Seven weeks ago, a warehouse clerk in Savage was fired after a co-worker complained about his taste in morning radio: the raucous Grego and Mo show on WIYY (98 Rock), where seemingly no racial, ethnic or sexual jokes were out of bounds. Yesterday, Grego and Mo themselves were fired.
Greg Onofrio and Maurice Billington, both 29, were fired after they completed their 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. show, exactly 10 months after they took to the local airwaves with an outrageous, Howard Stern-like style that has generated complaints from African-Americans and other minorities.
But it may turn out that ratings more than their shock-jock act contributed to their demise: The latest Arbitron ratings, which will be released to the public today, show that the morning show ranks sixth in the market.
It dropped to a 4.9 share this spring from a 5.1 share in winter and a 5.3 share in the fall, when Grego and Mo's show began airing. (A share is the percentage of the listening audience tuned in for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period.) A year ago, before the duo joined the station, the morning show had only a 4.4 share.
Management at 98 Rock would not comment beyond releasing a memo that general manager Ed Kiernan sent to his staff yesterday. In the memo, Mr. Kiernan gave no reason for his decision not to renew the DJs' contracts.
He went on to say that Stash, the afternoon DJ, would take over the morning show on an interim basis and that DJ Kirk McEwen would handle Stash's former slot. Other personalities will fill in as needed, the memo said.
Mr. Onofrio and Mr. Billington said they were shocked to be dismissed with more than a year remaining on their two-year contracts. They said they were not given a specific reason for the firing.
"The reason given was that they felt that WIYY was heading in a different direction than our show was," said Mr. Onofrio, who has been in radio for 10 years. "The show was definitely a controversial show."
"It was an honest show, and honesty always insults people," said Mr. Billington, a former stand-up comic with about three years of radio experience. He teamed up with Mr. Onofrio at a radio station in Tampa prior to coming to Baltimore. "We did not hold back our opinions. So we had people with knee-jerk reactions to the show, or people who were not smart enough to get the joke."
In their time in Baltimore, the DJs managed to offend some African-Americans, other minorities and women. They've pulled such stunts as calling convenience stores and having listeners guess whether the clerk who answered would be from a foreign country.
Yet they argue that they were developing a loyal fan base and point out that some 1,100 people showed up at their recent appearance at the Baja Beach Club. They said their low ratings were due to lack of promotion.
George Buntin, executive director of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter, had a one-word reaction to the firing: "Great!"
He said the DJs have called the NAACP while on the air to engage officials in "flippant" discussions about executive director Benjamin Chavis and his association with Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan.
Mr. Buntin said the group has received dozens of complaints about the duo for the racial nature of some of their shows and had suggested that callers write the station and send copies to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves.
Mr. Buntin said he objected to the use of the word "nigger" on the air. "This is derogatory stuff, but they believe it is OK because one of them is black," he said. (Mr. Billington is black and Mr. Onofrio is white.)
Racial remarks on the show also figured into the firing of a Savage warehouse clerk, Nunzio Bonaccorsy. Mr. Bonaccorsy said he had been listening to the show on May 26, when the disc jockeys referred to a news item about an auto executive using the term "nigger" and then continued to use the word themselves.
Mr. Bonaccorsy said he agreed not to listen to the show again but was fired a week later. However, the company, Alcon Labs Inc., said Mr. Bonaccorsy was fired for his "racial attitude," not because of the radio show. Grego and Mo had Mr. Bonaccorsy on their show to help him find another job.
Even City Hall had received at least one complaint about the show. Haydee Rodriguez, the mayor's liaison to the Hispanic community, contacted Mr. Kiernan after a woman from Washington called City Hall after hearing a show and feeling offended by the DJs' categorization of immigrants.
Mr. Kiernan responded by saying that however outrageous the DJs' remarks, they had the right to make them, Ms. Rodriguez said. Ms. Rodriguez said that because she had not heard the show herself, she felt there was no further action she could take.
Bob Lopez, 98 Rock's morning newsman, said he and others at the station were surprised by the sudden dismissal. "I really did enjoy working with these guys, however much jabbing went on, on the air," he said. "I will miss working with them."
Radio has a reputation for being a tumultuous business, and 98 Rock has had its share of upheavals in the important morning drive-time period. Grego and Mo took over for Russ Mottla, who also was the station's program director.
Mr. Mottla, who left the station two weeks ago, also had a ratings drop after taking over for Chris Emry and Erika in September 1991.
As for future plans, Grego and Mo said they had only looked as far as last night.
"At this point, we just plan on drinking," Mr. Billington said.
"And getting happy," Mr. Onofrio said.