Freedom of Speech and Insults

Every morning when I get to work, there’s an email from a radio publication called “Radio Ink” waiting for me in the “In”box.  They have a headlines section that keeps people in the know about industry gossip, trends, and the like. Well, ever since Don Imus was fired for calling women basketball players “nappy-headed hos” and advertisers threatened to pull their commercial spots if Imus was still on the air, the kind of insulting speech that makes money for these kind of jocks is getting curbed.

JV and Elvis (the hosts of “The Dog House”) got their pink slips.  Why?  Well, according to Radio Ink they launched a “bit” that made fun of Asian accents:

During an April 5 broadcast on CBS Radio’s Free-FM in New York, JV & Elvis broadcast a call to a Chinese restaurant in which the caller, in an exaggerated accent, placed an order for “shrimp flied lice.” He claimed he was a student of kung fu and compared menu items to employees’ body parts.

CBS Radio spokeswoman Karen Mateo said, “The Dog House with JV and Elvis will no longer be broadcast.”

There’s a typical narrative that’s been surfacing as the back and forth ensues in this conversation about DJs, insults, and whether they should keep their jobs or not.  On the side of Imus and their ilk are the folks who defend what is done on the air as freedom of speech.  The “P.C. police,” the reason, ought to quit picking on them and fight speech with speech (i.e., get your own radio show and rant all you want).  On the other side of this shout match are the folks who remind us that insulting speech causes harm to those it’s directed toward. At the center is money and power. 

My view? Radio is a public medium.  It’s not a private clubhouse where you can air your prejudices, make fun of people because of the way they look, talk, or act in the larger society.  Hosts like Imus are like those comedians who constantly have to drop the “F bomb” to shock people into laughing.  They are really not that funny, but because they are saying something transgressive, people laugh.  The radio hosts like Imus, JV and Elvis are trying very hard to sound edgy, shocking, and keep the surprises comings.  However, when the best bits you can come up with are insults and bad stereotypes, you really have nothing.

Sorry, but working in the radio business has taught me that being funny, topical, informative, or whatever doesn’t mean that you have constantly keep the tone of your speech either in a perpetual state of crisis (i.e., “The liberals are going to get you”), or that the content of your show is chocked full of insulting bits that demean individuals and groups to be funny.

This isn’t about FCC violations or the rise of the P.C. police; it’s about making money and paying people money who represent some of the worst aspects in the human heart.  I figure if you own a company, would you pay the biggest racist, sexist, or homophobe in town to represent your product? Would you pay premium prices in ad rates so said bigot could insult many of your customers while he brays on about his freedom of speech?  What if your product or service was directed toward the very groups said bigot was insulting?  Would you defend his right to free speech, or would you pull your ad dollars out and say “See ya later loser!”

It’s kind of a no-brainer, huh.  But my question is:  why did it take so long for advertisers to finally to put the brakes on the gravy train for Imus, et al.?

–PK

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