American shock jock Bubba The Love Sponge is back in the news after scandalous comments that Fox News host Tucker Carlson made on his show a decade ago have been unearthed. This is the second time that Bubba’s weird name has cropped up in a significant media story – so it’s maybe worth us explaining who he is, and why someone named after a ineffective spunk mop has become such a big deal.
There was once a time when all a British gossip newsletter would have to say about a Florida DJ who legally changed his name to “Bubba The Love Sponge” is just that: that there’s a DJ in Florida called “Bubba The Love Sponge”.
Now though, because the entire world has gone absolutely fucking doolally, Bubba The Love Sponge has become a weirdly significant figure in the world of media, politics and law. In the last few years, he has become tightly entwined in two fairly major stories regarding freedom of speech, the ethics of journalism and the limits of a personal right to privacy.
While the more traditional news outlets are understandably a little reticent to cover stories about a man who named himself after a contraceptive cum sop with any real gravity, one publication that would have really done this story justice was Gawker.
However, thanks in no small part to Bubba himself (and his personal penchant for cuckoldry), Gawker no longer exists.
Now there’s another media organisation at risk of suffering some serious collateral as a result of something else Bubba The Love Sponge caught on tape – and this time it’s on the other side of the political spectrum. A series of controversial comments that Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson made a decade ago on Bubba’s old radio show have recently re-emerged and the fallout has caused a number of advertisers to pull their sponsorship from the embattled network.
How has it happened that the Florida shock jock who inadvertently took down a liberal New York gossip blog might now also be the one to land a huge hole in conservative media behemoth Fox News?
We’ll try to explain…
Baby Bubba: The Early Years
Bubba The Love Sponge’s career in radio originally began as a joke.
In the mid-80s (when he was better known to people by his birth name, Todd Clem) Bubba was working as a bouncer at an Indiana nightclub, Jubilation. It was there that he became friendly with a local radio DJ who regularly attended Jubilation’s weekly ‘Naughty Nightie’ contests – Kerry Gray.
Bubba was quickly drawn into Gray’s inner circle and soon became a permanent presence in WPFR’s studios. Answering phones, sitting in on broadcasts – doing anything he could until he was given his break.
The break came on April 1st 1986. As an April Fool’s Day joke, Gray arranged it for Bubba to host a shift on air under the moniker Rockin’ Bubba Clem. The performance ended up landing him some hosting work on WPFR’s weekend shifts, before he was given his first proper weekday slot (albeit on Christmas Day) that same year.
From there, he kept on climbing. Over the next five years, he would move from station to station, from state to state, whipping up a CV of alphabet soup – including stints on WGRD (Michigan), KTFM (Texas), WBBM (Illinois), WIOQ (Pennsylvania), WXXL (Florida), WLUM (Wisconsin) and others.
Not every one of these moves was made entirely out of choice. For example, Bubba got fired from WGRD in Grand Rapids, Michigan after a spat he had with rival radio host, Danny Czekalinski, turned a little ugly on air. Bubba had already lost the station a sponsor for making jokes about Czekalinski having AIDS, so when he took a call from a 13 year old girl on air and started making suggestions that she was in a sexual relationship with Czekalinski, bosses weren’t slow to call him into their office.
He was gone within 24 hours.
Compared to the sorts of things that he would get hauled over the coals for across the rest of his career, however, this incident is relatively small fry. Among the complaints that the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC; effectively America’s Ofcom) has upheld against Bubba The Love Sponge are:
• The time Bubba broadcast a call with a woman who was masturbating with her phone (1997; fined $4,000)
• The time Bubba broadcast an on-air enema (1997, fined $4,000)
• The time Bubba broadcast the “Roadkill Barbecue Special”, a show in which a feral pig was castrated alive, slaughtered then grilled live on air (2001; taken to federal court on charges of animal cruelty alongside his producer and two others – all of whom were eventually cleared)
And, perhaps the most impressive feather in his cap:
• The time Bubba broadcast lewd descriptions of sexual activity with/between Alvin And The Chipmunks, George and Jane Jetson, and Scooby Doo (2001; fined $755,000)
Bubba was eventually fired for that one (two and a half years later, when the FCC actually got round to issuing the fine) but it wasn’t just for talking about cartoon bestiality. There were other factors at play by that point. While he had been causing mischief on air for over a decade in Tampa, the world had been changing.
Shock jocks had been all the rage in 90s and early 2000s. The most notorious personalities earned millions of dollars each year and the networks loved them. But when the FCC declared a wide-ranging crackdown on broadcast indecency after the infamous Janet Jackson nipple slip at the Super Bowl in 2004, those same network bosses became a lot less cavalier in their attitudes to their near-the-knuckle talent.
The odd $4,000 fine incurred for discussing lesbian orgies on air was something they had happily soaked up before. It was the cost of doing business in radio (and paid for itself in free publicity). But three quarters of a million for talking about Alvin and the Chipmunks getting their bone on? That was the sort of risk network media companies just couldn’t afford to take.
Luckily for Bubba, he wasn’t the only one who found himself canned in the wake of the FCC crackdown.
So was shock jock supremo Howard Stern.
Widely considered to be the master of controversial radio, Howard Stern is the person who usually makes the type of headlines that Bubba The Love Sponge has been making this last week.
Stern’s knack for getting illicit and outrageous soundbites out of even the most image-conscious celebrities on his show is unparalleled. It was on the Howard Stern show, for example, that Donald Trump suggested that he could have “nailed” Princess Diana; jokingly suggested that he deserved a Congressional Medal of Honor for the number of women he’d shagged without a johnny; and confessed that he’d regularly walk into the changing rooms of the Miss Universe pageants to get a good look at all the contestants naked.
We found out on The Howard Stern Show that Mariah Carey fucks to the sound of her own music, that Madonna dated Tupac, that Billy Joel had tried heroin, that Gaga wrote her album on coke – the list goes on.
Stern ended up getting suspended from some major stations in February 2004 after an interview he conducted with Rick Salomon about the sex tape he made with Paris Hilton strayed onto the topic of anal sex. Later in the same episode, a listener calling in used the n-word on air. The show attracted a fine of $495,000.
Coming three weeks after Janet Jackson’s tit was popped out on live TV, and one month after Bubba The Love Sponge’s record-breaking $755,000 fine, this was proving to be a rather pricey time for Clear Channel Communications who took the brunt of all three of those hits. They didn’t fancy taking any further chances with Stern, so yanked him from their channels.
Although Stern was eventually reinstated, he hated this new zero-tolerance policy to indecency, so made plans to move elsewhere: to Sirius Satellite Radio.
Satellite radio – much like cable TV – was a non-terrestrial medium and therefore fell outside the purview of the FCC, meaning he would be free to talk about whatever he wanted to without any watchdogs meddling (or, crucially, imposing any eye-watering fines).
For a host like Howard, shifting to satellite was the perfect solution. It also became the perfect solution for the long-term-unemployed Bubba, as Stern gave The Love Sponge a new show on one of his Sirius channels.
The brand new Bubba The Love Sponge Show debuted in early January 2006. Not long after, TV news pundit Tucker Carlson (who, at the time, was working for MSNBC) began calling in, cheerily helping to fill the odd hour of Bubba’s airtime with exactly the sort of outspoken opinions he has since made his very lucrative name on.
(NB: If you haven’t yet seen the outrage caused by Carlson’s resurfaced comments about jailed child sex offender Warren Jeffs, child brides, paedophile teachers, Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, Hillary Clinton, Alexis Stewart, women in general, the population of Iraq and others, then there are a hundred different places that can get you up to speed.)
With Bubba’s show now safely out of the FCC’s reach, these sorts of outrageous comments were broadcast to very little commotion. It made for a stark change from his days on terrestrial radio, where Bubba would get his knuckles rapped and issued a $7K fine for giving airtime to someone who was trying to order a sex doll. On satellite radio, he could broadcast a well-known MSNBC pundit making the case for underage marriage and felony rape live on air – and all to the sound of crickets.
Little did Tucker and Bubba know that they were sowing the seeds of a scandal that would only erupt ten years down the line – but Tucker would only prove to be one part of Bubba’s problems.
2006 ended up being a very significant year for The Love Sponge. Not only was it the year that he first started the Sirius show that is currently under such scrutiny, 2006 was also the year he made another important decision.
It was the year he let Hulk Hogan fuck his wife.
Back On Top
We have written plenty about the subsequent court case that the Hulk Hogan sex tape scandal led to, but to skip through the major plot points of it all:
• In 2006, depressed at the prospect of his impending divorce, Hulk Hogan became increasingly dependent on the love and support of his best friend, Bubba The Love Sponge – regularly paying miserable, mopey visits to his house.
• During one such visit chez Sponge, Hogan found himself tempted into bed with Bubba’s wife, Heather Clem – all with Bubba’s knowledge and express encouragement.
• What Bubba neglected to mention to Hogan was that he would be filming the entire encounter, in all its gruesome detail, on a wall-mounted camera in his bedroom.
• Bubba then burned the resulting video onto DVD and labelled it “Hogan”, filing it away in his office – presumably for posterity (although Bubba can be heard on the video telling Heather “If we ever need to retire, here is our ticket”)
• Six years later, in 2012, owing to a set of circumstances that no-one seems prepared to properly own up to under oath, that same video somehow ended up being sent anonymously to New York media gossip site, Gawker.
• Gawker then published a 1,400 word essay detailing the 30 minute sex tape, which was accompanied by a two minute ‘highlights’ reel of the video (the bulk of which was Hulk Hogan complaining about all the pork he’d eaten that day; intercut with nine seconds of uncensored footage of Hogan actually slipping it in.)
• As a result of them publishing the covert sex video that Bubba set up and recorded of his best friend fucking his wife, Gawker was fined $141 million (later reduced to $31m) and was bankrupted.
• Bubba, meanwhile, managed to settle his beef with Hogan for a relatively meagre $5,000.
The case – which we’ve written plenty about here, here, here and here – has been one of the biggest shocks to the online media landscape in its history. Not only did it take down Gawker, it introduced the wider world to two men who had previously been flying a little under the radar.
The first of those men was Peter Thiel, one of the billionaire founders of PayPal.
It turned out that Thiel was secretly bankrolling the entire Hulk Hogan case as a way to get back at Gawker for the unflattering coverage it had carried on its tech sister site Valleywag – in which Gawker openly discussed Thiel’s sexuality. Though Thiel was already tremendously rich, his success in defeating Gawker caused him to ramp his ambitions up a gear. Shortly after the case was concluded, he made a speech at the Republican National Convention, became a delegate for California to secure Trump’s nomination, became a million dollar donor to the Trump campaign, and was invited to become part of the executive committee of Trump’s transition team.
(If you’re interested: we’ve written more about Thiel here)
The second was Charles Harder, who – as a result of slaying Gawker – quickly became the hotshot new lawyer in Hollywood.
Having previously made his name taking on slightly less glamorous cases (like suing a Canadian fireplace manufacturer for using unauthorised images of Jude Law in their marketing; or suing an armchair maker for making unlicensed references to Clint Eastwood), Harder was now the golden boy for any big star who wanted to crush their foes.
Among those who immediately tapped him up for help were:
• Former Fox News CEO and sex pest Roger Ailes, who hired Harder to shut down any reports of his widespread sexual misconduct
• First Lady Melania Trump, who hired Harder to sue any newspaper who was damaging her potential branding opportunities (though Harder later refiled complaints, removing any wording that implied the First Lady was motivated primarily by commercial profit)
• President Donald Trump, who hired Harder to represent him in defamation proceedings against the porn star he’d paid off, Stormy Daniels
(If you’re interested: we’ve written more about Harder here)
The carnage that Bubba The Love Sponge has inadvertently brought forth has been surprisingly far-reaching. Although his personal influence on it all has been largely indirect, these incidents have undoubtedly had a marked effect on significant swathes of the current political and cultural conversation.
So where is he these days? Sitting atop a pile of money, chuckling to himself as the world around him burns?
Erm, not quite…
In 2015, Bubba was caught by ratings firm Nielsen encouraging one of their participants to tamper with the ratings system to make it seem like they listened to his show much more than they really did (artificially inflating its figures to make the show seem more popular than it actually was). Bubba admitted to one count of this, but Nielsen was convinced that he’d been fixing his figures a lot more than that.
They initially sued him for $1 million in October of that year, but ended up suffering a series of delays to the court hearing and ultimately reached a settlement in mid-2018.
The whole thing has clearly taken a chunk of out Bubba. Not just financially, but out of his ego too. His current show has been taken off the schedules of stations all across across America. In his hometown of Tampa, he has been downgraded from FM radio to AM radio. The listening figures through his internet radio streaming site bubbaarmyradio.com are dwindling.
His legal woes have been compounded by the divorce papers his ex-wife filed after the Hogan sex tape got leaked. Hogan is still tied up in litigation surrounding it, trying to get to the bottom of who originally leaked. Meanwhile, Bubba has had to put his mansion up on the market, and he had to borrow money from neighbours last year to keep his water on.
Will the same fate befall Tucker Carlson?
Probably not. But it’s nice to dream.