*Listening to the radio, these days, is an engagement in naked decorum whereby which the listener’s sensibilities are liable to be affronted and confronted. Sometimes, we need our sensibilities confronted.
There are certainly some things in America society that we need to talk about. However sensitive those issues may be. America can’t continue to run from itself. Whether its racism, sexism, narcissism or anti-intellectualism, one thing is clear—that America has deep seeded issues that need to be resolved. Issues that will not be resolved without open discussion. We all need our perspective challenged from time to time, and we grow intellectually from rational public discourse. Even ideological discourse, as disagreeable as it tends to be, tests one’s logic and reasoning about the ways of the world, and either validates, or invalidates, how we see, or should see, the world.
However, nobody, listening to the radio, should have their sensibilities affronted. Edgy, or provocative, programming has its place…that place is pay television (cable) and pay radio, where those who desire to consume that type of content can do so. This is known as commercial free speech. Public radio is not the platform to espouse offensive and indignant opinions that are an affront to the public’s sense of decency and intelligence. American society and its “shock culture,” has moved so far away from rational discourse—it’s not even funny anymore. In truth, it never has been. What’s funny about assaulting someone’s dignity or making humor of a public or private tragedy? What’s funny about that?
Nothing. It’s irrational and indignant discourse at its worse.
Public airwaves are a public trust. They are not owned by government or conglomerates. They are regulated by the government (the FCC) and leased by companies whose responsibility, first and foremost, is to inform the public. Entertaining the public is a residual benefit and advertisement represents a subsidy enhancement for the cost of privatizing the airwaves. With that said, nobody has the right to insult somebody, or assault the dignity of someone, living or dead—for the sake of entertainment. Recent comments by syndicated radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, and Los Angeles KFI talk show hosts, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou (The John and Ken Show), show what happens when commercial free speech incites unprotected free speech and public decency standards are violated. Both talk shows are products of communications conglomerate, Clear Channel. Clear Channel has a problem, and it goes far beyond the rationales being given for John and Ken’s, and Rush’s, inappropriateness. Clear Channel pushes conservative talk radio around the country. In most instances, they don’t have a counter point of view to offset the rhetoric these ideologues espouse.
Its Los Angeles station, KFI, has to be the whitest station in their system, with not one black person on the air. This might be one of the reasons there is such a lack of respect—the lack of another cultural perspective. This is where colorblindness has taken us. We can’t talk about the sensitivities of race without fearing we’ll assault the sensibilities of those indicted in the process. Since KFI is the business of affronting sensibilities, let’s afford theirs; KFI, where’s all the on-air black people at your station? I know, you couldn’t find any, right? Yeah, that’s what they all say…Then, there’s the aspect of programming rudeness. There’s a very thin line between provocative and rude.
The John and Ken’s Show got in trouble first with loose and indignant comments about the death of pop culture star, Whitney Houston. Houston’s death was a shock to us all and many grieved, and still grieve, for her because of her life experience and the hope that she’d make it back. The public, most of them anyway, wanted to see Whitney make it back, and many felt she was on her way back. Whitney Houston was not a person to be ridiculed in life. She was respected. She was a pop icon who did some amazing things. She just went through some tough times, like everybody else, and really shouldn’t be remembered for the low points in her life. We all should be remembered for the sum accomplishments of our lives. The only thing that John and Ken could remember was that Houston had an addiction along the way, and they remembered Whitney Houston in the most vile and insulting terms they could…by calling her a “crack ho” on the air.
These clowns (excuse me, no disrespect to clowns) have absolutely no respect for the dead, for her family and for the millions of people who love her. This is not John and Ken’s first time out on this ledge. They have, over the years, insulted the dignity of many in the African American community, assigning indignant “nicknames” to people. True, they do it everybody—but when they do it to others, it’s about their politics; when they do it to black people, most of the time—it’s about their race and/or a separation from their dignity. This time, they went too far. That little suspension they got was the proverbial “slap on the wrist.” You apologize, you come back. You meet with black community—let em call you a bunch of names, vent their indignation and then you go back to doing business as usual. And they will, if we let them. Limbaugh’s situation is a different, but the same in principle.
Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern invented this game of “rude radio.” Talk radio has been around for years, but in the 1990s—it became a vehicle for ideological conversion. When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, new Speaker, Newt Gingrich, said at the time that the number one reason for the takeover was talk radio. He named Rush Limbaugh the “101st Senator” of the incoming Congress. Stern was a “shock jock” that just insulted people’s dignity without reason. He was followed by Don Imus who was fired after a “Nappy Headed Hos” comment, about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, on his talk show blew him up. People have to take responsibility for their mike. It’s not just about an apology anymore…it’s about changing a mindset.
Limbaugh, on the other hand, has always had a political agenda and for the last 20 years, has said some pretty outrageous and very insulting racial things. Even with his own drug addiction, he spun it as “an addict to painkillers.” His latest affront was an assault on the dignity of Georgetown Law student, Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress on women’s right to access birth control contraceptives. Limbaugh called her “a slut” and “a prostitute” because he said she wanted the U.S. taxpayer to pay for her (to have) sex. Women have come out of the woodwork on his @** on this one. This is not yo mama’s or grandma’s generation. Contraception is a fact of life for today’s women controlling what happens with their bodies and who are smart enough not to leave it up to men. Fluke could really sue Limbaugh for slander because she is not a prostitute—and false statements and defamation of character are not covered under protected free speech.
Limbaugh’s, and the Republicans, views on birth control are outdated. Limbaugh is the master of the public apology for intentional mistakes. For him to suggest he used the wrong words, in his three minute diatribe, is insulting. What other word do you substitute for “slut?” “Ho,” maybe??? Well, John and Ken tried that already. But he called Fluke a prostitute too. Didn’t sound any “nicer” than John and Ken version. Calling women “hos” and “sluts” insults their dignity and personal integrity. In life and in death. The radio is not the place for that kind of conversation. Rush, John and Ken are entertainers at the end of the day. Their conversations are not useful discourse, It’s mindless babble about what they don’t like about the world that Clear Channel uses to fill air time and sell advertisement. They are expressing their opinions. They have the right to free speech—but not unprotected. And not on the radio assaulting people’s dignity.
Listeners are consumers, connected to advertisers. Once advertisers start paying attention, that’s when Clear Channel pays attention. They fired Sterns over his rude and righteous indignation. A couple more advertisers lost, and Rush is out the door too. Bet that Clear Channel don’t love him that much. He’s on his hands and knees apologizing, so he knows he’s in trouble. But KFI thinks John and Ken are funny, and ain’t nothing funny about assaulting people’s dignity. Nothing funny at all—not in life or in death.
And that’s gonna be a problem for Clear Channel, who has lost its perspective about what talk radio is really supposed to be about—discourse. Not rude, indignant and worthless perspective. But now that they have our attention…we’ll see how serious talk radio is about decorum and diversity of perspective. Your play, Clear Channel/KFI.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.