I could hardly believe my ears. As I sat in a television green room is Secaucus, New Jersey, I overheard a couple of TV producers plotting to be the first show to broadcast two people having sex on live TV. This was the early 90's and radio and television were in transition. As a mass media buff, I had been closely following the changes taking place in the media, driven by people like Morton Downy Jr., Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and Rush Limbaugh. I had followed closely the emergence of a gaggle of “personalities” that would eventually be called “shock jocks.” I was also tracking a new genre of programming called “Trash TV.”
The formula of this new media was simple. Use crude humor, drama, conflict, exaggeration, insults, aggression, and anything offensive or shocking to build a loyal audience.
By the mid 90’s shock jocks had started an all-out arms race, competing for who could drop the crudest, bizarre, startling, offensive, and sensational bombs on their listening audiences. By the late 1990s, it was no longer “shocking” to hear incendiary comments, “locker room” talk, or vitriolic exchanges between people on the radio.
It turned out that pushing the envelope of decency and incivility was very appealing and profitable. The audiences grew, and the wallets of the talk-show hosts and media outlets swelled. Soon entertaining and titillating audiences became as important as providing factual information. In fact, eventually, the facts would no longer matter.