Bubba the Love Sponge and Todd "MJ" Schnitt legal fight puts shock jock format built in Tampa on trial
(UPDATE: Cox Radio, the company which owns the station which broadcasts Bubba Clem's show in Tampa, WHPT, struck a settlement Friday with Todd "MJ" Schnitt to drop out as defendants in his lawsuit against Clem, agreeing to keep terms of the arrangement confidential. The existence of the settlement was confirmed by Schnitt's lawyer, according to John Barry, the Times reporter who has joined me in reporting on this case. He will be covering the trial, which is selecting a jury, today.)
It’s more than just a clash between two of the biggest stars – and egos – in Tampa Bay radio.
Todd “MJ” Schnitt’s lawsuit against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, which goes to trial today, just might dismantle a brand of in-your-face radio which has been a signature of the local scene for many years – revealing all the secret tricks and embarrassing scandals behind the careers of two longtime titans.
Schnitt filed the lawsuit back in 2008, accusing Clem of “false, highly offensive and defamatory statements” about him and his wife Michelle, as competition heated up between the two on morning radio. Clem was returning to local broadcasting on Cox Radio’s WHPT-FM (102.5) after getting fired by Clear Channel and spending years on satellite radio, promising to target Schnitt as the then-top rated morning guy on his MJ Morning Show at WFLZ-AM (93.3).
It was a classic, old school radio war, filled with insults and exhortations to fans that they join Bubba Clem (once known simply as Todd Clem, the shock jock legally changed his name years ago), in trying to bury his rival. And it worked, catapulting Clem to the top of the ratings shortly after his return.
But Schnitt says the competition crossed a serious line, inspiring listeners to force his car off the road on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, threaten him physically and throw raw eggs at his house, initiating five years of legal wrangling which has culminated with today's showdown in a Tampa courtroom.
Clem was in court and unable to appear on his show this morning, as producer Brent Hatley and Clem's other on air foils played clips from past shows, promising the shock jock would returns Tuesday full of commentary.
In contrast, Schnitt has followed his original strategy of declining to comment about it all, either on his own politically-oriented talk show on WFLA-AM (970) or to the media.
Still, a host of people connected to Cox Radio, Clear Channel, Schnitt and Clem have been subjected to extensive depositions, as lawyers for both companies and both stars attempt to prove their positions – a possible preview of testimony to come.
In one deposition, Schnitt admits faking some of the “crotchety calls” prank phone calls aired on his WFLZ morning show – a signature bit where he pretended to be an old man calling businesses with oddball questions, instead calling interns or actors, who pretended to be shocked bystanders.
Former Tampa area Cox Radio executive Jay O’Connor compared Clem’s campaign against Schnitt to a political campaign in another deposition, noting their goal was to drive up negative impressions of their rival in the same way politicians target opponents.
Such testimony, delivered in open court, could reveal uncomfortable truths about both stars’ media empires. And should Schnitt win a big judgment, the penalty could put the final nail in a shocking, irreverent style of radio programming developed in Tampa Bay, in which feuds and harsh pranks between competitors were once commonplace.
And the fact that all this has resulted from a lawsuit filed by a radio personality who was once the top practitioner of the form may be the biggest irony of all.
Only media consumers of a certain age will remember the style of radio featuring such hijinks was developed in Tampa in the 1980s, as part of the "morning zoo" format. Developed by Cleveland Wheeler and Scott Shannon at WRBQ-FM (Q105), the format featured a crew of regulars, attention-getting call-in personalities sometimes developed by staffers and high-profile stunts which might be faked for maximum listener impact.
The format became a national sensation when Shannon took it from Tampa to the New York station Z-100, sparking outlets across the country to adopt it. The "morning zoo" name has fallen out of favor, but many radio shows have continued to use the same techniques, varying the level of public controversy and explicit content, including Clem's program and Schnitt's MJ Morning Show, which ended last year.
But the dark side of such morning zoo formats was the way they could take on rivals with mean-spirited pranks, urging fans to get involved in the conflict. Back when WFLZ decided to target WRBQ's success, they printed up t-shirts reading "screw the Q"; Clem accuses Schnitt of telling fans from his WFLZ morning to boo him at a public appearance in 1994, sparking a rivalry which has continued to this day.
Times staff writer John Barry and I spent time poring through the depositions and court filings, producing this preview for the newspaper.
Depending on how it all turns out, this could be an interesting coda to the days when Tampa area radio talents such as Schnitt, Clem and Shannon were exporting an irreverent and profitable style of radio to the world.