Ships on the cultural sea

Posted: Jun 21, 2001 12:00 AM
Two news stories on consecutive days last week tell us where popular culture is heading. Hint: It's not a pretty sight. On June 15, carried an article by Jesse Oxfeld about the new $30 million, three-year contract for the popular New York afternoon drive-time radio team of Opie and Anthony. I'd never heard of these fellows, but apparently they're real trailblazers where airwave pollution is concerned. Peter Goodman of Newsday stated last year that O&A have "gone beyond (Howard Stern) in vulgarity." Their listenership, he wrote, is "primarily young men who enjoy ... the kind of talk that was once limited to locker rooms and particularly nasty bars." Last summer, there was a ruckus on the "Today" show when a woman in the audience flashed her bare breasts on camera. She was taking part in O&A's "Whip 'Em Out Wednesday" campaign, which encourages women to expose themselves in such a manner on that day. But that's nothing to the O&A community. As Goodman reported this past March, "One recent afternoon, (O&A were) listening to songs such as 'Baby Raper' while stepfathers called in and described their fantasies about teenage stepdaughters." Opie and Anthony work for the same company as Stern does -- Infinity, part of the sleazy Viacom empire -- and it seems that Infinity wants them to be to afternoons what Stern, who airs in roughly 45 markets, is to mornings. According to, O&A will now air on "22 other Infinity-owned stations in the top 50 markets, and further syndication (is) in the works." Talkers magazine editor Michael Harrison says O&A's contract "signifies that ... a major company the size of (Viacom) thinks that this new style of broadcasting is ... significant enough to put major marketing and financial effort behind it ... The simple meaning is, 'Wow, raunch is big.' I think the bigger meaning is that stockholders and the corporate nature of media (sic) will do anything for a profit." Harrison is right about that anything-for-a-profit part, but he's wrong about a supposed "new style" of radio. Not only is raunch far from new, but the ascent of Opie and Anthony is yet another indication that it has become the Establishment style. Given Stern's current, and O&A's soon-to-be, wide reach, and who knows how many local garbagemouths littering dials from coast to coast, it's a lot easier to see a bright future for raunch radio than for the approach represented by Paul Harvey. In fact, in Harvey's hometown, Chicago, the last television show to star Bozo the Clown is a wrap, canceled by WGN. Bozo premiered there in June 1960. "Once upon a time," wrote John W. Fountain in the June 14 New York Times, "for many (Chicago) children there seemed nothing better than ... Bozo and his hour-long show filled with games, cartoons and slapstick comedy, like a pie in the face or a bucket of water." That was a long time ago. Today, a 58-year-old Chicago mother of two told the Times, children "are much more sophisticated. At the age where they should be wanting to wait for tickets for Bozo, they're playing those little video games ... Kids want fireworks, kids want smoke. They want something more." When it comes to wholesome, classic comedy, be it Bozo, the Harlem Globetrotters, Lucille Ball, or Laurel and Hardy, less
is more. That wisdom, alas, often seems utterly foreign to today's sensation-seeking young people, and to plenty of adults as well. Chicago-area native Billy Corgan, leader of the now-disbanded Smashing Pumpkins, performed Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" on the Bozo finale. Corgan, who's 34, remarked in the Chicago Tribune, "I can't remember not watching the show. For me, it was an innocent thing in a pretty turbulent childhood." In a real sense, turbulent childhoods are now the norm. A study released in late May by Sesame Workshop, the creators of "Sesame Street," found that "nearly two-thirds of children (ages 6-11) asked to state their fears vividly depicted intense, unsettling anxieties about guns, death and violence. Among 9-11-year-olds, the proportion climbed to three-fourths." Perhaps not coincidentally, "three-fourths of 9-11-year-olds cited the media room as the 'heart of their home,'" and "60 percent of boys specifically said the TV was the main attraction in (that) room." The loss of one show in one city isn't the end of the world; high-quality children's programming is still out there. But what is being eroded, systematically and deliberately eroded, is the simple respect for the innocence of the child. It's easy to blame the Viacoms of the world. But check your portfolio: Are you a shareholder?