When Talk Radio Turns Hateful
Worried Citizens Grab the Mike
At the same time a storm was swirling in Washington over a marble frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court building depicting the prophet Mohammed wielding a sword, a symbol Muslims said was inconsistent with Islamic teachings.
"It would be a better depiction if they strapped bombs across his chest." Greene lashed out over the air.
"Right after I said it, I knew I shouldn't have said it," the host recalled. "This was crossing the line."
Critics of talk radio complain that too many programs are crossing the line. They see a trend of overgeneralized racial, ethnic and religious bashing. Cases have been reported of hosts joking about the fatal burning of Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz, making ruthless attacks on Martin Luther King Jr. around the time of the holiday devoted to his memory, and referring to Palestinians as "tree-swinging savages."
While upset and outraged listeners have expressed their concern through letters to station managers, protested in front of radio stations and boycotted sponsors' products, a rare few have won air time.
A Jewish rabbi and Islamic imam, for instance, accepted a repentant Greene's invitation to jointly host a weekly call-in show on his station, WQBK, this past spring. For more than two months, they looked for cultural and religious similarities and stressed respect for differences as they explored such topics as euthanasia, motherhood and cloning.
In Wheeling, W.Va., two years ago oral historians aired a 22-part series on human rights issues on country music station WWVA in response to programming by a nationally known white supremacist. The 15-minute spots featured interviews with people from all walks of life sharing their experiences of close-knit ethnic neighborhoods and of racial segregation and homophobia.
Both these programs had limited runs, however. WQBK dropped its local talk programming in mid-July when the station switched to an all-sports format, and the rabbi and imam are trying to interest another station in their show. In Wheeling, oral historian Michael Nobel Kline said he couldn't get underwriters to pay for more programs.
Many experts on radio said they're not surprised such alternative programming has a short life span. They argue that controversy sells; civil discourse and attempts at racial and ethnic healing don't.
"It's a wonderful thing to educate people about how to live with one another," said Carol Nashe, executive vice president of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, based in Boston. "That's a good conversation once a month. I'm not sure it works on a regular basis."
The strongly voiced opinions of nationally syndicated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern and their counterparts on local stations agitate listeners but also get them thinking and responding, she said.
"Sometimes in the course of doing the radio show four to five hours, five days a week, there are things said that are offensive," Nashe said. "That's what free speech is all about. The person on the other side of the [telephone call-in] line has that same right."
Lynn Samuels, formerly a talk radio host on WABC in New York City, said she detects "a pulling back from that real nasty tone" popular a few years ago. But she added that "practically anything you say on talk radio is taken by someone as offensive."
"Some of the hosts go too far, but these politically polite people are so sensitive," she said.
Considering the possibilities for a talk show format on racial and ethnic harmony, Samuels said: "It would be boring. Just think of talk radio with everyone being nice. Talk radio needs some spice."
Some listeners, though, are setting limits to what the community should tolerate.
A group of civil rights and social activists in Wheeling confronted officials at WWVA two years ago after hearing the weekly program "Dissident Voices," produced by white supremacist William Pierce. One show promoted Holocaust denial, and another was a "really hateful" attack on Martin Luther King Jr., according to Patricia Jacobson, a member of what became the Citizens' Task Force Against Hate.
Larry Anderson, WWVA vice president and general manager, said he had been unaware of Pierce's agenda and that early broadcasts of the program were "squeaky clean."
After meeting with the task force and listening to Pierce's later shows, Anderson said he let the program's contract expire.
The station also offered task force members free air time each day for a month to respond with their own message. The task force asked Kline and his wife, Carrie, to fill the slot with interviews they had conducted for a local oral history project.
"We wanted to produce something that wouldn't be preachy but would give the audience listening to this hate stuff information on how you could live together with differences," Jacobson said. "It wasn't all happiness and light, but we wanted people to know there's discrimination and how it hurts people."
Although the station offered to continue the free spots, Kline said he couldn't get funding to produce more interviews.
More recently, Capital District Communities Against Hate, a group of clergy, civil rights leaders and social activists in Albany, N.Y., held a vigil in front of radio station WGY last spring to protest remarks made by talk show host Mark Williams that equated Palestinians with "tree-swinging savages."
Williams has said the reference was specifically to Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, not all Palestinians. But some listeners heard his comments as directed to all Muslims, and they took particular offense at what they said was Williams' harsh treatment of a 14-year-old Muslim girl who called in on the air.
Group members said they met several times with station officials and eventually received copies of the station's talk show policy and promises to apologize to those offended by the remarks about Islam.
"We're not trying to censor anybody," said the Rev. Robert Lamar, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the Capital Area Council of Churches. "We're trying to encourage responsibility."
Posted September 12, 1997
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