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Bubba the Love Sponge, Todd 'MJ' Schnitt square off in bad-boy radio trial

Published Jan. 12, 2013

TAMPA — For the next three weeks, a Hillsborough County courtroom will host a surreal medley of bad-boy radio's greatest hits: a turkey fire, a swine slaughter, "whore scores," Bubba's Army and a bald Britney Spears on billboards.

A strange cavalcade of stars will be on parade as well. Witness lists include dozens of media personalities — including disgraced former Tribune Co. chief executive Randy Michaels — plus a Tampa breast implant surgeon, Hills­borough's top prosecutor, and assorted radio characters with such names as Jabberjaw, Cowhead and 25 Cent.

Don't fret that Hulk Hogan was left out.

He's on the list, too.

The interior world of shock-jock radio — described by one witness as "Jon Stewart meets South Park meets Jackass" — is the centerpiece of a defamation lawsuit brought by Todd "MJ" Schnitt against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. The five-year-old case file is 38 volumes long and weighs hundreds of pounds.

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.

A big judgment for Schnitt could bring to an ignominious end the "shock jock" style of programming developed in Tampa Bay in which all-out "radio wars" and harsh pranks between rivals were once commonplace.

And even if Clem is cleared, the trial, which starts Monday, will disclose many of the secret tricks and embarrassing scandals behind the careers of two longtime titans.

"If I lose this," Clem said in an interview Friday, "it's going to be very disturbing for people who do what we do." Through his lawyers, Schnitt declined to be interviewed.

In depositions, Clem has already admitted that most of his accusations against his rival weren't true, and Schnitt has admitted that parts of his own broadcasts were faked, including some of his signature "crotchety calls," where he pretended to be an old man calling businesses with oddball questions.

The fact that all this has resulted from a lawsuit filed by Schnitt, once the top practitioner of the form, may be the biggest irony of all.

But it all seems to have started over a pig.

Clem had left Tampa in 2004 after being fired by Clear Channel Communications in the wake of FCC fines for objectionable sexual content on his shows. He spent a four-year exile on satellite radio.

When brought back to Tampa by Cox Radio in 2008, he vowed revenge, not for the FCC fines, but for a sensational criminal prosecution in 2001.

Clem had stood trial for slaughtering and barbecuing a wild boar on his radio show. He claimed that Schnitt's wife, an assistant state attorney, conspired with State Attorney Mark Ober to bring animal cruelty charges.

Clem was acquitted, but after returning to local broadcasting on Cox's WHPT-FM (102.5), he targeted Schnitt, the then-top rated morning guy on his MJ Morning Show at WFLZ-AM (93.3). He called him, among other things, "a lying piece of crap." He called Schnitt's wife, Michelle, a "whore."

Clem and Cox Radio executives said trash-talking is time-honored in radio wars. Listeners, they said, understand that and don't take it seriously. In depositions, Clem said he was just trying to get a reaction from Schnitt.

"All of this is tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, he's not really a piece of crap."

Jay O'Connor, the former top executive for Cox in the Tampa market who hired Clem, said Clem is simply better than anyone else at the art of outrageousness. "Bubba is a master of hyperbole," he said. "He's probably the best I've heard at that type of humor.

"It's all about driving up the negative rating on the other guys. It's no different than how a presidential election is won today."

The tactics worked. Clem took over as the No. 1 personality on morning radio.

But Schnitt's lawsuit claims Clem went beyond hyperbole by accusing Schnitt of illegal acts — such as rigging Arbitron ratings and fixing radio contests and engaging in "plugola," the banned practice of plugging businesses in exchange for favors or gifts. Clem predicted Schnitt would be indicted on federal racketeering charges.

Schnitt also contends that Clem exhorted his army of listeners to go after Schnitt physically.

"We are so obsessive," witnesses say Clem told Bubba's Army. "We are seek and destroy. I will not be happy until we have an MJ funeral in the streets of Tampa. … Seek and destroy. We don't put people down. We break their necks."

Schnitt and his wife said such declarations led to four ugly encounters.

In the worst, they said, they were forced to the shoulder on the Courtney Campbell Parkway by a couple swerving toward their car. "They were hanging out of the car," Schnitt said, "screaming obscenities, Bubba this, Bubba that, all kinds of profanities."

The Schnitts also said their house was egged, they were harassed at dinner in Sarasota, and Schnitt was roughed up while handing out beads in a Gasparilla parade.

Part of Clem's defense is that Schnitt stands guilty of similar antics. His attorneys cite Schnitt's own run-in with the law in 2009.

That year, his MJ Morning Show crew used a crane to drop a turkey carcass through the open roof of a van that had a vat of burning oil inside. Clear Channel broadcast the whole thing. When the turkey reached the pot, flames engulfed the van.

Clem's attorneys will also remind the jury that Schnitt issued "whore scores" on his program, that he labeled Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan "the Four Whores of Hollywood," and posted a photo of Spears with a shaved head on billboards under the heading "Nut Jobs."

Schnitt also has parodied himself, once jokingly suggesting that someone else fathered his daughter and telling listeners his wife had a "tramp stamp," a tattoo on her backside.

Those acts, Clem's lawyers say, make Schnitt "comparatively negligent." But one thing Schnitt didn't do — he never threatened Clem or accused him of crimes.

Instead, he sued.

Clem's lawyers will tell jurors that none of this matters, that Schnitt and his wife, who often participated in his shows, were fair game as public figures, that there was no malice, that any defamatory statements are "pure opinions, rhetorical exaggeration or hyperbole that reasonable listeners would not consider to be true."

Schnitt's attorneys will argue that Michelle Schnitt is not a public figure and that Clem had "malicious intent."

The harder part for the Schnitts will be showing that, besides the harassment, they actually suffered any tangible harm. He has not claimed that Clem caused him to lose air time on radio stations.

Evidence in the case's 38 volumes — crammed into six large cardboard boxes —mostly consists of every shock jock's stock-in-trade: