On the drive out to my young daughter’s Montessori school in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette each morning, she became fixated on some funny voices emanating from my radio. I’d randomly tuned into the Walton and Johnson show, a talk radio program featuring two white, male conservative hosts, plus three other disembodied voices: a lispy gay man (“Mr Kenneth”), a militant black man (“Mr Eaux”), and a drawling, self-identified “redneck” (“Billy Ed”). The political arguments were… colourful, while never truly heated. Whenever Walton or Johnson couldn’t wrap their mediocre heads around a gay rights issue, Mr. Kenneth was there to help explain. Billy Ed would of course bash Barack Obama incessantly—for instance, about the ex-president’s imaginary “communism”—at which point Mr. Eaux would pipe in with some American truth, like, “No one would be saying this if he wasn’t a brother.”
The show’s comedy definitely had a conservative bent, but while I disagreed with most of the politics on display, my daughter and I listened on, finding the wacky, energetic show fascinating. That is, until the day I realized that Walton and Johnson’s co-hosts didn’t actually exist, and that for 35 years, co-host Steve Johnson has been performing blackface on the airwaves.
Over the years, the Walton and Johnson show has grown more political, but its hosts began in the early 80s as a regular comedy duo, recording demo tapes of their act in Beaumont, Texas. In 1983, they landed their first real radio gig in New Orleans (where blackface is still sometimes regarded as acceptable under very particular circumstances). The duo, plus Johnson’s three characters, showcased wacky news stories, performed skits, and hosted celebrities like Charlie Sheen, Kinky Friedman, John Goodman, even New Orleans vampire author Anne Rice. Back then, the show was less mean-spirited and more goofy, immature, and schizophrenic.
“I grew up in New Orleans and in high school I became aware of their show, and it took me a while to understand it all,” admitted Eddie Martiny, IHeartRadio’s president of the Houston region, who started as a WCKW intern for the Walton and Johnson show. “I was putting up the hot air balloons at the remote locations when they were out broadcasting live, and I got to see how much they could draw: They were just on fire in New Orleans in ‘86. They’d say they were gonna broadcast from a restaurant, and… there would be a line wrapped around the building. It blew me away, and that actually sold me on [the business of] radio.”
Johnson’s schtick—a white man performing a “black” voice on the radio—has a long history. “The use of an exaggerated, stereotypical ‘black’ dialect was definitely part of the blackface performance tradition,” said Noah Arceneaux, a professor of media studies at San Diego State University. “Blackface performers began appearing on radio in the 1920s… The author Mel Watkins called this practice ‘racial ventriloquism,’ and there were many shows beyond the infamous Amos ‘n’ Andy that used this technique for comic effect. The character of Beulah, a black maid, was first done on radio by a white man, for example.”
Arceneaux added the blackface tradition lasted longer in England, with a TV show called The Black and White Minstrels lasting well into the 1970s. “And some would question if this performance tradition ever really ended, or if it just shifted.”
Martiny says Johnson never performed his character voices outside of the studio except among friends. At events, the duo maintained a sort of kayfabe, making up elaborate excuses for why their “co-hosts” couldn’t make it. “At one restaurant in Metairie [another New Orleans suburb], they hosted a night where people were asked to dress as their favourite Walton and Johnson character,” remembered Martiny, “and I couldn’t believe how many people dressed up as Mr. Eaux, Mr. Kenneth, and Billy Ed—but they also showed up expecting to meet them.”
While climbing the IHeartRadio ranks, Martiny sold the Walton and Johnson show to stations in Baton Rouge as well as its current home base of Houston, where the duo has flourished for over two decades. “Here, I put them on a heritage rock station replacing Stevens and Pruett, who were an institution. They did well there, but we ended up flipping that station to Spanish, because the Spanish population kept growing and we had three rock stations and we needed to diversify,” said Martiny. “Then two years later, I put them on my classic rock station KKRW the Arrow, and they did well on that station—until we flipped that station and made it hip-hop.”
These days, the show appears on around a dozen IHeartRadio stations in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and Louisiana for four-and-a-half hours each weekday.
Neither Walton nor Johnson nor their producer Kenny Webster has ever responded to my interview requests (I’ve tried for years). But if you believe those who’ve worked closely with the Southern radio duo over the last three-plus decades, no one has ever been offended by Walton and Johnson’s shtick. “I have some very strong conservatives talkers that work for me,” Martiny said when asked directly about Johnson’s blackface routine. “Some [hosts] are dealing with protesting all the time… people threatening to call our advertisers and not shop with them. But in my 20 years with John and Steve, I can’t remember even one time… I’ve never had any complaints about a white guy doing a black guy.”
Nathan Ales, who’s sold ads and done other work with Walton and Johnson for 30-plus years, and who considers Johnson his “best friend,” told me, “It’s satire. They stay in character, so Billy Ed is going to say things from that point of view, just like the black guy is going to say what a black guy would say; each character represents their group’s typical views. The gay character will argue with Billy Ed, and they’re all equally represented. Maybe that’s why people aren’t offended.”
Actual gay and black listeners, though, don’t necessarily agree. David Ahrens-Bryant, who’s both black and gay, moved to New Orleans from Detroit and had a similar experience engaging with the show. “I was listening on my way to work and it took about two days until I thought, ‘Something about these five guys doesn’t sound right.’ I went home and did internet research, and I was appalled. I haven’t listened since.”
More than a few black New Orleanians told me that, as far as racism goes, W&J are relatively mild. “Yes, I listened to Walton and Johnson. Making racist jokes don’t offend me, man,” said black New Orleans activist Anthony Straughter. “I make white jokes. Anybody can make jokes, they’re just jokes. That kind of stuff don’t effect me none.”
But others are genuinely offended. “I think some people in the South have this half-baked form of Stockholm syndrome, where they’re already so used to it they don’t care to change it,” argued Ahrens-Bryant, who says he also avoids the Zulu Mardi Gras parade due to the krewe’s blackface tradition. “But let me tell you how this would all go over in Detroit... The north isn’t a bastion of racial harmony by any stretch, but there are things that are accepted here that would get you killed in Detroit.”
DJ E.F. Cuttin is an outspoken black New Orleanian who grew up listening to Walton and Johnson after they replaced Howard Stern on his favourite station during the George W. Bush administration. “I never gave Walton and Johnson’s redneck-centric humour any real energy other than, ‘Yep, that sounds about white,’” laughed Cuttin. “I actually like the black character because he does say truthful shit.” Cuttin maintains, however, that Mr. Eaux and Mr. Kenneth’s mildly progressive remarks are actually the punchlines to jokes made for the benefit of Walton and Johnson’s conservative audience.
“The black guy usually just says shit [black people] say regarding racism, disparity, etc.,” Cuttin explained, “but though speaking truth, Mr. Eaux is usually saying it after stuff that doesn't call for it, and that’s the rub.” The unspoken running gag of Steve Johnson’s Mr. Eaux character (who “met W&J while selling them a set of walnut handled steak knives from the trunk of his El Dorado,” the show’s website says) is that black issues are merely a cudgel that African Americans use to gain pity or free “Obama phones.”
As such, Cuttin is one of many Southerners who feel the show started off funny, then became unfunny, then poisonous. “I listened through the Bush presidency, but I stopped when Obama took office,” he said. “I could only stomach so much thinly-veiled hatred dressed up as patriotism. They are dog whistlers to the utmost.”
I could not find any gay Walton and Johnson fans to speak with, perhaps because Mr. Kenneth is even more of a caricature than Mr. Eaux. (Mr. Kenneth’s website bio states, “He met W&J while cutting their hair at his world famous salon ‘Head Shed’ in the New Orleans French Quarter.”)
“At one point I wrote to the station,” said New Orleans educator Todd Shaffer, who could not remember the exact bit that triggered his complaint letter. “I know I’ve heard them do anti–gay marriage things that were pretty off-putting, but there was one bit that was racist but also promoted violence—it may have been after the Charlottesville shooting—and I just felt that was too much. In the past, I’ve listened to a lot of conservative news just to get their point of view: Fox, a lot of Rush Limbaugh. My whole family is from the South, the deep ugly South,” Shaffer continued, “so I am not some PC liberal snowflake. And their show even offended me.”
Greg Ellis, a gay man who’s been subjected to W&J many times while living in Houston, said, “I never felt represented [by Mr. Kenneth]. The hosts did seem to realize that making fun of black people had its limits, but I don’t think they ever realized that—aside from not making AIDS jokes—that making fun of gays had limits. I’m pretty good at recognizing satire, and I never really felt like they weren’t just throwing red meat and playing to the lowest common denominator.”
Ellis concluded, “Fuck all that. Fuck all those people.”
As for Billy Ed, Steve Johnson seems to use his impression of a “redneck” (a classist term, by the way, which derides people for doing honest, hard work outdoors in the sun) as an excuse to revel in his and his audience’s most transgressive beliefs. Since 9/11, Billy Ed has become more and more Islamaphobic and, since America elected Donald Trump, he’s felt even freer to disparage immigrants.
“They can do scary shit on air too,” said Cuttin, who remembers many times when Billy Ed said something particularly racist or otherwise sketchy. “They used to always say, ‘When you hear “Code: Wolverine” that means it’s time for all militia to activate!’ Now, was this meant to be funny? Maybe. Could it really be a smoke signal to initiate aggression? Maybe.”
The show wasn’t always like this. “In the last ten years is when it’s gotten a lot more political,” admitted Martiny of W&J during the Barack Obama era. “Maybe it’s because politics became more political, but I also just think… Walton and Johnson are no longer on any stations that target 18- to 24-year-olds. You have to stay compelling and relevant to your audience, and they’re on male-based stations in very conservative states.”
Ales disagrees, and believes that liberals have forced the duo’s shift in tone. “Walton and Johnson changed because, when they first started, politics were still politics, there were still Republicans, Democrats and independents,” he said. “But politics became more volatile as the Democrats got angrier and angrier.”
Walton and Johnson’s Facebook page, which boasts nearly a quarter million likes, features humorous videos of the Worldstar variety, but also lots of aggressive right-wing content, like one recent post that said, “Democrats don't care about government workers or their families.” The show’s blog is also full of content that would fit in on the most race-baiting right-wing news sites, such as “Alton Sterling's Son Arrested for Raping 8-yr-old Boy,” which called the man who was shot dead by police in 2016 "a sex offender felon who illegally carried a weapon, beat a woman and committed a long list of other crimes" and remarked, "It looks like the apple doesn't fall far from the criminal family tree." There's plenty here for Mr. Eaux to grouse about.
As offensive as some may find the Walton and Johnson act, it’s unlikely that outrage will drive it off the air any time soon. For every appalled listener, there’s likely someone who enjoys that someone else is appalled. “There's a segment of society that continues to reject political correctness as being ‘overly sensitive,’" acknowledged professor Noah Arceneaux. “For this group, the fact that a blackface dialect is offensive is part of the appeal. I suspect that some of the audience of this conservative radio show would fall into this group.”
New Orleans educator Todd Shaffer said he worries most about all the people who may be listening to the show but not realizing the trick that’s being pulled. “For me it wouldn’t be so offensive if they were mimicking these cultures while not being political, but… they say all this political stuff while pretending to be members of minority groups that don’t approve of those politics. They’re using a gay voice to make anti-gay statements,” asserted Shaffer.
“They’re trying to be insidious about it,” said David Ahrens-Bryant. “They say it in a way that they think we can’t hear. But I hear it, and it’s racist.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.