Saturday, April 19, 9 p.m.
Star Plaza Theatre, Merrillville
Before he was the second-most-fined DJ in history, before he was making $3 million-plus a year, before he was doing shows on both Sirius satellite radio and terrestrial radio, the man known as Bubba the Love Sponge was Todd Clem of Warsaw, Ind.
But since he’s never been on radio in Indianapolis, additional introduction may be needed. So as Bubba himself would say, here’s the deal: He wanted to be a football coach. He wanted to have fun doing whatever he did. So after bombing out of Indiana State University, where he estimates he attempted 115 credit hours and passed 40 — “Seriously, I was horrible” — he wound up as a DJ on WPFR in Terre Haute in 1985.
For the next seven years or so, he moved around the country until he landed in Tampa. There, he made a name for himself in syndication — and in FCC fines. In 2004, he was fired for, among other things, a discussion of the sexual habits of various cartoon characters.
Two years later, when Howard Stern was looking to staff his second Sirius satellite radio channel, Howard 101, he hired Bubba to do afternoons. Now Bubba’s doing that AND mornings on WHPT-FM in Tampa and WFYV-FM in Jacksonville, Fla.
If that’s not enough, he also does a live show in venues around the country. “Bubbapalooza,” which comes to the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville Saturday, is “a variety show on crack — like Donny and Marie meets Jerry Springer meets Van Halen with a twist of Marilyn Manson,” he says. “It’s a live version of what we do daily, but more visual,” and with his producers, sidekicks and characters all along for the ride.
“You’re guaranteed to be able to put a face with a voice and see what you hear every day through your speakers,” he said.
That means a chance to see Brent, Spice Boy, 25 Cent, Ned, Hammil and the rest of the crew and experience some of Bubba’s antics, which may or may not include Shocking the Puss and Shocking the Balls. That is, he administers electric shocks to the genitals of willing guests. A lot of people are called "shock jocks," but Bubba is the genuine article.
Why would anyone subject themselves to electric shocks? Why did Howard Stern hire him? Why does he think he’ll eventually be on radio in Indianapolis? That’s what I wanted to know. So I asked.
NUVO: How does a guy from Warsaw, Ind., grow up to become Bubba the Love Sponge?
Bubba: I never really wanted to get into radio when I was in Warsaw. I wanted to be a football coach. I was a little too short to play professional football, and too white and too slow. But I always wanted to go back and be a football coach. When I got to Terre Haute and started hanging out with some friends who were in radio, I wouldn’t say I got the radio bug, but I saw the fun they were having. And I was about having fun. When I was in Warsaw I was always the class clown and always in trouble doing pranks and stuff like that. Radio made sense in that manner.
I remember in 1985, it was during Christmas break, I called my mom and told her I wasn’t going to be able to come home for Christmas because I just started this job in radio and being the low man on the totem pole, the first prime-time shift I was ever going to get was going to be Christmas Day. I remember my mom telling me, “You’re such a dumb ass. You’re not the next Wolfman Jack. Nobody ever makes any money in radio. You need to be home with your family.” That’s where it started. Hard telling where it ends.
NUVO: You didn’t do college radio?
Bubba: I never did one day of college radio.
NUVO: So your first day on air was in commercial radio?
Bubba: And I never really got to talk on air. I just had to run these syndicated shows, like Rick Dees’ Countdown. And those came on vinyl 33 discs back in the day. I got to come in once an hour and say, “103 PFR Wabash Valley weather” and give the weather. I’d practice all hour just to be able to read the weather.
The Oak Ridge Boys owned that station, WPFR. Never got to meet them. They sold it to some guy in New York and I lost track after I left. I was there from ’85 to ’88 and loved Terre Haute. I’m from Indiana and didn’t ever want to leave, but I went from overnights to 7 to midnight and I was getting to talk.
I started to get decent — somewhat decent — and a station in Grand Rapids offered me a job. I was making $7,500 a year in Terre Haute and Grand Rapids offered me $30,000 back in 1988. So I went to my boss in Terre Haute and said, “I’ve got a station in Grand Rapids, WGRD, that’s offering me $30,000. If you just give me half of that, I’ll stay here.” He thought I was screwing with him. He said, “Boy, if you got somebody dumb enough to pay you $30,000, you better take that offer as fast as you can. But just remember: I’ll always be here when you fall on your face.”
Tony Clark is the guy’s name. He thought I was screwing with him. And I wasn’t. I left and never looked back.
NUVO: If we heard you back then, would it have been typical DJ stuff?
Bubba: Just happy to be there. Night jock, Top 40, teenybopper crap. In Grand Rapids, I started getting a little controversial and I got fired after 90 days there. And I went from market to market — San Antonio, Chicago, Philly, Orlando, back to Chicago, Milwaukee. Finally, in ’92, I landed in Tampa.
NUVO: What did you do to get fired in Grand Rapids?
Bubba: I was telling people they sucked, making fun of my competition, hanging up on kids, calling kids fetuses. Kids would call in and I’d ask how old they are. They’d say 14 and I’d say, “In four years, give me a call. I’ll give you the HBI — the Hot Bubba Injection.” Or I’d ask, “What does your mom look like?” “How big are your mom’s boobs?” “Is your dad home?” Stuff like that. I just started being myself. That is what developed into my personality. All too often, people on the air are not themselves. I just started acting like a regular dude on the air, trying to get some booty and trying to party a little bit. That sometimes is a problem.
NUVO: Howard Stern never had any great respect for his competition. After you had your troubles with the FCC and lost your job, why did he take you in?
Bubba: Everybody up until that point was his competition. Also, he had some bad experiences with Opie and Anthony. When he tried to take the high road with O&A and they tried to cross-promote each other on WXRK, O&A were assholes about it. So he never had a good situation with anyone he took under his wing.
But by the same token, he never was in charge or had a channel where he hand-selected the talent. So it was a first for him. And I think Howard respected my honesty. I never got too personal like some of the other guys had. It was just Radio 101 stuff. When I met him for the first time, I was very forthright. I was like, “Howard, I’ve talked some crap about you in competition. I just want you to know that that’s what it was — competition. I do respect you and any personality who would say they didn’t respect you is just jealous. Anybody in this industry would have loved to have done what you have.”
From that point forward, we were like two little radio nerds talking about radio for a couple of hours. We just clicked. As different as we are, we’re very similar in the fact that we love radio.
NUVO: So now you’re on terrestrial radio in the morning and satellite in the afternoon. Eight hours of work is standard for most people, but eight hours of talking is a lot of talking. What’s it been like so far?
Bubba: It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. Not the physicality of it, but just the mental aspect. Sometimes by the afternoon, I just get creative vapor lock. A lot of the good articles I’ve talked about in the morning, so I have to reinvent a way to bring it up or trick myself into not knowing what it is. It’s been a lot harder than I anticipated.
I never really understood who came up with the radio template of three- or four-hour shifts. But obviously it was somebody who knows what they’re doing.
NUVO: You’ve been incredibly successful with merchandising. What made you decide to sell products?
Bubba: I put a couple of T-shirts out there back in the day and people gobbled them up. So what made me decide was just based on supply and demand. Had I done it and people weren’t into it, I wouldn’t have started. But I’ve been selling best-of CDs and T-shirts since 1992.
Merchandise and marketing is a very big part of our show and our brand awareness and our grass roots. As long as you don’t make it too hokey and beat people over the head with it, fans like to wear and support whatever their favorite thing is. All too often, media has not been able to make that transition. And we have. You’d be astounded as to how many tens of thousands of pieces of merchandise we’ve sold just since having been on Sirius.
NUVO: You’ve never been on the radio in Indianapolis. Does that disappoint you?
Bubba: Yeah. I’d love to be on in Indianapolis. I had a lot of respect for Bob and Tom, but I think Bob and Tom kind of sold out for the money. Bob and Tom used to be the pulse of Indiana and the bigger they got, the more they lost touch with Indiana and with what the average 25- to 54-year-old man wants to hear. They’re very well-produced, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a conscious decision that they made — I just think in the environment of regular radio, they’ve had to dummy it down.
I would like to come back to Indiana soon. And when I’m allowed to syndicate my terrestrial show in January, I’m sure there’ll be an Indiana rocker or Indiana alternative-rocker or Indiana talk that’s going to want us.
I feel sorry for Bob and Tom because I promise you — I don’t mean this to sound arrogant — if there’s one person who can take them off their throne in Indianapolis, it’s me. I’m an Indiana boy. I know Indianapolis just as well as they do. They can’t out-local me in Indianapolis.
NUVO: Howard couldn’t beat Bob and Tom here.
Bubba: Howard had a triple-pronged problem: the station, the marketing issue and, in Indiana, you’ve got to know about Bobby Knight. You’ve got to know about Larry Bird. You’ve got to know about Steve Alford and Carburetion Day and the Brickyard and Tony Stewart and Digger Phelps and Notre Dame football. And I do. I spent 18 years in Warsaw, I’ve been all over the state, Larry Bird’s a very good friend of mine, Tony Stewart comes and stays at my house three times a year. I have some great inroads to Indiana.
So I think if there’s one person that could kick Bob and Tom’s ass, I think it would be me. One, because I think our show is great. It’s better than their show and certainly more shocking — even within the confines of regular radio. But two, I can go toe-to-toe with Bob and Tom on the local aspects and the things that are important to people in Indiana.
Dan Wheldon is a very good friend of mine. He lives three miles from me here in St. Petersburg. I can get Dan on the phone and talk about how he just shook his car down at Carburetion Day. Those are the things people in Indiana like to hear.
NUVO: You mentioned Larry Bird. His brother Jeff is a frequent guest on your show. How did that happen?
Bubba: When I was at Indiana State University, Jeff Bird was my roommate. Tony Clark, my first general manager at WPFR, was from French Lick/West Baden. He was Larry’s high school friend. I was already at Indiana State, and when Jeff was getting ready to come to school there, he was a little bit shy and backward. I hadn’t met Larry, but Larry asked Tony if he knew anybody who could show Jeff around and take Jeff under his wing. I was the young guy at the station. So Tony came to me and said, “I need you to take this kid around, show him a good time.”
NUVO: I don’t know if your politics are left wing as much as they are anti-Bush. What kind of reaction does that get from your audience, which you’d think would be closer to the right wing?
Bubba: I agree. I’ve been a lifelong Republican, but after Ronald Reagan left, there’s really not much left to talk about. I think you’re right — I’m not as liberal as I am anti-Bush. So when your popularity is 23 percent, as Bush’s is, that’s the general consensus of America. Nobody wants to necessarily say they’re Democrat or Republican or right or left. So I just think they want change. They don’t want anything that resembles what’s in there now.
I try to be careful by not making myself sound too liberal or too Democrat. I just try to thrive on being anti-Bush. People are OK with it. Most of my audience is red, white and blue Republicans, and a lot of those people let me know about it, believe me. I’d rather not talk about politics, but we do. But a lot of people get heated on that deal.
NUVO: Howard has said if it’s Obama versus McCain, he’ll support McCain. I wondered if you ever talk to him about how little support the Republican Party gives to people like him and you.
Bubba: The Republicans are the ones who ran us out on the rail. I think Howard is scared of Obama’s lack of experience. Howard is very, very wealthy, and maybe Obama’s taxing might scare Howard. But I’m not one to tell Howard anything.
NUVO: You’re back to Shocking the Puss, right? How is that going and why did it stop?
Bubba: I think some attorney got a hard-on for me and made it a bigger issue than it really is. I think we’re guilty of doing some really good radio and causing people to be a lot more freaked out than they needed to be.
NUVO: Do you think people like hearing that on the radio because they just can’t believe somebody’s willing to subject themselves to that?
Bubba: I don’t think it’s that entertaining — the audio portion of some girl screaming. I think it’s the train-wreck factor: I can’t believe some girl would actually let them strap a shocking unit up to their snatch and go crazy on them. People love it, though. The balls, the same thing. People love it when we shock the balls.
The other thing we’re getting back to is When the Shit Hits the Fan, where we throw shit into a fan and it goes into people’s faces. Audibly, how much fun can that be? But it’s more of the “I can’t believe some asshole’s going to sit in front of a fan and let you throw shit on them.” And people just love it because they’re sick. They’re just sick!