing. I knew there was a pent-up demand from people to hear someone talk like that. But obviously, I didn’t have Trump’s microphone. I was just a congressman.”

Trump, with his fundamental understanding of how people talked, ran for president by channeling that. By mid-December, even Jeb Bush — the struggling avatar of Republican establishment hopes — was dropping his reticence and calling Trump a “jerk.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the one candidate leading Trump in an early primary state, was joking about a Democratic debate happening “at Leavenworth” and IRS agents being reassigned to the border, and it seemed tame.

The two eras came full circle this week, when Trump said at a rally that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton had been “schlonged” — utilizing a Yiddish word for penis — by Barack Obama in the 2008 primary race. Trump later said the word only means to be beaten badly.

“I never imagined 27 years ago, 30 years, I never, ever imagined I’d be discussing ‘schlonged’ on the radio, especially during Christmas week,” Limbaugh told his listeners on Tuesday. “But, I mean, it’s an indication of where our culture has gone.”

(This article originally appeared in the Washington Post and was written by David Weigel)