Bubba the Love Sponge made a call from Tampa to Manhattan.
He was live on air this summer, and so was his friend, Sirius XM radio giant Howard Stern. The bit was funny enough, something to do with one of Bubba’s many rivals.
The interesting part, though, was an offhand comment.
“Bubba, where are you living now? Someone told me you’re living in a trailer,” Stern said. “Is that true?”
“Yeah, it’s, it’s, yeah … I lost my house.”
“Did you sell your house?”
“No, I lost it. Million dollar legal fee on this other whodunit that I did. It’s just, gah …,” Bubba trailed off.
If you were familiar with Bubba, but hadn’t listened in a while, it was a jarring thing to hear from Tampa Bay’s signature shock jock. The guy made a fortune in broadcasting, and an even bigger name through public feuds and radio stunts leading to real court cases, not to mention his prominent role in a Hulk Hogan sex tape scandal that brought down a major media company.
Even today — 11 years after it was filmed in Bubba’s mansion — the sex tape is the subject of a lawsuit against a large corporation and several high-profile personalities.
The Tampa Bay Times contacted him to ask how he’d fallen so far.
“This is probably going to be a straight burial,” Bubba says.
But after a couple weeks, he agrees to talk anyway.
“There’s really nothing you can say to take me down further than I already am.”
Bubba, it helps to know, was the first jock to apply wrestling jargon to talk radio. Like the WWE, Bubba’s is a world of “marks,” devoted fans willfully blind to theatrics, “works,” planned bits, and “shoots,” off-script moments when things get real.
The question is, which category does Bubba’s story fall into?
• • •
Love him or hate him — and he knows you probably hate him — Bubba is an icon of Tampa pop culture.
A decade ago, Bubba was making more than $2 million a year. His FM show was syndicated on stations dotting the country. His uncensored Sirius show went everywhere else.
There has been Bubba’s Beach Club, Bubba’s Ale House and Planet Bubba. You could buy a pager from Air Bubba Beepers or ride in a Love Sponge Limo. He sold Bubba Army T-shirts and tickets to Bubbapalooza.
And he was anointed by Stern, godfather of all shock jocks, who would muse on-air about how much wilder Bubba and “the boys down in Tampa” were compared to Stern’s own broadcast.
Bubba says he’s the biggest brand to ever come out of Tampa.
In reality, he has not lost his St. Petersburg mansion to the bank, at least not yet. But, like much of what happens on the air, Bubba’s Stern comments were a sensationalized version of real life.
You don’t need Bubba to tell you his career and finances are spiraling.
That “whodunit” was Nielsen suing him for $1 million for ratings tampering. They reached a confidential settlement in late July. He’s since hemorrhaged stations, losing Ocala, Orlando and Reno, Nev. in the past year, then Fort Myers and Fort Walton Beach over the summer.
Locally, he’s fallen to low-powered FM 98.3 in Pinellas County and, most humbling of all, dreaded AM in Tampa, where he’s on AM 820. He also has thousands of listeners through bubbaarmyradio.com.
The 6,367-square-foot St. Petersburg house is listed for $1.3 million. Records show he owes $47,000 in past due property taxes, and owed close to $200,000 to the IRS as of August 2018.
He tried an auction in September starting at $900,000, but got no bids. After that Bubba gave away his 10-year-old rescue pitbull, Peaches, saying he could not afford her specialized veterinary care.
“This is hard for me to admit, but ... I’ve had my water turned off,” he says. “I had to go to my neighbor, Richard Fabrizi, just to borrow a few hundred bucks to get it turned on.”
Bubba says he simply blew most of his millions, thinking it would keep coming. The rest? A divorce. Lawyers.
“If someone would just put me on a real sexy station, you’d see,” he says. “It would be the biggest comeback of all time.”
Indeed, it would be a big comeback, says Mike “Manson” Waters, 56, a Bubba co-host and writer who also voices the drugged out, sexually-crazed “Ned.” But there might not be a savior station.
“The show’s better than it has ever been,” Waters says. “But we’ve pretty much burned through all the major radio companies in this town.”
Bubba says don’t feel sorry for him.
Bubba says he takes responsibility for the Nielsen ratings scandal and role in the Hulk Hogan sex tape.
Bubba says he’s just going to put his head down and keep doing “the best show ever heard in this town.” Taking the high road, with fart jokes.
But Bubba can not exist without an enemy and a feud to sell. Not Bubba, who spent a career going toe-to-toe against state attorneys and mayors and other radio hosts, a man who can rattle off his top five enemies the second you ask him.
The top honor currently goes to Mike Calta.
The former Bubba show intern-turned-employee — Bubba claims it was his sister who dubbed him “Cowhead” — is now the leading morning man in Tampa. He’s the guy who replaced Bubba in the coveted morning time slot when Bubba was let go from 102.5 The Bone. Before that, he was the guy Bubba fired when Calta’s first child was on the way.
Bubba says Calta and Matt Loyd, a former Bubba employee known as Spice Boy, leaked the Hogan tape to get him fired.
“You have no idea. The craziest, biggest media story ever in this town. ... And the story was never told, because it had to do with me.”
Hogan, the wrestling star whose real name is Terry Bollea, is suing Calta, Loyd and Cox Radio, accusing them of having roles in leaking the sex tape that upended his career.
Bubba is screaming, my career, too.
“This guy has been given the keys to my kingdom. ... I’m to Tampa what Howard is to New York and the Grease Man is to D.C. ... And whether I get a chance to get it back will be determined.”
Calta originally said he’d like to comment for this story but changed his mind when shown some of Bubba’s comments.
“The more I see this I realize what a psychotic, narcissistic fool he is, and I don’t want to have anything to do with him,” Calta wrote in an email. ...”It’s coming from a fraudulent, backstabbing, irrelevant hack.”
• • •
Bubba the Love Sponge has four hours to fill.
At his disposal are three monitors filled with salacious student-teacher sex stories and parody songs. He has a video camera trained on his face and Pookie the yorkie sleeping near his feet.
Six o’ clock hour: “So, are you guys going to be able to muster some farts today, or what?”
Seven o’ clock hour: Co-host Tuddle takes shots of moonshine. Bubba stomps his feet in snorting laughter.
Eight o’ clock hour: Bubba hits the “dump button” to prevent a comment about condoms in a robot brothel from making it on air. Why this is an issue, and not 100 other things said this morning, is a mystery. But Bubba, once fined $755,000 by the FCC, knows the fine lines of radio obscenity rules intimately.
Nine o’ clock hour: Manson enters in drag. “Do not touch your boobs, even to adjust them,” warns a producer, lest they get kicked off Twitch, the live video platform Bubba now streams on. At that moment, 700 people are watching.
Stop here and everything’s normal. The un-woke frat party rolls on, even if the fraternity president is 52.
Bubba looks deflated as soon as he’s off the air. His eyes are smaller.
It’s the first time all day he has to slow down and think about his problems. He just played two parody songs about the many ways he’s wrecked his own life, one called Video Killed the Radio Star.
Bubba’s fails are a main theme. A recent segment listed the top 10 reasons people hate him. The time he told kids to tune in for a big announcement, then reported there was no Santa is on there. He recently pondered his fate in another segment titled, “Maybe we just suck now.”
It’s funny, but off the air, in the green room where a photo of his former best friend Hogan still hangs, Bubba doesn’t laugh.
Bubba says being on the air is “pretty much the funnest thing I get to do.”
When it’s over, he drives straight home to an empty mansion in St. Petersburg. The walls used to be covered in news stories proclaiming him “the new bad boy of radio” and announcing his multiple comebacks. Now it’s all boxed in the garage along with the framed copy of his federal trademark on the “12 boobs of Christmas.”
He doesn’t drink, but one of the only signs of life at his house is the fully-stocked wine cellar, with bottles of Heather and Bubba red leftover from his wedding to his ex-wife. Bubba says “Every white trash guy who gets money has to get a wine cellar.”
If it’s his day to have custody of his 16-year-old son Tyler, Bubba might cook dinner. Otherwise, he adjusts his king size bed until he’s angled toward the giant TV, and binges Scandal, Vice Principals and Billions, possibly with the assistance of cannabis-infused gummies, and tries to pass out as early as he possibly can.
• • •
When Todd “Bubba” Clem was 5, his mama Jane “Janie Cakes” Edmond took him along as she drove a school bus. The high school kids taught him to flip the bird at passing cars. She still laughs at that.
“He always knew what was happening and had something to say,” says Jane, who now lives in Pasco County.
Bubba says his mom was funny. His dad, a factory worker, was moody, “kind of like a gorilla. I feel like I’m a gorilla trapped in a man’s body. I have these primal instincts and I do stupid stuff.”
Bubba — captain of the football team, voted best smile but also most likely to stay in little Warsaw, Indiana — covered his high school’s steps in cow manure as a prank.
Bubba was a nightclub bouncer while attending Indiana State. In 1986, he worked driving around a local DJ. He saw men and women gravitate to “Scary Kerry Grey” like a rock star.
So Bubba got on the air in Terre Haute as “Rockin’ Bubba Clem.” Grey said Bubba soaked in female attention like a “love sponge” on air, which made Bubba furious, which made Grey say it more.
Bubba got married and it lasted 91 days. The woman wanted to live in Indiana, but a DJ has to be a journeyman. Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Antonio, Philly, Chicago again. Bubba’s wildness got him fired from all of them — often in less than 90 days.
In 1992, he landed evenings at Tampa’s FM 93.3, “the Power Pig,” a station that’s legendary in the industry for coming into the market and mercilessly trolling longtime ratings giant Q105. Power Pig was new and aggressive. They beat Q105 in less than three months.
Bubba flourished there, of course. His ratings were huge, and so was he — more than 400 pounds. He’d finally found a home.
Eventually he went all-talk, straight-up shock jock. Porn stars. Billboards. Radio wars. When he got his first big contract, for $100,000, he demanded they throw in a treadmill, just because he could. He never used it.
In 2002, he was arrested for what he says remains the No. 1 reason people hate him: allowing a hunter to castrate and slaughter a wild hog in the 98 Rock parking lot, while Bubba made jokes and played squealing pig sounds on the air. Charged with animal cruelty, a jury found him not guilty in less than an hour.
“You’re disgusting for what you did to that pig,” a stranger said to Bubba recently at Publix.
Bubba says hunters do that every day to hogs.
Bubba says he’s proud of what he’s accomplished. His foundation has raised money for families of slain police officers. He once played a message on air from a victim’s family that led to a murder arrest.
People accused him of being sexist, racist, gross and mean, but the ratings were always great. Right up until they weren’t.
According to the Nielsen lawsuit, Bubba texted a Nielsen panelist in 2015 while working for Tampa’s high-powered WBRN-FM 98.7 “I need u more than ever,” offering cash if the guy tuned in to Bubba’s show.
“I have about 10 families I’m responsible for,” Bubba says now. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure.”
• • •
Bubba met Hulk Hogan at a charity appearance in 1996. The shock jock and the pro wrestler just made sense as friends. Hogan became godfather to Bubba’s son and best man at his wedding. The friendship was mutually beneficial.
In 2006, Hogan had sex with Bubba’s then wife Heather while staying in Bubba’s guest suite. It was captured on Bubba’s video camera without Hogan’s knowledge.
The sex wasn’t unusual. According to Heather Clem’s court deposition, Bubba requested she sleep with other men, and she obliged.
Bubba later told Tampa Police at least two other sex tapes were stolen from his office at his Tampa studio along with Hogan’s. When an investigator told Heather it appeared she had positioned Hogan for the camera, she said this was Bubba’s coaching.
Hogan successfully sued Gawker out of existence for publishing the tape. Hogan vowed to continue seeking justice from all responsible.
Here’s what Hogan’s current lawsuit against Calta, Loyd and Cox Radio Inc. alleges about that leak, which damaged Hogan’s reputation not only because of the sex, but because he was recorded using the n-word: Calta and Loyd used Hogan as a pawn in a radio “vendetta” against Bubba when all three were employees of Cox’s 102.5 The Bone.
Bubba had the coveted morning time slot, and they wanted it. They also wanted revenge in a vicious radio war.
Attached as evidence in the suit are several 2012 emails. Calta sent his agent, Tony Burton, a minute-by-minute description of the Hogan sex tapes. Burton then emailed Gawker saying his client wanted to send over a DVD “anonymously.”
Loyd, meanwhile, sold excerpts to TMZ and thedirty.com, the suit claims, and, once the sex tape was on Gawker, enlisted Los Angeles attorney Keith Davidson to extort $300,000 from Hogan to stop the n-word tape from surfacing.
Hogan went to the FBI. The wrestler and his attorney met Davidson at the Sand Pearl in Clearwater and made the payoff while FBI agents secretly watched, but federal prosecutors declined to file criminal charges.
When Bubba later received taunting, anonymous tweets with photos of another missing sex tape, Tampa police went to Loyd.
The police report says Loyd admitted he’d wanted Bubba “to squirm,” telling them, “He is a very bad man and has a lot of connections ... I have seen him make a phone call and get people arrested.”
Police concluded Loyd stole the DVDs from Bubba’s office. Prosecutors, this time from Hillsborough County, again declined to charge anyone.
Loyd, according to the investigation, was paid $8,500 total for leaking the tapes to TMZ. A jury awarded Hogan $140 million from Gawker.
Hogan’s lawyers have yet to say how much money they’re seeking in the current suit, but it could be many millions. Cox owns 61 stations and is considerably larger than Gawker was.
The company, Hogan’s attorneys say, is responsible because of its role in fostering Tampa’s “shock jock culture” and the “sordid history” of “unlawful activity,” “resentment” and “desire for revenge.”
It’s hard to imagine Calta survives at Cox if the company is forced to pay a huge settlement. Bubba’s not even a party in the lawsuit. He’s watching every step, though, dreaming of such an outcome.
Bubba says he can’t just move on.
“I’ve lost pretty much my entire radio business and he’s got my show. I can’t.”
But the sex tape would never have existed if Bubba hadn’t secretly recorded his friend. Bubba would likely have faced criminal charges if the statute of limitations hadn’t run out.
By that logic, shouldn’t he pay, too?
Bubba says he agrees.
“But if I’ve been dealt this hand, I shouldn’t be the only one. Maybe both of us deserve to be done.”
• • •
Bubba spent hours on the grader at Bubba Raceway Park on a recent Saturday morning, the dirt race track he bought in Ocala so Tyler, a promising driver, could get more experience.
It doesn’t make a lot of money, but Bubba is there almost every weekend, out in horse country, surrounded by woods. On Saturday nights, a couple hundred people each pay $14 to watch the races.
Bubba must drive the slow tractor around the track hundreds of times, all morning long, to work the dirt into a surface suitable for racing. Bubba calls it an “artform,” but it’s not the kind of work the owner would normally do.
He doesn’t bring his phone, and there is no radio, just the commotion of the engine so loud you’d have to shout over it. A Bubba Army flag flies overhead. Bubba says if things with radio don’t work out, he’s going to go and work heavy equipment on construction sites. Bubba says he would love to do it.
Maybe he does want to do that. Maybe Bubba is just a regular, blue collar guy caught up in something bigger than himself. Or maybe Bubba is the executor of his own crumbling world. Maybe it’s all one of his wrestling metaphors, a “work,” a setup for a bit, and we’re all part of the joke.
But out there, mud flying, Bubba’s yearning for a quieter life seems almost believable.