Much of talk radio in the 1980s and '90s was a race to the bottom — the more "outrageous" the personality, it seemed, the bigger and more devoted their following. Joseph Schlosser — better known as Sebastian — made it his mission to bring "schlock radio" in Connecticut to all-new lows, but he never quite achieved the broader success of Don Imus or Howard Stern, in whose footsteps he vehemently denied following.
This article opens with an anecdote in which Sebastian, working at Hartford's WDRC-AM, generates an over-the-top outrage and emerges unscathed. As it turned out, the seemingly bulletproof disc jockey (or "radio personality," as he preferred) did manage to get himself fired from WDRC (for a second time) just a few months after this story was published, in November 1986. He continued to bounce around the local radio dial, most notably for a couple of stints at WCCC, at one point taking over Howard Stern's time slot. In 2010 Schlosser was arrested on federal gambling charges and was facing possible prison time; ultimately he was granted probation and avoided prison, but the incident led his firing from WTIC and the end of his Connecticut radio career. Schlosser subsequently became a professional sports betting handicapper.
This article is being posted to the web in June 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
RADIO'S NEW BAD BOY
In the beginning there was Imus in the Morning, abrasively holding court at WNBC. Then there was Howard ("How-WeIrd”) Stern. Now there's WDRC's Sebastian, whose lowest-common- denominator broadcasting style has some 50,000 Hartford listeners tuned in each week. How far can “schlock radio" go?
By David Holahan
The baddest boy of Connecticut radio-dom is talking up “Hands Across the Picnic Table”: “No homeless people are invited. To hell with the hungry—they’ve got their publicity. The homeless this, the homeless that. What about us?”
His sidekick, Diane Novak, a modem Greek chorus, leans forward and chimes in, “The working slobs of America,” and then claps into the microphone.
“We’re tired of the homeless; we’re helping ourselves this weekend,” Sebastian sums up with feeling. The toes beneath his chair help incline his incipiently fleshy body toward the large gray ball which puts him in touch with some 7,500 listeners each weekday afternoon.
The Saturday picnic has emerged as the theme of this Thursday’s four-hour show on Hartford’s WDRC-AM, and he’s playing it for everything it’s worth. Not surprisingly, several parks decline to give the station a permit for an indeterminate number of revelers on short notice. The parody picnic quickly metamorphoses into an angry crusade: “The people of the East Hanford Parks Department can shove it where the sun doesn't shine ... We’re coming to the park anyway ... just a bunch of working people who want to have some damn fun ... I guarantee we'll have hundreds of people there....”
Alas, it is not to be. Sebastian’s red face and Diane’s soothing hand on his back are all for naught. Fewer than 50 people show up at the parking lot of a Newington bar, to which the festivities are finally diverted. But no matter, the bit has served the disc jockey (who much prefers the honorific title of “radio personality”) well. 'It is topic uno for days and generates dozens of phone calls, especially after Sebastian’s job is threatened by program director Fred Horton. At one point in an off-air confrontation, the disc jockey yells, “Fine, fire me." Back on the airwaves, he is now taking on not simply the homeless, the hungry and local bureaucracies, but his boss as well. It is “take this job and shove it” time and his fans are loving it.
The following Monday, however, it is not bad-boy Sebastian who gets spanked but Horton, who joins the ranks of the unemployed. The surprise move is a tribute to how far raunchy “shock radio” has come. Stations used to fire the outrageous “jocks,” the bearers of bad taste. Sebastian himself got the gate in 1982, only to be brought back last year to boost faltering ratings. Today, it is those who question the risque business who get canned—and faster than you can say, "Have you ever had a lesbian affair?” on the air.
In the beginning (the early 1970s), there was Imus in the Morning, abrasively holding court at WNBC in New York City. And he was bad. Imus snarled at his superiors, lampooned his listeners and hung up on callers. He was so bad, in fact, that he was banished to Cleveland for a spell. He eventually returned in triumph and presently reigns with a mellower tone at his old flagship. Imus begat Howard Stern, who was even badder. “How-Weird” actually got his start at WCCC in Hartford but didn’t perfect (if that is the right word) his act until he hit Washington, D.C., and later WNBC. The station used to promote its two “shock jocks” with billboards of the duo captioned, “If we weren’t so bad, we wouldn’t be so good." Stern, whose female sidekick laughed and clapped profusely, “pushed the envelope” of badness and then some. His favorite syndrome was premenstrual stress; one of his final bits at the station before being axed was a call-in segment of people recounting sexual relations with their pets. Insiders insist, however, that, Stern’s departure was brought on by his inability to get along with management and not his on-air antics.
And Howard Stern begat Sebastian, 38, who denies it with a vengeance. During the initial months of his first WDRC stint in 1981, Sebastian admits now, mans listeners branded him a provincial imitation of New York Bad. "The only thing I got from Stern was the guts to do the things l wanted to do all along,’ he says, adding, "If it works in one market, it can work here." Sensitivity over the "Stern clone" issue is such that Sebastian requested the subject not be mentioned in this article.
There is little doubt, however, that the two performers’ styles, if not the specific content of their shows, are quite similar. What is less certain is whether what’s good for a New York audience will play as well in a staid backwater like Hartford and environs. Somehow the sound of Howard Stem (now on a small FM station) oozing out of the core of the Big Apple—where, after all, peep shows and hookers abound and the living can be sleazy—is not half as surprising as Sebastian’s wormy chatter on a Hartford wavelength. The ‘‘insurance city” is the sort of place where business types are wont to show up at hockey games or picnics in three-piece suits. Courtly Bob Steele with his mellow bass voice and understated manner is the long-reigning king of Connecticut radio on WTIC-AM. So what gives with “libido radio” and this guy who wants to ramble on about multiple orgasms?
Despite being called "a cure for my sex drive” and other things by Sebastian, Marlene Schneider of Channel 3 News thinks there is room in Hartford for his brand of humor. She even submitted to a live phone interview with her tormentor and confesses, "Basically, he was delightful, we had a fairly legitimate conversation on television and my duties at the station.” Schneider, who was prepared to hang up if the epithets got out of hand, says, ”If people weren’t ready for his humor, he probably wouldn’t still be on the air.”
Indeed, he is thriving in Hartford. Joseph Schlosser—alias Sebastian, who wanted his real name omitted because “it makes me more mortal” —has taken his show from a 2.5 share of the adult market in February 1985 to 7.0 by the end of the year, meaning 7 percent of the radios turned on in his market area were then listening to him. The lead singer of an oldies band, “After the Fact,” which plays at clubs and weddings, he is also in demand to spin records at local night spots. Such activities claim four to five nights a week and earn him as much as the day job
His wedding gigs, however, may one day put him in one heck of a spot. Every Thursday, Diane and Sebastian open The Hartford Courant and "berate the brides." Neither the newspaper nor the women are mentioned by name, but it isn’t hard to locate the “Hartford paper" and read down the columns on page thus-and-so. The assembled pulchritude is graded with A's, B’s, C’s, Incompletes, D’s, F’s or X’s. Newlyweds from D on down are serenaded by a tape of a howling dog. Diane is generally more charitable, but in the end a "Dog of the Day” is crowned, with call- in assistance if the dynamic duo can’t agree. Sebastian concedes he would experience a twinge or two if he happened to find himself giving a bad rating to a bride at whose wedding his band had just performed. Dropping one’s bombs on anonymous people from high altitudes always makes it easier.
MORE RADIO PERSONALITIES FROM THE CONNECTICUT MAGAZINE ARCHIVES:
- 'Those Drive Time Morning Men' (Oct. 1981)
- Bob Steele a Connecticut radio legend, in 'WBOB' (March 1978)
- Ready or not, it's Don Imus: 'The I-Man Cometh' (Nov. 1991)
- Faith Middleton is profiled in 'Keeping Faith' (Oct. 2005)
Twinges aside, Sebastian credits this bridal feature with “really propelling the show." The word got around that there was a wild man on afternoon AM radio. The Hartford Courant got the word and it wasn’t impressed. It requested that its name not be used on the air.
Moreover, in a Sunday edition in March, two separate stories dealt with Sebastian in the fashion he is used to dealing with others. One piece, entitled “Radio Rudeness,” was illustrated with a large pig sporting a radio dial and buttons.
The other, an eclectic article on transportation in the magazine section, took repeated and increasingly pointed jabs at the radio personality: “In a recent article, The Courant called WDRC’s Sebastian a ‘disc jockey.’ What we meant to call him was a purveyor of puerile pigslop for gormless, gullible geeks." Showing he can take it as well as dish it out, Sebastian says he has no ill feeling toward the paper “as long as they spell my name right."
There are many, however, who harbor a grudge against the radio personality, including some fathers of berated brides. Several have written or called, threatening to “meet him in the parking lot" of the station. To date, none has shown up, but Sebastian knows that being bad is not without risk. Alter work, he says, “I always look twice when I go out — always." Coming into work, the radio personality appears relaxed and even a bit absent minded, clutching a stack of mail (There is "very little preparation—almost none" for the show.) His hair is shortish and frizzy and he is sporting a white MacGregor short-sleeved shirt with two horizontal stripes. His pale arms lack muscular definition. His voice is soft, too—everything about him is softer than his on-air persona. He admits that in real life he is "not much like I am on the air." His girlfriend of one year agrees: “Outside of work, he’s pretty rational." Would she put her bridal picture in The Hanford Courant if matters came to that? “No; I wouldn’t anyway," she says. “I might make him put his face in The Herald (New Britain) and have people rate him."
Fellow WDRC personality Brad Davis concurs that away from the great gray microphone Sebastian is, horror of horrors, “basically a nice guy." For his part, Sebastian would not comment “on the record" about his personal relationship with Davis, whom he often mocks on his program. Davis, however, is not worried about preserving the fiction of a feud between them: “He’s a very talented individual; oh, he’s a pain in the neck sometimes...but he’s a good friend." Tellingly, he adds: “He loves my wife’s cooking— she’s Italian—but we don’t have him over to the house anymore. He cuts his spaghetti...." Davis, who has been working in either television or radio in the Hartford area since 1958, sees his role as that of improving people’s lives through his show. He is frequently involved with projects to assist the homeless and the hungry and often speaks out on political issues— supporting aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, for example. Still, there is room for variety, he maintains: “Some people don’t like it [Sebastian’s show]— that's what they put buttons on the radio for." Despite respect for his colleague’s abilities, Davis is not optimistic about the future of shock radio: “It’s like a comet. It burns brightly for a while and then it dies."
What fuels Sebastian and lesser lights—besides being against whatever mainstream society is in favor of—is what WDRC General Manager Richard Korsen calls “the sexual thing." Korsen explains that the Federal Communications Commission’s deregulation of program content in recent years has opened the way for explicit adult programming. In the late 1960s, Korsen recalls how he fired a disc jockey for putting the sound of a flushing toilet on the air. “Damn" and “hell" were also serious breaches in those days.
Today, the marketplace largely determines what is in the public interest, says Korsen. The result can be lowest-common denominator broadcasting. Sebastian is forever asking callers when was the last time they had sex or what position they prefer. On the day of the interview and the big brouhaha over the picnic, he also managed to limbo well below his previous lewd benchmark. Someone had sent him a tape of a woman apparently in the throes of sexual bliss. Before playing it, he enlisted two female listeners to compete for prizes in a “moaning contest." Then—with Fred Horton’s blessing, provided he did not run it between two ads—Sebastian sent the tape out over the airwaves. Next to him, Diane Novak sat covering her face with her hands and shaking her head.
“It’s an act” is how Brad Davis explains such antics. Sebastian himself calls the show a local “soap opera": "We get more new listeners from television than other radio programs. We’re just as much celebrities as the stars on TV, but people can reach out and touch us. They can call us on the phone or see us when we make appearances." The occasional tension between the star and his sidekick is part of the drama. At times, Diane slaps him on the arm and calls him a brat or takes prolonged exception to his more outlandish remarks—particularly about women.
But the main appeal of the act is “What will Sebastian say or do next?” He is a junior J.R. Ewing in a sense, always daring to make a bold move, to flout conventional wisdom or morality. When the entire state was going gaga over the Hartford Whalers, Sebastian typically took the opposite tack: "I hate the Whalers; Hartford isn’t a good sports town. The people are very stupid here.” He was so sure the Whalers were in over their heads in the playoffs, he went out on a limb. He bet his listeners that the team would not get by the Quebec Nordiques; if they did, he would perform public acts of penance. So he rode atop Lafayette's metal horse by the Bushnell—in his underwear at high noon. And he stripped down to a G-string at a local night spot before a women-only audience. He explains that his bravado about predicting the Whalers’ demise was a "win-win situation.”
When Sebastian is winning at every turn, the station is, too. Ratings and revenues are up for both (his paycheck is directly linked to his popularity). Still, WDRC, which transmits separate AM and FM programming, has seen better days. In the 1960s and early ’70s, the AM operation was considered one of the top contemporary outlets in the nation. Going farther back, it was the first radio station in the state, in 1922, and later the first commercial FM station in the world, according to Korsen. Competition, especially the erosion of AM listeners to new FM entries, has taken a heavy toll over the past 15 years. The growing dominance of FM—its clearer, stronger signal and stereo sound—is such that Korscn states, “Virtually no one under 35 listens to AM today.” People like Sebastian, Imus and Stern are the antidote to the spreading FM poison.
Dr. Chris Evans, popular morning personality on New Haven’s KC 101-FM, thinks shock humor is a desperation strategy to which he doesn’t have to resort. Still, he made a stir a few years back when he ran a continuing call-in feature, "Looking for Gov. O’Neill’s Brains.” He says, however, that there are limits to what he’ll do on the air, as do most of his Connecticut colleagues. Many take swipes at Sebastian, either on or off the record. Michael Picozzi of Hartford’s WHCN-FM has criticized the "berate the brides” concept. Picozzi’s targets are public figures, and his sexual references, like those of other mild shock jocks, are tame compared to Mr. Bad of WDRC. As Evans puts it, “We all have very funny lines that we couldn’t use on the air.”
Sebastian, on the other hand, is virtually stream of consciousness in front of the mike and says he is never thinking, “Should I, should I?" Inevitably, there is trouble. His 1982 firing was prompted by an allusion to jai alai game-fixing arrests at the end of a recorded commercial for a local fronton, which promptly withdrew its $10,000 worth of advertising from the station. When he was rehired last year, bad-mouthing advertisers was the one firm taboo.
At least one other has evolved as a result of a precedent-setting remark. Sebastian may well be the first American to have cracked a Space Shuttle joke in the wake of the Challenger explosion. The day of the tragedy, his phone lines were lit up with callers asking about the incident. “I can’t operate my show as if it’s a funeral home and we’re all having a wake,” he explains, “so I said, 'I'm going to see if I can find ‘I Fall to Pieces’ by Patsy Kline and dedicate it to the seven astronauts.’” The next day, he made a retraction and, now, making fun of national disasters is a second definite no-no at WDRC.
But repentance does not come easily to Sebastian and he is not entirely sure what all the fuss was about: "I might have spoken too fast but now the Challenger jokes are out like crazy, tons of them. When is it OK? Can I make a joke about it the second day, the third? Tell me when it’s OK and when it isn’t.”
Sebastian, who hails from Mineola, hard by New York City, credits his bright-lights aura for his rapid rise in Connecticut radio: “I think one reason I’ve succeeded so well is that I’m bigger than this state. I think my street-smart ways—that you can only pick up being from New York—really put me 10 paces I ahead of my competition and my listeners.” At times it is hard to tell if he is playing Sebastian or if this is the real Joe Schlosser. He is clearly concerned lest he get too far out of character. His listeners, he explains at one point, are “very, very gullible.” He doesn’t want to disappoint them with his lighter, nicer side: “I’ll become the center of attention in groups or parties only if the people in that party know who I am.” Otherwise, he says, “I would just blend in.”
When he is “on,” Sebastian certainly stands out from the crowd. His boss, Richard Korsen, admits to wincing when he listens to his ascending star. He urges the inquisitor “to be good to us—we’ve been taking it from everywhere.” He points out that the show begins with a disclaimer that the opinions are not those of the station and that the content is for listeners over 18. He adds that Sebastian has very few young listeners and that, yes, the show is purposely provocative and controversial. On any given week, about 50,000 people tune in to Sebastian for at least five minutes, according to a radio ratings service. On a steady basis, there are always about 7,500 pairs of ears listening. Compared to a year ago, that’s not bad.
And when things looked darkest for Sebastian, when Fred Horton was threatening to pull him off the air, he wasn’t thinking of himself—but of his faithful fans. “It would be just a horrible, horrible waste to the listeners if I lost my job, and I mean that sincerely, without trying to sound egotistical.... There are a lot of people out there who would fall by the way- side if I weren’t on the air.”
Of course, if Sebastian is really good— that is, really bad—and his ratings continue to soar, he will one day get the chance to leave his gullible following for the bright lights whence he came. And he will be gone in a New York minute — gone before you can say, “Have you ever had sex with a vegetable?"
David Holahan is a freelance writer who lives in East Haddam.