Howard Stern hijinks hit land of tea and crumpets

A boom in UK radio stations over past six years is largely thanks to US- style 'shock jocks.'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Over the airwaves of Britain, a clash is being played out between traditional genteelness and modern vulgarity .

Rude radio hosts - "shock jocks" of the type popular in America - have debuted as the most controversial part of a wave of more than 300 new commercial stations.

While they may be hits with younger audiences, some listeners are horrified.

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Britain's broadcast watchdogs have warned station executives that new research proves listeners don't like what they are hearing from the aggressive new breed of loose-lipped show hosts.

"The thread of the research is that people don't want to see radio abused by its presenters," said Martin Campbell, the director of programming for the Radio Authority (RA), which licenses commercial stations.

A spokesman for Radio One, however, scoffed at the survey of 2,000 listeners, saying: "Our audience is increasing, which proves that listeners aren't turning off. There is nothing to repent about."

Nonetheless, two weeks ago Sara Cox, Radio One breakfast host, drew complaints from listeners for making sexually explicit comments about a fellow-presenter during a show listened to by some 7 million people. She had to apologize on-air.

Some months ago a disc jockey encouraged a schoolboy to be rude about his teacher and advised him: "Throw your teacher to the sharks."

The teacher complained to the government-funded Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), which agreed that the item had treated her unfairly.

The teacher isn't the only listener fed up with an aggressive new breed of loose-lipped show hosts who try to pattern their microphone style on American radio "shock jocks."

The RA and the BSC, which monitors output, point to their survey of listeners, who decried foul language, sexual references, and insulting comments to callers on air.

The Radio Authority plans to hold a seminar with commercial station executives in the fall to "remind them of what listeners in this survey are saying about their output."

Culture Ministry officials are reported to have privately warned commercial broadcasters that they may lose their licenses if they ignore the survey's findings.

About half of those polled said that if they hear something offensive they switch off or retune. Eighty-five percent thought on-air swearing during the day should be banned outright. And fifty-six percent said children were being exposed to offensive material while listening to the car radio during the morning school run.

Listener Julia Kelly was enraged by what she heard recently while driving her six-year-old son Ian to school in Wandsworth, southwest London.

A female breakfast show host on Radio One, the British Broadcasting Corporation's most popular audio channel, had just made what Ms. Kelly called "a joke dripping with sexual innuendo."

"Ian asked me to explain it," she says, "and, frankly, I couldn't. Nor should I have to try. I intend to complain to the BBC."

Two other mothers at the curbside who overheard her comments encouraged her to do so.

But Kelly's intention to complain to the BBC about what her infant son had just heard on morning radio may not get her very far.

A call by this reporter to the BBC about the broadcast produced a negative response. The female presenter was "not available for comment."

The spokesman for Radio One said: "I can't see anything to object to in the words she used. We have strict guidelines on such matters, and we adhere to them."

Other stations are equally unapologetic about the new breed of programming.

A spokeswoman for XFM, a London commercial station which in January was fined 50,000 ($75,780), for broadcasting a phone-in on bestiality, said the station had "no comment to make" about the survey.

Stonewalling is unlikely to impress the radio watchdogs, however. Stephen Whittle, director of the BSC, says he wants "the basic human values of respect and dignity" to continue to be "an important part of radio output.

It's only in the past decade that parents like Kelly have had to worry about the airwaves turning blue.

Until the early 1990s, shock jocks were unknown in Britain.

John Beyer, director of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, a self-financing watchdog body with many thousands of members, believes that until the early 1990s, British radio broadcasts offered "little that anyone could object to."

"The BBC's public stations, plus a tiny number of commercial stations," he says, "were the only radio outlets, and they limited themselves to playing popular music and airing polite discussions. But now we have a starburst of commercial stations, and standards have plunged."

This month in London alone eight new stations were launched, bringing the total nationwide to over 300. In many cases US-style radio hosts have pushed aside the staid and sober presenters of yesteryear.

But unlike their American counterparts, Britain's radio hosts are forbidden to talk party politics on-air - tough laws ban them from broadcasting their political views.

Instead, Mr. Beyer says, they resort to "questionable tactics."

Evidence of those tactics is piling up on the public record. Soon after the BBC began employing aggressive hosts, including women, it found itself in hot water.

In the mid-1990s BBC executives disciplined Radio One breakfast host Zoe Ball for using four-letter words and employing sexual innuendo. She later resigned.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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