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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

No Freedom From Their Speech

June 28, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Descending radio's evolutionary scale. . . .

The National Assn. of Radio Talk Show Hosts met in Washington last week, reaffirming that anyone with lips can join the club. Not that this is quite headline news. Take Kato Kaelin.

Or take Joycelyn Elders, in some ways admirable, a caring, socially committed physician who fearlessly says her piece. Yet she was also one of the least articulate, most misspoken high-ranking U.S. government officials in history when it came to expressing herself extemporaneously. Someone who self-incinerated as President Clinton's surgeon general in part precisely because she couldn't talk. Someone so incoherent as an off-the-cuff communicator that in her last public forum on behalf of the administration she gave the impression of suggesting that schools give instruction in masturbation as AIDS prevention. What she meant to say, surely, was that schools should mention masturbation as an alternative, which was controversial enough, but hardly as outrageous as advocating publicly funded courses in self-pleasuring.

"Words are strange things," she said after the resulting storm had blown her from office. "Once they are out, you can't get them back." Actually, hers zoomed back at her like lethal boomerangs. And after she was forced to resign her post?

Yup, she found work as a radio talk-show host, her syndicated program lasting five months before expiring last December from weak interest.

That Elders flopped as liberal counterpoint to the teeming hive of conservative radio talkers was not surprising. That such a verbal klutz would ever merit such a gig, however, was astounding. But listen, "astounding" is what much of talk radio is all about.

Consider, for example, that gathering of radio schmoozers in Washington last week. There were stunning similarities between some of its attendees and topics hashed over at a conference of animal rights activists held simultaneously at the nation's capital. One of the latter's most dramatic moments was the screening of "Almost Human," an award-winning "20/20" segment about biomedical testing on chimpanzees who live out their years confined inside tiny cages.

It's now apparent that the great species barrier may not be so great after all. Like chimps, incredibly, radio talk-show hosts (the brightest of them, at least) can make and use tools. Like chimps, some of these talkers (although exact percentages are unknown) appear capable of rational thought. Like chimps, their behavior is encoded in their genes. And also applying to some radio talkers is what famed researcher Jane Goodall told the World Congress for Animals last week about chimps she studied for years in the African wild: "They have a dark side to their nature."

Yes, there is the small minority of radio hosts (KABC radio's Dennis Prager comes prominently to mind, regardless of whether you share his views) who present ideas rather than banal flaming rhetoric tied to every banner headline. When it comes to qualifying for cages, however, many other radio talkers are, indeed, just the ticket. Heading the list are Howard Stern (when his rollicking free-form wit turns ugly) and twice-suspended New Jersey talker Paul Kehler, who reportedly has dubbed the anti-abortion rights crowd "a bunch of fat yentas who are just jealous because they can't get any" and accused a local school board official of earning her job through oral sex.

One radio host with an even greater tendency toward darkness is G. Gordon Liddy, who earned a Freedom of Speech award from the National Assn. of Radio Talk Show Hosts in 1995 after taking heat and getting dropped by a handful of stations for advising his audience how to fatally shoot federal agents in self-defense.

Liddy, who spent more than four years in prison for his role in Watergate, was succeeded as the association's Poster Talker this year by a trio of Freedom of Speech awardees, one being fiery Bob Grant, who was bumped from his popular WABC show in New York after making a snide crack about Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's death in a plane crash that capped a history of Grant making comments on the air widely regarded as racist. Radio audiences not always being discriminating, Grant is now a sizzling item on another New York station. What a world. Witless Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott is labeled a bigot, and is ordered by baseball to take a walk. The rabidly loopy Grant is labeled a bigot, and gets an award.

But it gets even goofier. Sharing the Freedom of Speech award with Grant this year is celebrity Harvard law professor/O.J. Simpson defender Alan (Build a Media Soapbox and He Will Come) Dershowitz who, prior to Grant being fired, was bounced from his own WABC radio program after calling Grant a "racist" and "despicable." And get this, the third honoree is none other than Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., which owns WABC, the station that fired his fellow recipients.

So . . . here's the scorecard in this 1st Amendment Disneyland: Grant gets the award for having the courage to be despicably nasty on the air. Dershowitz gets the award for having the courage to blast Grant for being despicably nasty. And Eisner gets the award for heading the company whose station that had the chutzpah to fire both Grant and Dershowitz for exercising free speech.

Obviously, the question that ignorant souls frequently ask about sentient animals--Is there really a mind here?--is instead applicable to those handing out the association's Freedom of Speech award.

Speaking of animals, meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported that Grant called Eisner a "skunk," and that after the dueling Grant and Dershowitz received their awards separately at the talkers' confab, they shook hands and posed for pictures. It was the civil thing to do, proving that they are, indeed, what many observers suspected they were.

Almost human.

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