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Watch Out, Howard Stern! Here Come the Working Girls.
“We want to have a Burns and Allen, 1940s type of radio show with 1990s themology.” So says Cheryl Ann “Cassandra” Costa, cohost of Working Girls With Frances and Cassandra.
Burns and Allen? Costa is a post-operative transgender psychic lesbian witch. Her co-host Frances Brown looks like Peg Bundy with a good highlight job: She dresses for the show in a thigh-hugging black mini, spike heels, and a matador-meets-Tanya Tucker bolero jacket with jeweled bustier.
And Costa and Brown’s radio conversations bear scant resemblance to George and Gracie’s wholesome fare. From 8 to 11 p.m. every Saturday, the pair turn Gaithersburg’s WMET (1150 AM) into a girl’s locker room. In an era where you can hardly twist the radio dial without hearing some foulmouthed cave man, the working girls are proving that women can be shock jocks, too. “Girls can get as bad as guys when they are talking about things, but we don’t like to admit it,” says Brown.
Consider this typical exchange on a January broadcast: “To spit or to swallow? That is the question,” Brown queries. Call screener Katie Cole launches into a demonstration of how she “spits” into a “fine, linen napkin,” daintily dabbing the corners of her mouth and slowly licking her lips.
Linda Schaefer, the show’s producer, looks bewildered. “Has anybody heard of the expression, ‘running away before the volcano erupts?’”
“That’s cruel,” Brown snaps back. “Let’s ask the reporter what she does….”
Working Girls first aired in April 1994, several months after Brown and Costa met as regular callers on WJFK-FM’s rowdy afternoon show, Don and Mike. After a few nibbles from other local stations, WMET finally bit, allowing the hosts to buy air time for the first 13 weeks. Consistently good listener feedback led the station to sign a contract with the show.
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According to the ratings, the show’s listeners are men aged 18–55, and it’s obvious why. Though the working girls call themselves conservative, their demeanor is anything but. Brown, who is their on-air leader, is especially bawdy. She draws attention to her enormous breasts—her “girls” as she’s dubbed them—by holding a liter bottle of Diet Coke in her cleavage. It stands straight up. “You wanna know what else stands up?” she asks with a mascara-laden wink.
But if Brown dominates the show, it is Costa who has attracted the publicity. She is one of only three transsexual radio broadcasters in the nation, and her history is the stuff of daytime television. Born “Carl,” Costa joined the Air Force and served in Vietnam. When he returned, he settled down with his wife and started working as a computer consultant. One day in 1987 Costa went to his job at IBM in a dress. Soon he entered therapy. He underwent sex-change surgery in 1989, and not long afterward, divorced her wife. She met her current “wife” through Don and Mike, and held an on-air wedding ceremony.
At first glance, Costa appears to be a slightly overweight, maternal-looking woman who could use a perm and a hemline update. But on closer inspection, she is no June Cleaver. Costa is androgynous, both in physical appearance and personality. (“You’re listening to the broads. I’m the real one,” Brown chirps before one commercial break. “And I’m the synthetic one,” Costa pipes back.) Costa is still learning to be a woman, and her sexual ambiguity makes her a perfect foil for Brown: Costa projects the image of a young girl asking her older sister for advice, or of a man befuddled by women’s ways.
On a recent show, for example, Costa told the audience how a man can turn a woman on. Her suggestions bore a striking resemblance to what most men actually do, which is not surprising, given that she spent 40-odd years as a man. So Brown corrected her, telling her she hadn’t been female long enough to understand that women need men to work up to sex—not just whip it out when they walk in the door.
“Just remember, guys, when you kiss, go slower,” Brown explained. “Don’t throw your tongue way down deep in her throat….You’re not going to the dentist….If she seems like she’s pulling away, don’t keep lunging at her, hoping you’re going to turn her on.”
Costa and Brown say it’s exchanges like this one that distinguish Working Girls from shock-jock schlock. The program is not simply some oversexed freak show, a Howard Stern Show with two (or maybe three) X chromosomes. The hosts insist that they are educating their male audience about how to deal with women.
“Men realize that they don’t have a clue [about women],” says Costa, “so they are basically tuning into this female mystique.”
Men generally learn about women through other men, and therein lies the source of their misconceptions. “Guys read from guys’ magazines to learn what to do,” says Brown. “When a subject comes up that we think guys are stupid about, we tell them.
“You go to the book store, and there are all these books teaching women how to deal with men, but very few books deal with men learning about women. I don’t know whether it’s because guys can’t read, or they don’t want to read,” she continues. “If we don’t tell the guys, who will?”
So they do—though not in a way that would cause the Federal Communications Commission to raise a regulatory eyebrow. They never actually say what they are spitting, and they refer to sexual organs as “The Bermuda Triangle” and “Oscar.”
And they’re trying to tone down the show even more, at least the discussions of Costa’s sex change. Their new press packet refers to Costa only as a “bionic, new-age homemaker.”
Costa and Brown have found that pitching Working Girls to advertisers can be a tough sell. They’ve enlisted a 900-number dating service and an adult bookstore but, “It’s hard for us to go out and get large chains to advertise,” says Costa. “The nature of the show gets a little drafty for some people,” she adds with a laugh.
But they are hoping to nab a broader audience. Costa hints that they would quit their day jobs—Costa is a still computer consultant, Brown works for the government—if they received an offer to syndicate the show. They plan to broadcast Working Girls live from a local hotel lounge in the hopes of attracting a national sponsor. According to Costa, another local station wants to air the show weeknights from 10 p.m. to midnight, but the hosts have not decided whether to accept the deal.
“They are good at what they do,” says WMET General Manager Sandra Linden. “I think they do need some more polishing. It’s like they’re rough gems. But that’s how Larry King started.”
Though not, presumably, in a bolero jacket and jeweled bustier.—Heather Van Slooten