A Short History of Opie & Anthony’s Jocktober

opie-anthonyEach day in Jocktober, which takes place in October, Opie & Anthony producer Sam Roberts picks a different radio show from around the country and then the show spends an hour diagnosing exactly what makes that oh-so-zany “morning zoo”-style show so shitty. Jocktober is like if Warner Herzog or the Coen Brothers spent a month each year just attacking movies like Paul Blart and Mortdecai — but also explaining the conventions of why they are so bad. Wouldn’t that make the film industry better? Wouldn’t it at least be entertaining? At least one of those things, yes.

Exaggerating the characteristics of drive-time radio, interrogating the conventions of the radio industry, is a way to ask: Why do people act this way? If this sounds familiar to improv people, it should: the goals are exactly the same, they just go about it in different ways. The work of improv is to excavate some truth of a situation and then heighten it to show why it’s funny, like some kind of fiendish archeological dig. Opie and Anthony, on the other hand, prefer to throw the entire situation into a giant rock tumbler to shake the dirt off of it and leave the fossils of truth at the end. Sure, some delicate things might get broken, but if they were that delicate, then how valuable were they in the first place?

The public at large pigeonholes Opie & Anthony as those terrible zany “morning zoo”-style DJs. But there’s a difference. Gregg “Opie” Hughes gives a shit when it’s done badly. Around the tenth day of every Jocktober, Opie and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the crew, kind of reach a point where it’s not longer even fun to mock these shows. Like Radiohead turning its back on Creep, it hurts them too much. Radio hosts, by and large, the targets of Jocktober, do nothing but play Creep. Here are some examples:

• “War of the Roses” is a standard phone prank where a guy is tricked into sending flowers to his mistress, only to be caught by his wife or girlfriend, who is secretly also on the phone. This might be a slightly interesting scenario if it was real. Thing is, there’s FCC fines for broadcasting people live without their consent. All those people are actors. (Where do they get the actors? At UCB, for one, where I’d get casting notices, at $50 a call.) Somehow, stations continue to fill time with this dreck.

“The Fugitive” is a radio bit since time immemorial used to give away cash prizes and concert tickets and thereby generate publicity for the radio station. The scenario goes: a fugitive “broke into the station” and “stole $5,000” and is “on the run.” DJs give clues to the fugitive’s whereabouts like a crossword puzzle and the listener who is able to crack the code gets the tickets or cash if they can track him down. Think about that for a minute: you’re asked to confront a dangerous criminal, first of all, which is a bizarre idea in modern society if anyone actually cared enough to think about it, which nobody actually does. Have you ever participated in a radio bit like this? Do you know anybody who has? No, because nobody ever does. These contests are white noise. Any radio DJ will tell you only like five die-hard “contest pigs” in any market actually participate in these and all the “you’re the 75th caller” or “here’s an email from a listener” stuff is completely invented. The Fugitive is to Opie Hughes what Creep is to Thom Yorke. It’s so overdone and hacky and just plain lazy that it’s painful to his ears and to his soul. Bad news, Opie had better not watch any McDonald’s commercials for the next few months, because the Hamburglar has STOLEN SOME HAMBURGERS!!!! And he’s ON THE RUN!!!!!!!

But where do these bits come from? Why does everyone seem to have the same ideas about how a radio show should be run? It’s almost as though every show has the same writers! That’s a trick, because there are no writers in radio. There are however services like Prepburger.

Prepburger and other services like it license content, like The Fugitive and War of the Roses, and the other, smaller, refillable formats that allow shows to comment on topical events, to any radio show who can pay. That’s why every morning show in every market is indistinguishable white noise. They’re literally saying the exact same thing. It’s like that part of Going Clear that talks about L. Ron Hubbard as a sci-fi writer where he’s like “never write any character who has not appeared in that magazine before. Realism or originality is the enemy,” or something like that, I wasn’t listening that hard.

One element that continues to be at the heart of a lot of programming philosophies is localness. With the advent of huge national radio shows like Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony, smaller market shows were forced to use what they had to stay relevant. They literally did stuff like hang up signs in studios that reminded jocks to “Stay Local” and talk about the stuff in the town, or inject specifics about the nearby highway, or talk about local news stories. Which is fine, but can come at the cost of prioritizing actually stimulating conversation. Focusing on trying to work the name of the local mall into your story is completely missing the point that people don’t give a shit what specific you use, the important thing is you’re talking about things that are honest and immediate and you’re good at talking.

With this comes another kind of set of considerations like weather updates, sports and news updates, and this weird need to supply all this information to listeners that nobody ever needs to get from a radio show again. When is the last time you turned on the radio to find out a weather report? Never. Nobody under 80 does that. When is the last time you turned on the radio for the results of last night’s Dancing with the Stars or Monday Night Football game? Never. Nobody would ever do that, but these are the marching orders.

Nothing encapsulates what Jocktober is about better than the name itself. “Jocktober” refers to the seemingly universal cliché where every radio show calls the month of October “Rocktober” and makes all these loud promos about it and hypes it up and makes this huge deal about how they play [radio station bro voice – you know the one] the most rock out of any station and October is going to rock so hard. But then they just PLAY EXACTLY THE SAME FUCKING SONGS THEY NORMALLY DO. The sound and fury, etc. To quote Anthony Cumia circa 2009: “There’s all this energy… but it’s all wasted energy. It’s like sitting in your driveway in neutral and just gassing it.”

On each of these shows, you can go down the line and see nearly identical line-ups of hosts: 40-ish “funny guy” and the woman obviously under orders to inject “the woman’s perspective.” Their relationship is that it’s not quite clear if they’re married or not and they know to keep it that way. Then there’s the younger “edgier” guy who talks about going out drinking and does wacky stunts to keep the younger demo engaged.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the first ever Jocktober episode was actually and explicitly inspired by a jock on some other show chastising O&A for, “not [having] anything to talk about, so they just talk about their real lives.”

And so, like NutraSweet, Jocktober was invented by accident. Even die-hard Pests might forget that when The Show went after 97.1 ZHT’s Morning Zoo on October 1, 2008, it was based on bad intelligence from a listener, that Frankie and Danger Boy were “talking shit” about the show.

The damage was done. Opie & Anthony had “napalmed the wrong village” as Anthony replacement Jim Norton put it.

But in the process, they realized that there were a lot of little villages out there that deserved napalming. Enough, in fact, to sustain the heady fall tradition of Jocktober for the next six or seven years… depending on how you count.

Anthony and Jim Norton supplied the bulk of the comedic voice, historically, and Opie was the point guard who kept things on track, but Jocktober really gave Opie’s voice a time to shine. He’s a student of radio and prides himself on knowing its history and the theory behind why it works, so he particularly hates seeing it done badly. And he’s usually thought of as almost the heart of the show, where Anthony or Jim make the really dirty, cutting jokes about child molesting or how fat/skinny/old/young/famous/washed up/etc. someone is. But there are moments every once in a while where Opie is suddenly just enormously cruel and you realize… this show has no heart. When the moral compass of the show blows up, Jocktober is like a some kind of Bermuda Triangle nightmare.

Case in point: Jim Chandler. One morning, the boys were making fun of a show called Woody & Jim on 1075 The River in Nashville, TN. It turns out, however, that “Jim” was Opie’s college friend Jim Chandler. They were radio partners in his college days at SUNY Geneseo. They both had big radio dreams and were committed to the college station to such a degree that they stayed to run it together during the summer. One of Opie’s stories is that they once both rushed to the station during a thunderstorm to set up microphones next to an open window to record some real thunder for the on-air promos. And now here he was, on top of the radio world, pointing out to his huge audience how his friend was reduced to this shitty hack in Tennessee. Opie says he still tries to make peace, but to this day Jim won’t speak to him. You as a listener can’t exactly tell how much of this is genuine, heartfelt contrition and how much is heartless Opie trying to keep the bit alive, and you get the sense that Jim Chandler can’t either. At any rate, you can witness a real decades-long relationship completely destroy itself on the air. Isn’t that better than two actors pretending to do a prank phone call?

The early years of Jocktober, starting in 2008, was a very particular era for shock jocks. Satellite radio allowed them to be out from under the thumb of the FCC, but it was still before the Internet progressed to the point where personalities are really accountable for what they say. All these shows were just lost to the ether, but now everyone knows that everything’s permanent and the internet is forever. For that reason, I’d argue that there’s two distinct periods of Jocktober: 2008-2011 and 2011-present.

It was during the first period, 2008-2011, when they really learned how to effectively use social media as a tool for mischief. In the Jocktober of 2008, there were some mentions of sending “pictures of roosters” to email addresses and administrators of the official sites of different stations, as well as the long-standing tradition of listeners bombarding any station mentioned on-air with horrific phone calls.

But soon enough, Opie and Anthony walking into the studio was basically like the pilots in Pacific Rim climbing into those huge robots. They could get on mic and command their huge social media following to destroy whatever target they pleased. So each day in Jocktober would go like this: they’d announce the name of that day’s show, and then the clock started until “phase 1 is complete,” which means the show was forced to disable posts on their Facebook wall. Then began phase two, where listeners would leave the most vile, disgusting jokes and pictures on the comments of the Facebook wall. That went on until Phase 2 was complete—as in, the entire Facebook page had to be deleted.

This seems like it took place back in some era when cyberbullying was a more innocent thing. Maybe “innocent” is the wrong word for spamming a Facebook page with hundreds of pictures of a man eating shit or a terrifying bus accident, but there was certainly a time when you could say “hey, just unplug the computer if it’s too much!!” and really believe it. But as we entered the more recent era, though, social media began to fragment even more and bleed into people’s “real” lives, until finally, coincidentally very near Jocktober 2014, the whole GamerGate thing happened and everyone kind of realized, hey, maybe even radio station cyberbullying isn’t just good clean fun.

It’s only fun to pick on people who are going to fight back, and there were only so many shows big enough and also willing to defend their horrible radio. Also, there are only so many times you can say “this is bad.” In 2014, Jocktober was almost forgotten, until at the end of the month, when a handful of shows happened. Thank god for Todd Pettengill or the whole thing might’ve been a wash. And yet, the passion seemed gone.

On the last day of Jocktober, Opie & Anthony turned the focus on themselves, because after all, they’d be just as hacky as Terry Clifford if they didn’t call out their own shortcomings. This usually consisted of listening to some old shows from their Boston days or early in New York and pointing out flaws. Personally, I have to say that one definite flaw in the Opie & Anthony Show was that one of them liked to go on racist tirades that ended up on the front page of the newspapers.

But this isn’t about Anthony, it’s about Jocktober. And if you’re saying that he shouldn’t be on the radio anymore, then here is some good news for you: he’s not. Jocktober remains a fascinating cultural artifact. I was listening to one of these shows with a friend once and her reaction was, “How can you listen to these? It’s… so funny.” I think she meant just how decadent the kind of humor is in O&A in general, and then Jocktober in particular. They’re responding to this shitty, watered down entertainment, so they purposely make their show the most sugary, rich product possible. It was like they were getting mad that someone’s Kool-Aid is weak and doesn’t have enough sugar, so you dump 10x too much sugar in it. Jocktober was the most high-proof, premium-grade version of O&A’s cartoon-cruel comedic voice possible. Here’s Jim Norton, in response to some DJ’s boring story about finding a piece of old tin foil in his grandmother’s house:

So I said to my grandma “what do you need this for?” and it’s a book called How to Deal with an Unfunny Grandson. She had dementia, the old bag. I said to her, “what do you need this for?” and it’s a shoe with a plant in it. “What do you need this for?” and it’s an orderly holding a pillow: the Angel of Death has arrived! “What do you need this for?”—it’s the Grim Reaper’s number on speed dial. Drop dead, you old bag of meat. Screw you and screw that burden you call a grandmother. “Ooh she had tin foil from the 30s!!” Well you should’ve touched her teeth with it. […] And this guy said the Saran wrap was disgusting?? There’s nothing disgusting about Saran wrap!!… unless your best-of CD was wrapped in it.

That’s some decadent meanness right there. Even if you’re into that kind of thing, it’s still mostly enjoyable in small doses.

Shortly after Anthony got fired in July of 2014, comedian and frequent guest Joe DeRosa compared the freedom of speech to the right to eat as much candy as you wanted. Sure, the thinking goes, knock yourself out, but if you eat too much, eventually you’re going to get sick. Looking through this lens, SiriusXM’s decision to fire Anthony was like Bloomberg’s decision to ban large sodas. Sure, you can drink this sweet, decadent soda, but it’s in the interest of everyone concerned that you don’t literally drink all of it.

Probably good thinking. But if you are so inclined, every episode of Jocktober is right here.

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