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Radio jock, critic still agree to disagree

To be honest, part of me hoped he would react like any typical blowhard radio shock jock, spewing profanities and insults in a transparent attempt to guard his pride and pretend he had the upper hand.

But Russ Rollins wouldn't play it that way.

From his perspective, his Monsters of the Morning radio show has always been about good-natured, high-spirited, Southern-drenched fun. So when his bosses at Clear Channel announced Jan. 5 that they were taking the Orlando-based show off the air in Tampa _ five months after I'd commented that its hosts tossed around racial epithets far too casually on air _ Rollins was still ready to agreeably disagree.

"I don't believe they gave us a chance," Rollins said about the Clear Channel executives in Tampa, who first tapped Monsters for the morning slot at WXTB-FM 97.9 (98 Rock) when the company ousted shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem after a record indecency fine.

Back then, Monsters was the chosen one _ a show Clear Channel was positioning to anchor the most important radio slot in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa Bay. The only problem: steady use of racial epithets such as "spic," "jigaboo," "fag" and "nigra" as punch lines in jokes.

"They promised us the world . . . TV commercials, billboards _ and then after the article came out, they really pulled back and didn't do anything they said they would do," said Rollins, who theorizes that Clear Channel was spooked because St. Petersburg's City Council had criticized the show. "It's not like we're sitting around dying to take a racial joke. And Howard Stern, seems like he uses the n-word every day."

Rollins, who started in radio in 1993, had heard my arguments before. He knew my contention that, regardless of intent, their jokes only fuel stereotypes, giving bigots the sense that the community supports their worldview.

Worse, they create a media environment that echoes the classic insults and misinformation used to subjugate women and people of color for centuries. Some Monsters fans screamed about oversensitivity, noting that this black columnist wrote a story that inspired a black City Council member and the head of St. Petersburg's NAACP to pressure Clear Channel on the matter.

But how do you explain to a guy who has never been called the n-word what it feels like to hear a similar word coming out of your radio at the butt end of a crass joke?

That's the seductive nature of stereotypes and prejudice. They can come in easygoing clothes, repeated by nice guys who are convinced they don't have any motive other than making you laugh.

Indeed, Rollins now says he regrets removing the racial epithets from the show, a move ordered by Clear Channel after the Monsters were forced into sensitivity training last July.

"I think we should have kept doing what we do, . . . stood a little stronger for ourselves," he said, noting that the show still airs in Orlando and Jacksonville. "People who didn't know the show didn't know the context. Everyone freaked out."

Described by the Orlando Sentinel as resembling "a trailer park version of 'N Sync," the Monsters show is a group effort, including Rollins, Dirty Jim, Bubba "Whoopass" Wilson, Sexy Savannah, Jeff Howell, Daniel Dennis and Blackbean. The show often features its characters celebrating white rural culture, with jokes about sex, beer, pranks and partying.

And despite Rollins' claims of missing context, its use of racial slurs was as blunt as the words themselves, with black and brown people regularly depicted as venal, sex-obsessed simpletons (along with so-called "rednecks," true enough). Nice as he was over the telephone, I wasn't sad to see Rollins' material yanked off the air here in Tampa, though I wondered how long it might take the Monsters to resurrect their old tricks in other cities.

Their shtick recalled the bad old days of Tampa Bay radio, when Mark Larsen regularly offered his antigay "Humpday" news segments every Wednesday, Bubba the Love Sponge presented verbal jousts with a mentally challenged fan called "Wake Up a Retard" and the long-gone Ron & Ron show offered fake "Week in Race" reports supposedly delivered by a former Ku Klux Klan wizard named Whitey.

Moving here eight years ago from the New York area _ home of shock jock Stern, it's true _ I couldn't believe the level of knuckleheaded nonsense that filled local airwaves. Sure, area radio stations still hand out the occasional breast augmentation on air, but things have gradually gotten better for gays, people of color and women on the airwaves.

At times, it feels like an accident. Certainly, a Republican-dominated FCC has focused mostly on the sex jokes that so infuriate their conservative supporters; only public pressure can curb the kinds of misogynist, homophobic or racist material that so many trafficked in just a few years ago.

Whatever the cause, the extreme examples cited above are now gone. And now women's health advocates are criticizing the contests for free breast augmentation offered by Clear Channel stations in Tampa and three other cities through a contest dubbed the "Breast of Christmas." (Is anyone thick enough to believe Clear Channel's contention that local station managers cooked up this multicity promotion without the corporation's approval?)

Despite itself _ and with Clear Channel steadfastly refusing to take responsibility for what it airs on its 1,200 stations _ Tampa's radio culture seems to be growing up, just a little.

Got to admit, that's not a bad way to start a new year.