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Not-So-Funny Business

Are gays fair game for jokes on Denver radio?

Kirk Montgomery, entertainment reporter for Channel 9, didn't hear the routine about him on KOA radio a few weeks back. But he certainly heard about it.

Montgomery has never publicly discussed whether or not he's gay, nor have most of his peers, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and yours truly. But plenty of assumptions were made in this regard during KOA's Sports Zoo, a popular afternoon-drive-time program co-starring Dave Logan and Scott Hastings.

Specifically, eye-in-the-sky Jason Luber was chatting with one of the show's recurring characters, "Chick McGillicuddy," whose real identity is kept secret from listeners. At that moment, Montgomery's image appeared on a TV in the station's studio, prompting McGillicuddy -- supposedly an old-time broadcaster -- to start riffing. According to KOA program director Don Martin, "Chick alluded to a Channel 9 function where [Montgomery] supposedly hit on Jason." A listener who heard this interlude live remembers more lame, arguably homophobic gags along these lines, including one about a "rear-ender." Ha, ha, ho, ho.

But Montgomery isn't laughing. A twelve-year media veteran who worked in Detroit, Tampa and northern California before arriving here in March 2001, he keeps his remarks about the KOA matter succinct: "If what I heard they said is true, I would be disappointed that they would resort to sophomoric antics like that. I think their listeners would be offended and deserve better."

Patti Dennis, Channel 9's news director, doesn't go that far -- no surprise, given that her station is a frequent media partner with KOA. But she was concerned enough to telephone Martin about the incident. "Don and I just talked about whether we would want to encourage that kind of conversation on the radio," she says, "and both of us agreed that we probably wouldn't. But it wasn't that big a deal."

Martin concurs. "It was just a Saturday Night Live-esque pop, that's all -- and by no means was it a serious discussion. It was all in jest, all in fun."

It's also fairly typical of the alleged humor about gays that can be found on the Denver dial. Martin emphasizes that neither Logan nor Hastings took part in the Montgomery exchange, but it's not uncommon for them to engage in teasing, look-how-gay-you-are remarks of the sort that are endemic in locker rooms across the country (the Zoo hosts are both former athletes). In the midst of a recent show, for instance, a reference to a pileup led to supposedly comic banter about dudes getting a charge out of being covered with men's bodies.

The Fox, a classic-rock purveyor that, like KOA, is part of the sprawling Clear Channel empire, has gone even further with this theme, running occasional parody advertisements for "Gay-Mart" and "Homo Depot." (Both of these names have been used by actual businesses specializing in gay-themed fare, but the Fox's ads definitely weren't legitimate spots.) Morning teammates Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax occasionally go after yuks in a similar manner; they've used overtly gay characters with names such as "Paul Polesmoker" for ages.

But Lewis and Floorwax are pikers in comparison with Lamont Hollywood and Paul Tonelli, staffers at KSJO-FM in San Jose, California, whose program airs weeknights on the Fox. Granted, the duo, known as Lamont & Tonelli, have a reputation for going after groups other than gays: In 1998, residents and officials of East Palo Alto, California, a largely African-American suburb, were apoplectic after the pair aired new names for the town suggested by callers -- "Ebonicville" and "Niggerville" among them. They also love pushing propriety to the snapping point, as when a sex expert dubbed "Dr. Terry" explicitly described proper oral-sex technique in a way the FCC found indecent ("...she should go up and down the shaft about five times, licking and sucking, and on the fifth, swirl her tongue around the head before going back down..."). But evidently they went unspanked for playing a version of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" titled "Candle in My Rim," complete with lyrics such as "Like a candle in my rim/Up where Bernie Taupin's sperm used to swim."

Is this kind of material insulting? Many observers would say no. To them, anyone crying foul in response to the Montgomery incident, and others like it, is taking political correctness too far. Gay-oriented humor is a staple of network sitcoms such as Will and Grace and art-house crossover films like Kissing Jessica Stein -- it's mainstream now. And besides, none of the individuals referenced above threw the word "fag" around, as Eminem does on his new mega-seller, The Eminem Show. To believers in this line of thinking, people wounded by sketches like these are overly sensitive professional victims whose too-strict standards about what's amusing and what's not would make most comedy illegal.

"I don't feel we're being mean and nasty," KOA's Martin says. "And we're not singling anyone out. Nobody is safe on the Zoo. Male, female, lesbian, homosexual, black, white, green, yellow -- it doesn't matter. So the problem is, the skin is fragile when it gets pricked."

"We're equal-opportunity offenders," adds Garner Goin, program director for the Fox. "If you look at Lewis and Floorwax, they've been successful for many, many years, and you can't maintain that level of success by going over the line constantly. We're just having fun here: We're making fun of everybody; we're making fun of ourselves; and we're not trying to be mean-spirited in any way."

That's good to know -- but it's still curious that broadcast executives who'd never let a DJ launch into a Stepin Fetchit imitation while lauding the virtues of fried chicken and watermelon seemingly take little notice when performers portray gays as lisping, effeminate-voiced cliches. And to Nan Kratohvil, Colorado chapter co-chair of Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a large and growing national organization, portrayals such as these can have serious consequences.

"We have a statewide effort to conquer the bullying in schools," Kratohvil allows. "But when adults are on the radio putting out the message that it's okay to make fun of certain people, the kids will think it's okay to make fun and harass those same kind of people at school. And the more those messages go unchallenged, the worse it becomes."

In Kratohvil's opinion, broadcasters in this area have an especially great responsibility to fight homosexual stereotypes, and not just because gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten to death only a few hours' drive from here back in 1998. Colorado, after all, was the birthplace of Amendment 2, a 1992 proposal intended to eliminate "special privileges" for gays; its passage precipitated a national boycott of the state prior to the law being ruled unconstitutional. "Let's face it," she says. "The rest of the world knew it was a bad idea, but the voters here voted for it. And certain people in the media probably figure that's the way everyone around here feels about gays, lesbians and the transgendered community, so they'll think jokes about them are funny."

Jean Hodges, Colorado coalition chairman of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), another nationwide association dedicated to promoting tolerance and understanding through education, echoes these worries. "Sometimes it seems it's taken for granted that it's okay to bash gays, and that's what we're trying to stop. It's discouraging work sometimes, because it's just so prevalent. But I still find it shocking that people who have access to the public would do things like this, because it seems that there should be more sensitivity than that."

In response, Martin and Goin insist they've received a grand total of zero complaints about gay humor on KOA and the Fox, respectively: no systematic campaigns, no upset individuals. Goin concedes that Lamont & Tonelli polarize audiences to a considerable degree: "We've got lots of people who love them, but at the same time, we've also gotten tons of hate mail about them. You either love them or hate them."

As such, Goin monitors all of the pair's between-song breaks prior to airing them, in order to make sure they don't abuse Colorado sensibilities, and he has sometimes pulled ones that seemed to portend trouble. That means Goin viewed the gay jokes aired to date on the Lamont & Tonelli program as appropriate, and he sees the absence of protest as confirmation of his judgment. "Of all the complaints about those guys, none of them have been about bits that deal with gay subjects," he says.

Tom Gjerdum, program director at Alice/105.9 FM, has much the same story to tell. While Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds, the morning-drive partners on his station, focus on relationships in a frequently ribald manner, their humor is smarter and less hurtful than is common in the medium: They are past winners of a Best of Denver nod, and deservingly so. Yet when their dialogue turns to gays, Reynolds tends to take on the same flaming-queen tone that's been used to needle homosexuals for as long as anyone can remember -- and during "Chick Quiz-Dick Quiz," a daily battle-of-the-sexes competition, he reads female-skewed questions in the same voice. He's sometimes identified during this segment as "Bosaphina," but he sounds much more gay than girlish.

Like his counterparts at KOA and the Fox, Gjerdum, who's been at Alice since March, stresses that "we don't try to offend anyone." But at the same time, he says material that apparently doesn't bother anyone in Denver could well raise hackles in other markets where he has worked. "I've been in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and San Diego, and I'd venture to guess that if Greg and Bo were to do their current shtick there, it might not fly. There would probably be some people there who would say they were looking down on homosexuals, which totally isn't the case. So it's nice to do things on a morning show that people find entertaining and not get any complaint calls about them."

That could change: New York-based Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is actively seeking volunteers to staff a new "monitor and mobilize" program in Denver whose goals include the tracking of radio stations.

"Radio is one of the toughest mediums for GLAAD to monitor," acknowledges Monica Taher, media manager for the collective's northwestern region, which encompasses Colorado. "It happens so fast, and sometimes when we call stations and say so-and-so heard this, they claim not to have a tape. So we're looking for people in Denver to help us monitor activities and help us respond when there's a problem."

Taher -- who encourages Denverites interested in keeping an eye and an ear on local media to e-mail her at taher@glaad.org -- says GLAAD isn't raising its profile in Denver, because directors see the town as a nexus of hate speech. The real motivator was its size and significance in the region: Seattle and Portland are getting "monitor and mobilize" programs of their own for the same reasons. But Taher says GLAAD is unsettled by the amount of casual stereotyping of gays that's taking place on radio these days and will do what's necessary to stop it.

As an example, Taher cites action taken in July 2001 against Hot 99.5, a Clear Channel station in Washington, D.C., that was promoting a contest called "The Running of the Bull Dykes." The idea called for second-rung morning staffer Rebecca Froman, known by the clever nom de plume "Becky Butt Rub," to pin a pair of Melissa Etheridge concert tickets to her back and race across land near the Washington Monument chased by a mob of participating "dykes." Etheridge fans wanting to join in were given a strict set of instructions: "(1) Each Bull Dyke must wear at least one piece of flannel clothing; (2) Each Bull Dyke must wear a pair of boots: work boots, hiking boots, cowboy boots, etc.; (3) Each Bull Dyke must have short hair, or wear their hair up or under a hat. NO LONG HAIR ALLOWED; (4) No skirts or dresses allowed, pants or shorts only!; (5) Absolutely, positively NO MAKE-UP!!!"

These directions were subsequently pulled from Hot 99.5's Web site after a GLAAD e-mail and phone campaign. In a tepid stab at damage control, hosts Mark Kaye and Kris Gamble interviewed GLAAD's Romaine Patterson on the air (the unintentionally hilarious results can be heard at www.hot995.com/mess/yaheard.php), but it was too late. On contest day, according to an account in the Washington Post, a single, self-proclaimed "bull dyke" was joined by two dozen lesbians whose ultra-feminine garb symbolized their contempt for the event. In the end, no running took place, and station personnel simply gave the tickets to the one genuine contestant and quietly went away.

Nothing quite as monumentally stupid has been perpetrated by a Denver station lately, but that doesn't mean gay stereotyping is becoming an endangered species. In late May, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, prompted by speculation fueled by a New York Post gossip column, called the area media together to declare that he isn't gay, and the next morning, Lewis and Floorwax took on the topic. But instead of doing jokes designed to demonstrate how far the sports world has to go in terms of accepting diversity, they trotted out another formulaic gay character -- this one christened "Hans Onaman" -- to, as Goin puts it, "talk about how insecure he is to have felt he needed to hold a press conference." In other words, Piazza was at fault, not the societal prejudices that put him in an impossible position.

Too bad, since there were less accusatory ways of wringing guffaws from the situation, as comic David Letterman proved that evening on CBS's The Late Show. After Letterman mentioned Piazza's non-revelation, announcer Alan Kalter, who specializes in acting oversexed, stormed out of the studio shouting, "Not gay? Not gay?" -- a self-deprecating joke that even Piazza probably would have enjoyed. Later, Letterman screened a faux promo for an upcoming game in which the narrator touted "the heterosexual Mets," and said if the team lost, it would be because the players had been up late the night before "nailing chicks." The spoof was riotous in part because it wisely mocked the macho attitudes that spawned the controversy in the first place, and not gays in general.

More thoughtful coverage of gay issues is a priority with PFLAG's Hodges, and she thinks people like her can help by communicating better with the media. Last year, PFLAG invited representatives from TV, radio and print outlets to a meeting Hodges saw as extremely productive, and she hopes more such get-togethers will take place in the future. "We're trying to reach out to the straight community and change perceptions," she says. "And the media's an obvious place to work, because they have public access and they're very influential. I think they should be leaders about changing attitudes and not merely reflect the attitudes of the lowest common denominator."

Of course, opinions about what should remain off limits differ widely from person to person. KOA's Martin doesn't think the implications about Kirk Montgomery's sexual preference that were broadcast on his station are any different than one-liners his jocks have made about Martin's "bouffant hairdo" or Clear Channel-Denver chieftain Lee Larsen's nose -- and he sees no reason anyone should suspect that the reporter was deliberately targeted. "None of us really pay that much attention to him," Martin says. "I mean, he's a frickin' movie critic. It's not like we're talking about Adele Arakawa here.

"We do not bash homosexuals at Clear Channel," he continues. "Just come down here and see how many people with an alternative lifestyle work here and do very well and who get along very well with everybody. And that's the way it should be. It's the year 2002 -- give me a break."

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