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Loh joins the ranks of free speech pioneers

March 15, 2004|Joel Bellman

Unless you're a station subscriber or happen to be pals with one or more of the principals, Santa Monica public radio station KCRW-FM's firing of longtime commentator Sandra Tsing Loh may look like little more than a tempest in a latte pot ("KCRW Fires Loh Over Obscenity" by Greg Braxton, March 4).

For Loh, a married mother of two, her undoing was the inadvisably jokey but unexpurgated deployment of one of the Federal Communications Commission's infamous "seven dirty words" (the one referring to a consensual procreational activity with her husband that the family values crowd would, in other circumstances, presumably celebrate). As it happened, the piece aired not once but twice, several hours apart, suggesting at the very least some additional culpability up the broadcast chain between KCRW's recording studio and my bedside radio.

One might have thought some progressive discipline would have sufficed to rein in a slightly "edgy" but uncontroversial contributor. But station manager Ruth Seymour decided to send a message -- FCC, members of Congress, respectable foundations who write big checks, are you listening? -- and thundered to The Times, "We really are serious with her, that with such a trivial, self-serving piece, she put us all in danger."

As Seymour proclaimed in a subscribers e-mail bulletin, "[T]here are some things you go to the wall for," and this just isn't one of them. But what about Seymour's programming contributions? Hosting a segment of "The Politics of Culture" on May 29, 2002, she interviewed actor Dennis Hopper about artist Andy Warhol and didn't miss a beat when Hopper used the same unbleeped word. The program aired in the middle of a school-day afternoon and still resides in the station's online archives, which nevertheless have been purged of Loh's otherwise PG-rated commentaries.

KCRW's action in the Loh case, at least, drew a rebuke from the writers group PEN USA, which noted that although "the FCC might well not have taken any adverse action at all ... KCRW has taken the most draconian step all by itself."

Seymour, of course, is not alone in her solicitude for the tender sensibilities of her listeners. Several weeks ago, Pasadena public radio station KPCC-FM quietly canceled the L.A. Theatre Works program "The Play's the Thing" over its periodic use of objectionable language, despite an inarguably serious artistic context.

Although the FCC napped through several years of truly alarming media consolidation and concentrated control, it finally took Janet Jackson's right breast to rouse the agency from its regulatory torpor and threaten a crackdown. This being an election year, Congress too is getting into the act and moving toward boosting the FCC fines for obscenity, indecency and profanity, an effort that will last just long enough, based on past experience, to carry incumbents safely through November.

Commercial stations and networks making a mint off programs like "The Howard Stern Show" and "Bubba the Love Sponge" consider the fines a minor cost of doing business, one more than offset by the publicity value of the notoriety. That no broadcaster has ever lost its license for obscenity or indecency, however, seems entirely lost on public broadcasters. Although they preen over their intellectually superior, cutting-edge programming, they have devolved into some of the most timid and conformist contributors to the programming mix.

In this environment, the government need never take any real action to accomplish a chilling effect on an already jittery broadcast community. The head of the FCC or an influential congressional committee chairman need only clear his throat, and industry "leaders" are set scrambling to shoot their wounded.

But this is, after all, an era when even New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, can posthumously pardon comic Lenny Bruce for his 1964 obscenity conviction, proclaiming last December as he did so that "freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties." Bruce, of course, died a squalid junkie's death in 1966 at the age of 40, barely two years after a New York obscenity conviction and subsequent legal hassles finished his career.

The heroes in the history of free speech are not only John Milton and Thomas Jefferson; their ranks are more likely to include the disreputable sorts you'd walk across the street to avoid. Yet these reprobates are the ones who, time and again, ultimately vindicate the rights that the decorous caretakers of KCRW, KPCC and the like now take for granted.

Must we honor our artists and affirm their creative rights only after they are safely dead?

Joel Bellman is a former broadcast and print journalist who is a political aide in Los Angeles. The views expressed are his own.

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