On Imus and the Airwavesby Ken Freedman
The Virginia Tech massacre had one unintended beneficiary: Don Imus, whose blistering media closeup abruptly ended, much like Congressman Gary Condit’s did on September 12, 2001.
It’s hard to feel sorry for the guy, who just landed one of the most lucrative no-show jobs in history. (Under his recent CBS contract, he’ll get paid eight million dollars a year for staying home.) Dozens of radio hosts through history have been fired for going over the line in one way or another. In the realm of shock-jocks, that’s often a good career move. Imus himself was fired early in his career for saying “hell” on the air. WNBC fired him again in 1977, though that was over drug use and general slovenliness.
But as a broadcaster (I manage WFMU) and a radio fan, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Imus as his career slipped through his fingers. As I watched him go down, I thought to myself, “There but for the grace of the FCC and public opinion go I.” As a kid listening to the radio in the early 70s, I switched from Jean Shepard on WOR to Imus in the Morning on NBC. I loved Imus’s character “The Right Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargis,” and I knew all the words to that plastic Jesus song. Ten years later, I started listening to Imus again as he battled Howard Stern on NBC, the two of them trying to out–bad boy one another. Imus ultimately lost that one and subsequently reinvented himself as some kind of political shock-jock for grownups. It didn’t take much for Imus to become one of the best-informed and most intelligent national hosts, talk-radio being the bubbling cesspool of morons that it is. But you have to hand it to him: rise to the top of that cesspool he did. Too bad his Don Rickles–esque “equal-opportunity bigot” shtick was rooted in what seemed like real hatred. That was his true downfall.
But what gives me real pause about Imus’s sudden demise is that the same thing could happen to even the most well-intentioned station—not just commercial stations going for shock ratings, but also smaller non-commercial stations like WFMU that are committed to as much free expression as the law will allow. Stations like ours navigate twin minefields, trying on one hand to steer clear of the FCC’s prudish campaign against all things randy, while doing our best to avoid a perfect storm of outrage like the one that swept Imus away.
I’m not sure which one is harder to do—figuring out the FCC’s ever-changing approach to regulating speech, or striking that perfect balance between offering one’s air staff freedom of expression and trying to avoid the shitstorms that can come from toying with social taboos. And I’m not just talking about hate speech. Post-9/11, we had a whole other set of concerns regarding what kinds of words “went too far.”
One irony is that while there are federal language regulations banning sexual and scatological speech, nothing Imus said was illegal or against FCC rules. And as ill-defined as the FCC’s rules are, it’s the most powerful taboos that are the least defined. A lot of people in radio get into trouble because they assume that if there isn’t a specific rule against saying a particular thing, then it must be OK. If this episode demonstrates anything, it’s how dangerous and inciting certain kinds of perfectly legal speech can be.
If Imus had said “fuck” fifteen times, CBS would’ve been fined by the FCC, but Imus’s show would have been unaffected. (Before Howard Stern’s departure for satellite radio, Infinity Broadcasting paid 1.7 million dollars in fines for Stern’s show without blinking an eye.) Not that the FCC’s language rules are a model of consistency—Janet Jackson’s half-second nipple shot cost CBS a $550,000 fine in 2004, while Prince’s thirty-two-second-long phallic shadow-puppet show at the ’07 Super Bowl raised barely a complaint. The lesson: It’s OK to show your sexual organs during the Super Bowl as long as you’re male, and shown in silhouette.
I once fielded an irate call from a listener who was offended that one of our programmers had aired an old country song from 1920 that included the word “coons.” The fact that the program in question focused on historic string-band music of that era, or that the DJ had aired a disclaimer prior to the song, didn’t matter. Our DJ had ignored our “no ethnic slur” policy, and with one extremely angry listener on the phone, I felt like I had started down the unpredictable path I’d seen once before.
At my old college station (WCBN in Ann Arbor), a country show similarly played a 1920s string-band record that included a usage of the word “darkies,” and it prompted months of campus protests that made national news. The DJ in question had no track record of making bigoted remarks, but he was kicked off the air despite his apologies and banished from the station. The incident was one of several factors that led him to commit suicide a few years later.
Imus’s three-word epithet created a firestorm of epic proportions. But it was more than the marriage of “nappy-headed” to “hos” that did him in; an even larger factor in his undoing was the target of his slur—the heroic underdog Rutgers women’s basketball team. If Imus had used the same term to describe a wealthy black male athlete, he would probably still be on the air. If he had applied the same term to a team of college athletes not in the news at all, nobody would have even noticed. Was it “nappy headed” or “hos” that finally pushed America too far? Was the problem that the Rutgers women’s team was not famous enough, or that as a team they were famous, but hadn’t been for very long? Or perhaps the problem was Imus’s long track record of hate speech leading up to this one incident. Or maybe it was a slow news holiday weekend and the ever-popular “all of the above.”
Seung-Hui Cho’s bullets shot down the promised national dialogue that was supposed to have answered some of these questions. Broadcasters are left no better than before, navigating a cultural minefield whose only guidance lies in the remains of the people before you who have found out the hard way where not to tread.
In their post-Nipplegate crackdown, the FCC announced that the word fuck was the most profane term in the English language, and it was never, under any circumstances, allowed to be broadcast on the nation’s airwaves. Within months of this rare pronouncement, the FCC made an exception for Saving Private Ryan, which contained twenty-one instances of the f-word. But then they reversed themselves again, determining that a broadcast of Martin Scorcese’s documentary The Blues should cost one public TV station a $15,000 penalty for the two “motherfuckers” contained in the film. The lesson: Fuck is OK when wrapped up in Steven Spielberg greatest-generation patriotism, but not otherwise.
No such conclusions are possible from the Imus incident, although the consequences of miscalculations in this area are far more severe than a mere monetary fine. In the case of WFMU, we suspend our normal devotion to free expression and rely on our own simplistic zero-tolerance policies where ethnic slurs are concerned. Thousands of stations do the same, and post-Imus many more will now follow suit. But this gets us no closer to learning how to even discuss this issue, or playing non-racist music or films that might include racial terms or depictions.
I would never want or allow a host like Imus on the air in the first place, at least the post-NBC Imus. That’s the easy part. But I sure would like to still be able to play Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go.”
Ken Freedman is general manager of WFMU-FM, Jersey City (91.1 FM/www.wfmu.org).