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Confessions of Howard Stern’s Censor
Up Close with Dead Air Dave
By Michael Parrish

In March 2002, Dead Air Dave took on the unenviable job of being the guy that made sure no FCC objectionable material went over the airwaves during The Howard Stern Show.  “I told them I had no desire to do the job,” said Dave. “But they packaged the button-hitting with a guarantee of three airshifts a week, which, when you’re a part-timer at a station, a guarantee of a certain amount of shifts and a certain amount of money is huge. It had become clear to me by that point in time that I was not going to get a full-time airshift on the station, which was a disappointment.  But, there I was, presented with this opportunity.” So began Dead Air Dave’s foray into censorship of The Howard Stern Show.

Every morning Dave would sit in a small room, manning multiple dump buttons to ensure that naughty words, descriptions or acts the FCC would find objectionable would not make it to the airwaves. FMQB caught up with Dave for a conversation about what it was like to be the man with his finger on the dump button.

What guidelines were you given when you started the role of censoring Howard’s show?

In the beginning, [WXRK GM] Tom Chiusano was sitting in the room with me, and that was really the training.  There was no way I could just read a piece of paper or go over an old fine and suddenly know the rules. It was a long learning process and the rules were changing on a daily basis.  So, it really was a difficult job and there’s no way to easily explain to someone how it’s done.

Did they go over different FCC cases or transcripts with you?

Oh, absolutely.  I had plenty of reading material from stuff that had caused fines in the past, which was quite amazing, but a lot of it was irrelevant, as you wouldn’t get fined for it today because the rules have changed so much.  So, even that information is constantly changing.

So they never sat you down and spelled out exactly what to look for?

It was never a one-time discussion because Tom was actually in the room with me during the show for probably the first two months. The obvious stuff I already knew just from being in radio for so long.  The more complicated stuff he would explain to me as it came up. After a couple of months he knew I could fly solo and that I had a good understanding of it. Sometimes when he wasn’t in the room I would let something on the air, thinking, “That’s not going to be a problem.” He would come in and ask, “Why didn’t you hit the button on that?”  Then we would debate it, and consult with the company lawyers.  Pre-Janet Jackson, this was something we could do and actually make progress. We weren’t looking to butcher Howard’s show.  I know I wasn’t and I don’t think the company was either.  But, obviously, they didn’t want to get fined in an increasingly apprehensive climate.

How much did that change after Janet Jackson’s nipple?

Before Janet, I was able to make a split-second judgment call about what would get us fined.  Afterwards, it became increasingly difficult.  I’ll give you one example.  Before Janet, the company allowed guests and callers to say “asshole.”  Howard and the crew would have to say “a-hole,” which was silly because other radio stations and other shows were saying the word asshole, and asshole is not one of the seven dirty words. As long as you’re not talking about someone’s actual asshole, the word did not present an issue. If you’re calling someone an asshole, it wouldn’t incur a fine, but Howard was never permitted to say it. After Janet, the word was not allowed to be used on the air at all, by anyone. The ornament-clad nipple aftermath is not even close to being over on TV or radio. There was no need during this year’s halftime show for the NFL to censor Rolling Stones lyrics that have aired on regular radio with nary a fine for a quarter of a century. I think even LITE-FM plays “Start Me Up” unedited. If anything, they should have told Mick not to wear a belly shirt! Can’t we reserve those things for hot chicks?

Howard would always talk about the daily dump list. Tell me how that was put together.

I would go into Tom’s office after the show each day and we would go over everything that was dumped. Every time the button was hit I would write down the exact verbiage.  Sometimes if it was too much to write on the fly and I couldn’t remember it, I would go back and listen to the CD to make sure I got it right.  Then if there was anything we needed to call the lawyer about, we would do that.  If not, it was as simple as that.  Everyday a list would be sent to Howard of everything that was dumped so he could read it, get angry and flip out (understandably). 

Did you ever feel his wrath over something that was dumped out of the show?

Howard’s wrath? No, of course not (sarcastically).  In the beginning when he didn’t really know anything about me or what I was about, I was hauled in there. The first time it happened I felt like I was up against a wall and there was a firing squad.  I was sitting on the couch, which is the most uncomfortable place to sit if you’re not welcome, and they were just grilling and attacking. I was so shell-shocked. I had to accept the fact that people knew I was the guy sitting in the room and hitting the button. As a super-fan of Howard Stern, it was pretty depressing. I remember afterwards a nervous intern approached me with a release form for E! Television and I think I scared him silly with the horrified look of anger on my face. I did not want to see that on TV!

Were you manning the dump button when Rick Solomon made the comment that caused Clear Channel to drop Howard from the six stations they had his program on?

That was about a month after Janet’s nipple, and Tom was also in the room with me for that interview. When all that went down, I was thinking, “Man, if I was the only one in that room, I don’t know how I would have handled that.”  The interview was about Rick Solomon’s sex life, specifically with Paris Hilton.  I believe the comment Clear Channel cited as the reason to pull Howard off their stations was made by a listener calling in and asking Rick, “Ever bang a famous nigger or spic?”  The line was certainly exceedingly offensive, but it was not “indecent.” That’s the nonsensical thing to me about the FCC’s indecency laws. You can throw around the n-word along with any other racial slur you can think of, and talk about how you want to go around raping and killing people and you’ll never get a fine.  But if you say, “I’ve got to take a piss” they can fine you $27,500.  It’s ridiculous.

Post-Janet’s nipple, did Chiusano start sitting in the room with you every day?

I don’t think it was the morning after, but it was very soon after that he was in there everyday.  I was like, “Oh my God!  What happened?” I had finally gotten to a point where I was sitting back there, able to enjoy the show and make those calls. I had developed a certain level of trust with Tom and he valued my opinion. We had made huge progress, and Janet Jackson destroyed it.  After years at K-Rock, I was just trying to move my on-air career forward and I was disappointed that being involved with increasingly worse censorship was how I had to do it.

Did you consider what you were doing was censorship?

Absolutely.  There’s no way of saying it wasn’t.  I was hitting a button that would take away seconds of Howard’s show.

Did you ever dump something that in hindsight you wished you hadn’t done?

Yes, and that’s how, in the beginning, I was called into the studio to be tortured. No one’s going to be perfect making a split-second judgment call.  You don’t have a whole lot of time to decide whether or not you’re going to hit the button. 

You were the first line of defense, but each affiliate also had the show on delay. Did you have any frustrations with having that second line basically checking your work?

It's understandable that most of Howard's affiliates had their own delay button to hit on their end. In case we ran out of delay or the extremely rare case we missed an obvious bleep, they would be able to catch it and prevent it from going on their airwaves. What made me crazy was when a judgment call was made by a board-op at an affiliate over content. They would hit the button, a listener would call in to the show, Howard would think we did it locally and I would have to then go defend myself. Bottom line is how could these board-ops have more knowledge about this ridiculous subject than Tom or I? Tom was there in 1985 when K-Rock hired The Howard Stern Show. He knows the history of FCC fines and what may or may not be considered actionable better than most anyone else. A memorable example of this was in 2002, when Shepard Smith of Fox News Channel was doing a Jennifer Lopez story and perhaps had a Freudian slip when he saw her mouth on a monitor. Howard got a hold of the clip the following morning with Shepard saying: "JLo's new song 'Jenny From the Block' is all about Lopez's roots, about how she's still a neighborhood gal at heart. But folks from that street in New York, the Bronx section, sound more likely to give her a curb job than a blowjo--Or a bl-block party...." Did he say the so-called indecent word? I was sitting in that room hearing this for the first time, and of course I jumped. But you can't be that trigger-happy. I wasn't sure he had actually said the word. I listened to it again 8 seconds later after it went through the first delay machine (there were more than one), and my impulses were correct. He didn't say the word.  Some affiliate hit the button on that, a listener called in to say they didn't hear what everyone on the show was laughing about, and Howard went nuts. Can't blame him. The clip went on to become a classic, and was replayed many times on the show.   

What are you taking away from this experience and what’s next for you?

For the entire time I was a personality on K-Rock, just over seven years, we had this unique freedom and were given a level of trust that was hard to find anywhere. We were given the opportunity to take chances and try new things on the air.  If we thought it was the right thing to do, we could do it.  [Former WXRK PD Steve] Kingston said to me when I was hired, “These are the rules. If you feel like you need to break the rules, go ahead and break them, but you better have a Goddamn good reason.” That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard any program director say.  So I did that consistently, and in the last two years I took it to new levels. I thought I was doing some pretty good radio that was different. As for what’s next, I have ideas and concepts for Howard 100 on Sirius Satellite Radio.  I’ve been addicted to Howard’s channels and, of course, his uncensored show.  I’ve had several great meetings with [Head of Howard Programming] Tim Sabean.  There are a lot of really cool people at Sirius that are breaking new ground in radio. There are also a few great FM stations in NYC that I would love to do weekends on. Satellite, HD Radio, more work for everyone! The future looks bright!

For more on Dead Air Dave’s experiences at K-Rock, watch his documentary, Irritation: A Radio Saga, found at http://www.deadairdave.net/.


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