IT'S EARLY morning and sports funny guy Angelo Cataldi is at the mike in WIP-AM's studio.

Cataldi knows thousands of drivers schlepping to work while sipping lukewarm coffee are listening.

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One of Cataldi's on-air sidekicks, Rhea Hughes, is gabbing about a friend's "mentally challenged" dog. The wheels are turning in Cataldi's mind. Time to drum up what he calls "water-cooler" talk.

Cataldi wonders aloud whether there's a "Special Olympics" for dogs, kind of like a Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for slow-witted canines. Maybe, he says, the dogs have to wear helmets. It's a not-so-subtle allusion to head-banging kids with autism.

"I know I'm playing near that line," Cataldi said later that day. "My people are looking at me and I see this look on their face - it's like this flicker of fear, like, 'I think he's about to blow us all up.' "

Welcome to talk radio in the post-Imus era. Taking things a little too far can - and will - be used against you, especially if radio advertisers jump ship. And thanks to the Internet, the world can hit rewind again and again.

"These [broadcast] companies send these gladiators out to entertain the crowd and when the lion comes by to take a chunk out of their leg, those companies aren't around to back them up," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio.

Nowadays, the challenge for talk-radio hosts, some of whom - gasp - get offended when called "shock jocks," is how to boost ratings and entertain the masses without crossing the line. Especially when that line seems drawn in ever-shifting sands.

"This is the most difficult time in the 18 years that I've been full-time doing my show," Cataldi said. "I'm telling you, there isn't one of us in the business right now that is positive where the line is."

No one knows this better than Michael Smerconish, who took over Don Imus' morning slot after CBS Radio fired the controversial host last month for characterizing the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." Smerconish's show on WPHT (1210-AM), aka The Big Talker, is now being simulcast on MSNBC from 6 to 9 a.m. Smerconish blogged about his first day:

Mon., 5:55 a.m.: I'm seated in the chair whose prior occupant got canned. Try not to say something stupid, I tell myself.

Cataldi and Smerconish, like most radio personalities, believe Imus' comment was way over the top (though Smerconish and others think Imus should have been punished, not fired). Last week, Imus hired a First Amendment lawyer to sue the network to recoup the $40 million left on his contract.

Talking back

Imus' on-air implosion has prompted a national discussion about the difference between what's funny or acceptable and what's just plain racist, sexist or homophobic. And whether it's OK for black radio hosts to drop the "n" word or call women "hos," but not OK for crass old white guys like Imus.

Imus' on-air implosion has prompted a national discussion about the difference between what's funny or acceptable and what's just plain racist, sexist or homophobic. And whether it's OK for black radio hosts to drop the "n" word or call women "hos," but not OK for crass old white guys like Imus.

"Just because someone is African-American doesn't make it OK for them to disrespect other African-Americans, especially on the public airwaves," said Damon K. Roberts, a City Council candidate who led a 2005 crusade against the "Star & Buc Wild" syndicated show on Clear Channel's Power99.

Star, whose real name is Troi Torain, and his stepbrother Buc Wild (Timothy Joseph) regularly used the "n" word and called women "hos" and "bitches" on their show. Clear Channel booted them off the air last May after Star made inflammatory comments about the 4-year-old daughter of a rival radio host.

"This type of language shouldn't be allowed on the radio, period," Roberts said. "Don Imus can't be an isolated situation, or else there is no value in him losing his job. What makes this situation valuable is if it translates into the elevation of community standards generally . . . It ought not to stop here."

Imus' firing has further emboldened people long fed up with radio they deem offensive and divisive.

For years, shock jocks Craig Carton and Ray Rossi - the "Jersey Guys" - have been accused of hurling insults at various ethnic groups, gay people and women on NJ 101.5.

Two months ago, the Jersey Guys infuriated the Latino community when they launched an on-air campaign called "La Cucha Gotcha," a play on the Spanish word for cockroach, cucaracha.

In the midst of the Imus controversy, Carton and Rossi continued to urge listeners - more than 300,000 daily - to report suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities. During their rants, Mexican music in the background.

Hispanic leaders called the campaign bigoted and said it could incite vigilantism against Hispanics, but the Jersey Guys disagreed. They argued that the campaign was directed at all illegal immigrants.

Wilfredo Caraballo, an Hispanic legislator from North Jersey, fought back with a letter-writing campaign to station advertisers. A few days after Imus was fired, Caraballo wrote a letter to Dunkin' Donuts, a station sponsor, and compared the Jersey Guys to Imus.

Two days later, Dunkin' Donuts pulled its ads from NJ 101.5. The company said Carton and Rossi's show "is not reflective of the views of Dunkin' Donuts and our commitment to the Hispanic community."

The Jersey Guys quietly ended their anti-illegal-alien campaign in mid-April. Station managers reportedly said the move had nothing to do with public outcry or the loss of advertising dollars.

"I have a pretty developed sense of humor," Caraballo said in a recent interview. "I can laugh at almost everything. But this is not humor. This is hate."

Eric Johnson, the station's program director, declined a request for an interview with either him or Carton and Rossi.

The 'I' word

In Philadelphia, Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, also invoked the "I" word (as in Imus) in a recent letter to bosses at WURD (900-AM), a local station geared toward African-American listeners.

In Philadelphia, Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, also invoked the "I" word (as in Imus) in a recent letter to bosses at WURD (900-AM), a local station geared toward African-American listeners.

"The recent controversy surrounding remarks by Don Imus have given greater relevance to the concerns we have communicated to you regarding the hateful anti-white and Jewish rhetoric that has been communicated with great regularity on the Brother Rob program on WURD," Morrison wrote in an April 17 letter.

Morrison was referring to Rob Gray's "People Never Give Up" show on WURD each Monday night. For the past few years, the ADL has kept a file on the show.

During a 2005 broadcast, Gray, whose radio name is "Brother Rob," referred to former Philadelphia 76ers Coach Larry Brown as a "smart-aleck little Jew who has it in for young black guys like Allen Iverson." In another broadcast that same year, Brother Rob said this about Jewish people: "You're not chosen. You're chosen for something called the fire."

More recently, in February, Brother Rob used the word "honkey" when talking about white people who he said built this country by carrying out the "genocide of the red man," meaning Native Americans.

In a March 19 broadcast, Brother Rob said God "has to deal with" whites, who've suppressed black people, "because there is not enough bullets or enough knives to do him in. God wants to do him in."

The ADL, said Morrison, is not in the "censorship business," but he argued radio managers have a responsibility to monitor and impose standards on talk-show hosts. They should not "give license to perpetuating bigotry, prejudice, and stereotyping," Morrison said.

W. Cody Anderson, WURD president, largely agreed.

"I would never try to defend something that is indefensible," Anderson said in an interview last week. "We don't believe in promoting any kind of racial divisiveness."

Anderson said Brother Rob, whom he characterized as a "grass-roots community activist" with no broadcast experience, was reprimanded by station managers for inappropriate comments made in 2005. As for Brother Rob's more recent comments, Anderson faulted him for occasionally using "a poor choice of words" in the heat of a passionate dialogue.

"Brother Rob has the right to express himself, but he has to express himself within reasonable and acceptable guidelines based upon this broadcast company," Anderson said.

Brother Rob seemed to have gotten the message during his April 30 show. He lamented about having to be careful about what he says on the radio.

Cataldi said comedy bits done on his WIP show must be scripted and approved by the producer now - "a specific, direct change that came about only in the last couple of weeks after the Imus thing."

While radio is still all about the bottom line, the business has become more perilous for talk-show hosts because there are more "pressure groups" listening, Cataldi said.

"Because we play with this fire every day, there is bound to be a moment when we are going to give them something that they can run with," Cataldi said. "There are a lot of people who want to crusade and are looking for a flash point. We provide the flash point." *