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Disney Appeases Some Critics of Radio Station's Promotion

Media: Jesse Jackson won't file FCC complaint after KLOS-FM's parent makes reform promises over 'black hoe' ad.


The Walt Disney Co. dodged a bullet this week when civil rights leader Jesse Jackson decided not to file a complaint against the family entertainment giant for its role in a radio promotion called "The Black Hoe."

Jackson made his decision after Disney promised to resolve a pair of lingering racial discrimination lawsuits stemming from a promotion two years ago on KLOS-FM's "Mark & Brian Show," during which "Black Hoes"--black, plastic gardening tools--were given away as gag prizes to listeners and advertisers by the Disney-owned station.

The campaign was built around a double-entendre involving a slang pronunciation of the word "whore."

Disney agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle the two lawsuits on Sept. 29--just 10 days after Jackson notified Disney that his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition was considering lodging a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission about the promotion. Jackson's move followed an Aug. 22 article in The Times disclosing that Disney had offered to pay $2 million to settle a similar discrimination suit, but was balking at resolving two others.

Barely a year ago, Disney blasted all three suits as meritless and vowed to fight them in court.

On Monday, Disney President Robert Iger called a meeting at the corporation's Burbank headquarters with two Rainbow/PUSH officials and apologized for the bungled promotion and vowed to clean up the airwaves at KLOS (95.5) and other Disney stations, according to a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition official at the meeting. Iger also promised to beef up the corporation's diversity training and sensitivity programs for employees and executives.

While Iger promised to police future content on its radio stations, he did not bow to demands from civil right groups to fire KLOS talk-show hosts Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps, whose program is an important money-maker at one of Disney's most lucrative radio properties. Despite the controversy, Disney's ABC division extended the duo's contract to keep them on the air until August 2001.

Disney has also shrugged off demands to fire the KLOS executives who oversaw the promotion. In fact, several of those executives ended up receiving promotions at the station, which generates an estimated $30 million per year in advertising revenue for Disney.

Iger, who is expected to meet with Jackson next month to discuss the matter, declined to comment on the status of the lawsuits. On Thursday, Iger said he thought his 90-minute meeting with Rainbow/PUSH officials Tracy Rice and Dahlia Hayles went well.

"We had a very constructive meeting and discussed many of the issues of concern to both of us," Iger said.

Iger, who has met with other civil rights leaders to calm the waters regarding the promotion, telephoned Jackson on Sept. 19 and asked to meet him. Iger put in the call after learning that Jackson had told attendees at a radio conference that he might challenge KLOS' license with an FCC complaint. During the call, Iger and Jackson arranged for Rice and Hayles to visit Disney to discuss the matter Monday.

Jackson was unavailable, but Rice, the L.A. bureau chief of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said meeting with Iger convinced the organization to hold back on filing an FCC complaint "for the time being."

"We feel strongly that Disney has finally begun to take this issue very seriously," Rice said. "We believe that with the steps they are taking internally--and the fact that they are now allowing us to work with them--there is evidence that this kind of appalling promotion will certainly never happen again on a Disney station."

When the dispute broke out last August, Disney scoffed at the racial discrimination suits and ignored demands from civil rights groups to issue a public apology. But as pressure of a boycott mounted, Disney apologized and began scrambling to find ways to mollify critics, who were also badgering the government to revoke KLOS' license. So far, the FCC has not challenged KLOS' license. A previous complaint was filed against the station by the Congress of Racial Equality.

Disney initially took a hard-line stance against the lawsuits when they were filed by black former employees Judy Goodwin, Carla Woodson and Leslie Childs. The suits accused KLOS executives of undertaking the promotion with the "conscious aim and intent of providing racially offensive, sexually charged entertainment for its primarily white male listening audience and advertising clients."

The suits also contended that KLOS forced female African American employees to pack and ship "Black Hoe" gadgets to advertising clients over Goodwin's objections. In addition, all three employees alleged that they suffered daily harassment and retaliation by managers and co-workers after complaining about the promotion.

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