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Bubba the Love Sponge Clem has a serious side, too, tackling civic issues on the air

In a recent week, Bubba Clem took criticism over racial slurs and made headlines for helping a grandmother. Industry experts say that’s the point: “This business is about ratings and revenue.  . . .  His job is to be talked about, and it’s working.”

Times files (2008)

In a recent week, Bubba Clem took criticism over racial slurs and made headlines for helping a grandmother. Industry experts say that’s the point: “This business is about ratings and revenue. . . . His job is to be talked about, and it’s working.”

The discussion fell between jokes about whether pop star Jessica Simpson has herpes and the barely coherent ramblings of ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman.

But Tampa shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem made room on his raucous radio show recently for a serious subject, telling his listeners about plans in the state Legislature to force the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority to pay a $69 million debt that could have ruined the agency.

Ask Expressway Authority chairman Stephen Diaco, a longtime friend and onetime attorney for Clem, whether a morning show known more for talk about NASCAR and its Cinco de Mayo Super Mexican Olympics is a great showcase for civic issues, and he'll respond without hesitation.

"Does (Clem) have a sensational way of bringing these issues to the market? At times, yes," said Diaco, who appeared on a followup show to announce a compromise that reduced the payment to $19 million and to thank Clem for mobilizing his listeners, known as Bubba's Army. "But it's been very effective."

Other radio shows in the Tampa Bay market talk news and politics — including talk station WFLA-AM 970, community radio station WMNF-FM 88.5 and National Public Radio affiliate WUSF-FM 89.7. Clem's rival and WFLZ-FM 93.3 morning guy Todd "MJ" Schnitt also hosts a 3 p.m. talk show weekdays for WFLA centered on news and politics.

But commercial morning radio in the Tampa Bay market more often serves as a showcase for the superficial. So for occasional listeners to Clem's program for WHPT-FM 102.5 — which also airs in Jacksonville, Miami, Fort Myers, Orlando and Dayton, Ohio, and on Sirius XM satellite radio — it might seem a jarring contrast.

One moment, he may feature a parody song about illegal immigration called Those F------ Mexicans, They Gotta Go. The next, he's talking up local sheriffs' complaints about state legislation they say could unfairly aid bail bonds companies.

In one tumultuous week, Clem showed both sides of his radio attitude. On April 28, he confronted wrestler Kia "Awesome Kong" Stevens on fellow WHPT jock Mike "Cowhead" Calta's afternoon show with a string of profanities, calling her a "big fake black b----." (The two have clashed since Stevens objected to Clem's statements criticizing the aid America is providing to Haiti, culminating in the wrestler hitting Clem backstage at a Total Nonstop Action wrestling event; she also has accused Clem of making a profanity-laced phone call to her.) Two days later, TNA fired Clem, who had been appearing on the wrestling outfit's Spike TV broadcasts.

Just a few days after that, Clem got another lawyer pal, Kevin Hayslett, to help a 73-year-old grandmother accused of domestic battery after slapping her granddaughter for cursing at her. Charges against the grandmother were dropped after Clem dissected the case on air Tuesday, prodding the teen granddaughter to apologize on air and Hayslett to intervene.

From one Wednesday to another, Clem veered from taking criticism over racial slurs to headlines about helping a grandmother. And that, say industry experts, is exactly the point.

"We've always been fascinated by the good bad guy — the person who does good, but is no angel," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade magazine on the talk radio industry. "This business is about ratings and revenue. He's not running for office; his job is to be talked about, and it's working."

Critics say Clem's high-volume style can lead to overheated rhetoric and his exaggerated charges (rival Schnitt has filed a lawsuit against Clem, alleging "false, highly offensive and defamatory statements" made against him and his wife). The shock jock himself makes few apologies for featuring friends in his broadcasts, showcasing Diaco, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats and even wrestler Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea talking about issues in which they may be involved.

Still, there is little doubt he can wield the allegiance of his listeners like a sword, urging them to support friends, take on enemies and react to controversies with a loyalty he both values and encourages.

Clem said it's a natural transition, born from his return to free "terrestrial" radio on Cox Radio's WHPT in 2008 — humbled by a record FCC fine, firing by Clear Channel Radio and new status as a husband and father.

"I have two kids and I'm married now. I find these political situations and charitable scams things that I'm interested in," he said. "We're still some men who like locker room humor. . . . But I say things in the media nobody else will say."

But when Clem says things that are borderline sexist and racially offensive, does that outweigh the substance?

Complex questions

In a flash, Clem can list the serious subjects he has tackled, from the Expressway Authority issue to allegations Mark Lunsford was unfairly supporting himself from the foundation raised in the name of his slain 9-year-old daughter, Jessica.

Clem said his show aired questions about the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation before WTSP-Ch. 10 reporter Mike Deeson developed a story noting the St. Petersburg foundation paid Schiavo's relatives salaries equaling 64 percent of the money they raised in 2008.

"It's easy to paint Bubba with a broad brush, but he's so much more complex than people give him credit for," added Deeson, who appeared on Clem's show to talk up his story. "Obviously, his ratings are good and the demographics are demographics we're interested in. And along the way, some of those people are being exposed to something that's serious."

High-powered names such as Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink have appeared on the program. Clem's crew even created a list of recommended candidates for the 2008 elections that Bubba's Army could take to the ballot box.

When St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford quoted African-American scholar Cornel West's use of the term H.N.I.C. on Clem's show last fall, the controversy buffeted her campaign. First, Clem criticized St. Petersburg's Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, who oversees economic development in the city's predominately black neighborhoods. He called Davis the "quasi-leader of the African-Americans" and noted, "to me, it's talking down to them, that they have to have somebody to quell them and keep them in line."

Ford answered: "Actually, Cornel West has a whole explanation about the H.N.I.C. theory, and I agree with that. We don't need one spokesman for a group."

Ford, who has apologized for referencing the term H.N.I.C. (shorthand for Head Negro in Charge or a coarser term using the n-word), recently said she felt set up by the questions, blaming media reports for amplifying the issue without criticizing Clem.

"I think it was pretty clear there were some in the media who had their own purpose," she said. "The manner and antagonism with which (Clem) was speaking . . . where was the condemnation for the actual words he used? I do know (race) is a sensitive topic in our community and I'm trying to learn more about it. (But the controversy) was sensationalism and yellow journalism and let's twist the issue."

Clem said he asked the same question of St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster when he appeared on the morning show as a candidate. "If a person buries themselves by using a racial slur, that's not the person who asked the question's fault," he added.

Reaching listeners

Given that Clem's recent controversies have included posting "f--- Haiti" on Twitter, the potential pitfalls for politicians on his show seem obvious. When Don Imus got in trouble for his long history of racially inflammatory comments, critics turned on the famous faces who appeared on his show for supporting the program, and Clem still bristles over accusations that some of his on-air antics are racist.

But the bay area radio market's long slide away from local programming and local talk shows — even talk-centered WFLA-AM 970 has just two locally produced programs during the week — has created an opening for more serious subjects in unexpected places.

"When we first started back with Cox Radio, we had consultants say, 'When you discuss politics, 50 percent of your audience will not like what you're saying,' " said Brent Hatley, the producer who prepares most of Clem's news and political segments. "(But) you have to cover as many subjects as you can, especially on a show you want everybody to listen to."

Talkers publisher Harrison agreed: "Politics are invading pop culture. Don't be surprised if you see more (radio hosts) doing this kind of thing, because . . . it works very well."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report, which contains information from Times files. Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.

Bubba the Love Sponge Clem has a serious side, too, tackling civic issues on the air 05/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 7:12pm]
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