Sound Check

Has the Don Imus controversy permanently altered the radio universe? Clear Channel yakkers huddled to talk about it.

AM talk-show hosts and FM gabbers who work for the cluster of eight Denver stations owned by Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio business, live in very different worlds. Nevertheless, they all came together on April 19 at Clear Channel's Tech Center headquarters for a highly unusual, all-hands-on-deck meeting inspired by someone whose program hasn't aired in these parts for ages. His name is Don Imus.

Although New York-based Imus is still commonly referred to as a shock jock, most of his programs in recent years failed to generate jolts any stronger than those caused by static electricity, and for good reason: His guest list was dominated by politicians and pundits who would have steered clear had he continued to rely on the sort of off-color material that was once his specialty. In early April, however, he experienced a flashback moment when he snickeringly described Rutgers women's basketballers as "nappy-headed hos." Thanks to firebrands such as Al Sharpton, who energetically stirred the pot, and a press conference by Rutgers players that proved they were wholly undeserving of such moronic invective, advertisers began yanking spots from Imus's CBS-owned radio show and the television simulcast on MSNBC. Once that happened, Imus was a dead man squawking, and by April 12, he'd been sacked by both his employers.

Most of Imus's peers disparaged this outcome -- a natural reaction, since none of them want to lose their career for saying something stupid. But radio executives would rather avoid problems than try to explain them away afterward. Hence the April 19 session, which was overseen by Denver market manager Lee Larsen and AM programming head Kris Olinger. Invitees from across the Clear Channel spectrum attended -- among them KOA's Mike Rosen, Bob Newman, Dave Logan and Lois Melkonian; KHOW's Peter Boyles, Tom Martino, Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman; AM 760's Jay Marvin; and KBPI's Willie B. and Uncle Nasty. Indeed, pretty much the only big names at Clear Channel who didn't sit in were the Fox's Michael Floorwax and Rick Lewis, who broadcast from a NASCAR event in Arizona that day. Reached there, Lewis says no one at Clear Channel mentioned the assembly to him in advance -- an indication that management feels these onetime envelope-pushers are currently more than capable of staying out of trouble.

Olinger emphasizes that she and Larsen didn't come into the gathering with a lengthy agenda, and neither did they provide those in attendance with a list of new rules. "The key word was 'discussion,'" she says. "We wanted to bring our hosts together and discuss the issue." If there was a theme, it was shifting standards -- the sense that what was once okay to utter may no longer be. As Olinger puts it, "The one thing we know about the environment we're all operating in is that it's dynamic and fluid."

With that in mind, Larsen reminded his crew about the proliferation of media watchdog groups always on the lookout for something that offends their sensibilities. "He said that with so many bloggers and monitors listening to every word, it's appropriate now to be careful about everything you say," Rosen maintains.

Rosen knows all about extra scrutiny. Colorado Media Matters, a progressive organization devoted to exposing what it sees as right-wing media bias, attacks him on a regular basis for his conservative proselytizing. "They've caught me saying things that are incorrect, and as much radio as I do, there will certainly be occasions when I'll make a mistake," Rosen acknowledges. "But almost all of their critiques aren't on matters of fact, but on matters of interpretation. Their favorite word is 'misled,' which they use whenever my conclusion is different from their liberal conclusion." Even so, Rosen isn't concerned that he'll be Imused in the future, since "I don't do the kind of stuff that he and Howard Stern do. I'm very measured and rational, and not outrageous for the sake of being outrageous."

Newman's not quite as cavalier. He's one of the rare talk-show regulars to have called for Imus to be axed, and afterward, he says, "listeners would write e-mails telling me, 'That could come back to haunt you.'" Moreover, he's fully cognizant of opposing interests eagerly waiting for him to slip up; Colorado Media Matters loves targeting him for his conservative speechifying, too. "There have been a lot of changes in mass communication, and new media and blogs can become a powerful voice, helping people band together against someone," he allows. "But I can't let that change my show. I just need to be more aware."

Willie B. (born Stephen Meade), who's also KBPI's program director, has been alert to such matters for quite some time, and not just because he had more than his share of run-ins with critics and the law in the past; in one incident, he was found guilty of animal cruelty for dropping a chicken out of second- and third-floor windows. He says things got dicier for edgy FM sorts a few years back, when the Federal Communications Commission levied a massive fine against CBS for Janet Jackson's breast-baring Super Bowl show. "There was a massive spike of complaints after that," he recalls. "If I'd say, 'It's a cloudy day and your ass might get wet,' people might call up and go, 'You can't say that!'" If such reactions are fewer these days, he knows they could multiply at any moment. According to him, "You may think you know where the line is and how not to cross it. But the problem with that nowadays is the line wiggles. One second it's here, and the next second it's there."

The Fox's Lewis echoes this observation. "Our agent called me last week just to say, 'Look what happened to Don Imus with that one comment. If that's where the bar is now, everybody has to be a little more careful. You just need to be smart about it.'"

The message at the April 19 meeting was similar, and Olinger believes all of her charges took it in the proper spirit. "I didn't get the sense that there was any kind of paranoia," she says. "They're really bright, talented professionals, and we're here to support them and help them any way we can. Could one of them get into trouble? That's always a possibility; it's always been a possibility. But we'll continue to do business as usual."

No doubt Imus wishes he could say the same. Raw deal: The March 22 Message included an item noting that Radio Colorado Network's Dino Costa had been suspended for two weeks from Raw Sports, his FSN Rocky Mountain program, for publicly dissing Denver Nugget Carmelo Anthony's decision not to guest on the show. Now, poor Melo has lost the opportunity to reconsider. On April 18, Costa resigned from FSN, and while he was unwilling to discuss the earlier incident (as was FSN spokeswoman Amy Turner, who also declined comment this time), he was more than happy to hash over his exit.

In a Raw Sports episode taped after the suspension, Costa riffed about the woman who said she'd been raped by several since-exonerated members of the Duke lacrosse team; he referred to her as a "lying stripper" and "whore." FSN types weren't thrilled by his choice of words, he says, and that frustrated him, since he'd been wanting to bring more of the no-holds-barred tone of his radio show to TV. Likewise, his bosses rejected his request to dump co-host Oren Lomena so he could go solo. And they also deep-sixed his plan to argue in another commentary segment that South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier was wrong for saying the Confederate flag should no longer fly on state capitol grounds. A few days after this last incident, he quit.

Costa has kind words for producer Benjie Kaze, who handpicked him for Raw Sports. In contrast, he rails against broadcasting timidness that he associates with Don Imus fallout. "The way the industry is moving makes me seriously contemplate my future," he says. "I think it's to our detriment that unique voices are being passed over in favor of the safe and sound. Programmers may be able to sleep at night, but what are we giving audiences? A bunch of vanilla, homogenized programming delivered by robots. If things keep going this way, every face and voice will be the same."

And Costa will figuratively join Imus on the unemployment line.

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