How could anyone be surprised that Howard Stern made tactless remarks about the Columbine High School shootings during his April 21 broadcast? After all, his appeal, in large part, is based on his willingness to make tactless remarks about anything and everything, so he was simply running true to form. Likewise, his lascivious take on the tragedy (he noted that many of the young women fleeing for their lives were "good-looking," then wondered why the killers hadn't tried to screw them before blowing them away) was wholly predictable. Stern is capable of squeezing sex into practically any topic--even the war in Kosovo. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, he salivated over the cover of Time magazine, which pictured a woman with a partially bare breast, before adding that when he sees images of refugee camps, he thinks about the day when such uprooted victims will be working in the States as particularly hot housekeepers.
More intriguing, then, is the manner in which the community at large was informed about what Stern said, as well as the reactions by everyone from the management at KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak), which broadcasts Stern in the Denver area, to the Peak's many radio competitors. The story is still developing, but there's the very real possibility that universal (and understandable) grief may be used as an excuse to pummel free speech. While Stern's Columbine statements were stupid and untimely, any supporter of the First Amendment should be defending to the death his right to make them. But right now, they're mighty quiet--and in the current atmosphere, they're apt to remain that way.
Stern never comes into a radio market quietly, but his entry into Denver was noisier than most. The program was originally slated to begin airing last September on KKHK-FM/99.5 (the Hawk), but following the announcement of its acquisition, the signal was inundated with so many complaints (many genuine, some allegedly staged by competitors at Jacor Broadcasting, a Kentucky conglomerate that owns eight powerful Denver stations) that it backed out at the last minute. A couple of months later, the Peak--a property of Dallas-based Chancellor Broadcasting, a mammoth concern with multiple Denver radio properties--stepped up to the plate, having decided that Stern's popularity outweighed his unpredictability. "Whether you love him or hate him, most people know who Howard is, which you can't say about a lot of people that you could put on a brand-new morning show," Scott Strong, the station's program director at the time, boasted in the November 26, 1998, edition of this column. "He gets people talking--and that's good."
Not always. Initially, the reaction to Stern's Columbine jibes was mostly confined to complaints made to the radio station, but Peak general manager Bob Visotcky was concerned enough about them to phone Stern's handlers. On April 22, Stern--perhaps prompted by Visotcky, perhaps not--spoke in less injurious tones about the Columbine shooting during a show featuring one of his daughters, who was present because of national Take Your Daughter to Work day. And on April 23, Stern read over the air an article about teacher Dave Sanders, the sole adult victim of the assault, calling the piece "the saddest goddamn thing I've ever heard about in my life."
Visotcky weighed in with an editorial of his own. In the recording, which was heard on the Peak every two hours from April 23 to 25, he acknowledged that Stern had "crossed the line" but went on to defend the host by claiming that he shouldn't be judged on the basis of "one or two inappropriate comments." He further suggested that instead of issuing such attacks, people impacted by the mass slaying should spend their energy by being more loving and compassionate toward those around them.
In an April 26 conversation with Westword, Visotcky, who said he was "outraged" by Stern's Columbine quips, said he wasn't trying to imply that Stern and the Peak, rather than the individual casualties and the people of Colorado, were the victims of the incident. That's precisely how his mea culpa sounded, though, providing even more ammunition for Dusty Saunders, a veteran media critic for the Denver Rocky Mountain News whose April 24 attack on Stern and the Peak, headlined "Radio's Bottom Line on Columbine: Sensitivity Doesn't Sell," spurred the public's indignation. But the text's portrayal of Stern as "a foul-mouthed, unfeeling slob" and Visotcky as a duplicitous corporate stooge might never have reached print had not an anonymous tipster recorded the contentious Columbine lines and played them into Saunders's voice mail. Saunders, who does a weekly radio show for Jacor's KHOW-AM/630 (an ethically questionable choice on his part), called this person "a reader" during an April 27 appearance on Jacor-owned KOA-AM/850--and that may, in fact, be true. But it's just as likely that the informant was employed by Jacor, which is widely believed to employ an array of subterfuge against radio rivals on a regular basis. Over the years, I've received numerous voice mails of the type that came Saunders's way, including one on April 26--and on every single occasion, they were aimed directly at Jacor's adversaries.
No one at Jacor has ever fessed up to such trickery, of course, and the Stern case is no exception. On April 26, Mike O'Connor, program director for Jacor's KRFX-FM/103.5 (the Fox) and KTCL-FM/93.3, denied that Jacor was involved in publicizing Stern's gaffe, but he did concede that Jacor regularly monitors (and records) his broadcast. "It took all the restraint we could muster not to blow the whistle on the guy," O'Connor said. "I've been sitting on the tape since last Wednesday. But since we're perceived as a competitor, we thought we'd look like we were grandstanding--so we waited until the news got out another way."
And get out it did. Saunders's denunciation was followed in the Rocky by an April 26 editorial--the first of two the paper has published thus far--demanding that the Peak pull Stern from its lineup. Immediately thereafter, other media outlets began piling on. Both KHOW-AM and KNUS-AM/710 (a station not owned by Jacor) devoted much of their morning airtime on April 26 to anti-Stern harangues, with KHOW's Tom Martino saying that he was embarrassed to be associated with Stern in any way. (Stern's Saturday-night television show is owned by CBS and broadcast locally by Martino's television employer, KCNC-TV/Channel 4. Because of the connection, Channel 4 has also been targeted by anti-Stern protesters.) The Peak's switchboard was subsequently overwhelmed by irate locals. In one of the most unfortunate choices of metaphors imaginable, the station's receptionist told me that she was "under heavy fire."
As this onslaught was at its height, Visotcky got on the phone with Stern, who he said was dumbfounded by the anger being directed at him and would attempt to "clear everything up" on the next day's show. But if Visotcky was hoping for Stern to issue a simple and heartfelt apology during his April 27 broadcast, he didn't get it. After kicking off the first hour of the show with a rap parody called "My Niggaz," which he delivered in a white man's joking approximation of black English, and some banter with a stripper eager to participate in a "lesbian dream date" with a pair of porn stars, Stern launched into a vigorous forty-minute defense of his post-shootings behavior--one of several he'd offer throughout his shift. "I made a comment, and anybody who heard it knows that it was totally in context," he declared. "And I think I've made some fairly sensitive comments about this. I talked about the teacher, I did a profile of the students." About the disputed remarks, he added, "I was just looking for the motive in all of this, because I understand the criminal mind. If somebody goes out and rapes a woman and kills them for sexual pleasure or something like that, I can understand it. But this was just so senseless that I was trying to understand it."
On only a couple of brief occasions did Stern come close to sounding conciliatory; for instance, he said, "I assure you that I feel pretty bad about this." But he spent much more time protesting his innocence with arguments such as "If my comments were so insensitive, I would have heard about it all the time--but I'm on in fifty markets, and I haven't heard a single complaint from anybody outside Denver. I put my foot in my mouth all the time, but I didn't on this. Maybe it wasn't the most profound point, but I've got five hours a day to fill."
Even Stern realized that weak rationalizations like these were unlikely to change minds set against him, especially now that the story has gone national (it made the New York Post on April 27 and is on the Associated Press wire). "This show is not going to solve the Denver problem," he said. But as proof that he wasn't all that worried about the situation, he even aimed several barbs at Visotcky, noting, "I've got this general manager there going on the air apologizing, which only makes things worse. And then I'm on the phone with him, and he's going, 'Oh, my God, oh my God,' and saying I should apologize. But why should I apologize? Apologize for what? Maybe I'll be off the air in Denver, but at least I'm going to tell you what's really going on."
Still, Stern's most effective tack was to cast Jacor as bad guys involved in an underhanded attempt to disparage him. "My competitors are freaking out," he announced. "They hate this show. They're scared to death of me, because they can't come up with any decent shows against us. We're getting ratings, and they're scared to death."
There's something to that. The Peak's morning ratings are on the rise: In February, the most recent month for which tallies were available at press time, Stern's show was the fourth-most popular drive-time offering in the Denver area among listeners between the ages of 18 and 34, trailing only KALC-FM/105.9 (Alice), KRFX-FM/103.5 (the Fox) and KQKS-FM/107.5 (KS-107.5). In addition, industry insiders are anticipating that Stern's ratings will go up in the wake of the Columbine flap, just as occurred at Alice a couple of years ago after a DJ ridiculed an epileptic who drowned as a "seizure salad." It's natural, they say, for people to tune in to see what all the fuss is about. But this is generally a temporary phenomenon that doesn't take into account advertising dollars--a station's lifeblood. The Peak is selling commercials in the Stern morning block to strip clubs and the like, but most mainstream businesses have been steering clear for fear of tarnishing their reputations. And the Columbine matter will likely further fuel a trend that's already hit the Peak in the wallet. A possible corollary can be drawn to the experiences of KEGL-FM (the Eagle) in Dallas. Stern had helped the station climb to the top of the ratings heap in the city, but after the jock made fun of Latin singer Selena's death and music, local outrage scared advertisers away. Eventually the Eagle pulled the plug on Stern, even though he was number one in the market.
All of this puts Visotcky in an extremely vulnerable position that's exacerbated by his role in the airing of Stern's quotes. Why? The Peak could have easily prevented Stern's Columbine jokes from being heard here: Because the program is run on a tape-delay basis, snipping the offending segment would have been a cinch had a Peak staffer been checking the recording for potentially problematic content. But even though Stern has received at least $1.715 million in fines from the Federal Communications Commission--more than any other person--no such early warning system was in place. Visotcky has now instituted strict policies regarding Stern's show and has done what he can to make the Peak seem like a responsible member of the broadcasting landscape, launching a blood drive and raising money for Columbine-related charities. But that hasn't prevented Jacor personalities from mercilessly ripping the Peak. Most hysterical thus far has been Steve Kelly, a morally superior boor on KOA who on April 27 got into a shouting match with a caller who dared to say he wasn't offended by Stern's remarks, then quizzed the station's legal expert, Dan Caplis, on the odds of successfully suing Stern over what he said. Caplis admitted that such a suit was doomed to fail before adding his voice to the chorus calling for Stern's head.
As of the 26th, Visotcky didn't know if the Peak would resist the pressure to sack its star attraction: "I'm talking to people at my company and CBS and looking at all the facts, but we haven't decided on anything yet," he said. But listeners who consider Stern a major contributor to the deteriorating quality of Denver radio should think twice about celebrating if the Peak caves. Although scapegoating Stern may make Denverites feel better temporarily, he's no more guilty of complicity at Columbine than the bands whose CDs may have turned up in the killers' homes. Howard Stern may be a symptom of what's wrong in today's society, but he sure ain't the disease.
Like Stern, Marilyn Manson and Rammstein have also been tagged with part of the blame for the Columbine High massacre. By the evening of April 20, the day of the attack, mainstream media types armed with a handful of highly suspect anecdotes were reporting that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two students identified as the primary perpetrators of the bloodshed, were fans of these two bands, both of which were scheduled to showcase in the Denver area in the weeks and months ahead. Before long, untold thousands of observers benumbed by the images of chaos with which they'd been bombarded were convinced that although Harris and Klebold did the actual killing, their marching orders came in part from rock stars cynically spewing anti-social messages for their own profit.
The widespread acceptance of these totally unscientific, utterly specious theories has prompted some predictable fallout. To wit, the Manson concert slated for Red Rocks on April 30 has been canceled, and a turn by Rammstein set for June 14 at the Fillmore Auditorium (formerly the Mammoth Events Center) may not occur, either. In addition, a number of conservative politicians have stepped up their attacks on the music industry, laying the groundwork for arguments in favor of further regulation and/or de facto censorship. That Tipper Gore, the woman who helped spearhead the pro-regulation Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) during the Eighties, was among the dignitaries at a Clement Park memorial on April 25 isn't a good sign.
The Manson date was to have been sponsored by KBPI-FM/106.7; it was advertised as the station's annual "birthday bash." But Don Howe, vice president and general manager of Jacor, which owns KBPI, claims that the decision to call off the performance was unrelated to the press's linking of Manson's music with the Columbine gunmen. "It was no different than what the sports teams in town did," he says. "This was no time to be whooping it up at a Rockies game or an Avalanche game or at a concert. I've seen the reports that have associated goth music and the goth lifestyle with where these kids were coming from. But really, regardless of who we had scheduled up there, we weren't going to have that show."
Clearly, this argument strains credibility: After all, the Rockies and the Avalanche (as well as the Denver Nuggets) didn't play games within 48 hours of the Columbine massacre, but the Nuggets were back on the McNichols Arena court on April 23, and the Avalanche rescheduled a playoff game with the San Jose Sharks for April 28. Furthermore, spokesmen from the mayor's office were publicly calling for the gig to be deep-sixed specifically because Manson was involved. Howe, though, denies that Jacor made its move because of the heat. As he tells it, he was never contacted by any city official and adds that Jacor would have axed the appearance a full day sooner than it did if details involving Ticketmaster, the ticketing service overseeing the event, hadn't delayed the announcement. But none of the sports franchises he cites had similar logistical problems, and while Howe asserts that Manson's songs weren't pulled from KBPI rotation as a result of the Columbine incident, the singer's profile on the station is currently all but nonexistent.
Howe's artful dodging of these issues is completely understandable: He doesn't want advertisers spending their dollars elsewhere because they associate KBPI with the type of conduct practiced by Harris and Klebold. And he's right to worry about Manson, who's given detractors no shortage of rope over the years. Manson has refused all interviews since the shootings, issuing only a brief remark on the topic: "It's tragic and disgusting any time young people's lives are taken in an act of senseless violence. My condolences go out to the students and their families." But in an interview with Westword several years ago ("They Call Him Mr. Manson!" October 19, 1994), the former Brian Warner took great delight in making provocative comments that seemingly contradict his present stance. "Good and evil are interchangeable, and if you merge them together so that there are no boundaries between them, there's a gray area," he said at the time. "There's no sexuality, no morality and no line between on-stage and off-stage. That's where we reside." He also praised the mass murderer who inspired half of his moniker ("I think Charles Manson had a lot of positive things to say and could have been a real cultural leader") and suggested that "morality in America is specifically designed to benefit those who created it, not the people who are controlled by that. Realizing that, I'm suggesting that you make up your own rules."
Combine such statements with the inability of many observers to recognize what Manson does as shtick and it makes perfect sense that talk-show host Peter Boyles spent part of his April 23 broadcast on KHOW-AM/630 treating lyrics from Manson's Antichrist Superstar album like excerpts from an instruction manual for fledgling psychos. In truth, Manson is the Alice Cooper of his generation, and judging by the generally weak attendance figures earned by his ongoing tour, his shock value has pretty much worn off. But he makes such an easy target that even the self-appointed guardians of rectitude haven't been able to miss--regardless of whether, as one of their friends claimed, they hated Marilyn Manson.
Rammstein, too, tends to play with fire--literally. At a McNichols Arena concert reviewed in this space last autumn (Feedback, October 15, 1998), Till Lindemann, the group's lead singer, appeared in a flaming overcoat and spark-throwing boots, pounded his body with his fist and his microphone and, in a particularly bizarre moment, simulated anal sex with a fellow bandmember while sporting a faux penis attached to a high-powered hose. But Brent Fedrizzi, the talent buyer for Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents (BGP/CMP), the promotion firm that booked Rammstein's upcoming Denver concert, says such stunts aren't to be taken seriously. "It's like KISS," he points out. "It's just entertainment. They put on a show, and that's all it is. And when it's over, you go home."
As is the case with Marilyn Manson, it's unclear whether Harris and Klebold were obsessed with Rammstein in any way. The pair purportedly liked German industrial music, and since Rammstein is the most successful act in that category today, assumptions have been made. In response, the musicians last week delivered a statement of their own: "The members of Rammstein express their condolences and sympathy to all affected by the recent tragic events in Denver. They wish to make it clear that they have no lyrical content or political beliefs that could have possibly influenced such behavior. Additionally, members of Rammstein have children of their own, in whom they continually strive to instill healthy and non-violent values."
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These words may not be enough to prevent the cancellation of Rammstein's Denver show. Tickets were supposed to be available April 24, but BGP/CMP has postponed their sale and is considering its options. "We're going to revisit the situation in a couple of weeks as the community settles down and we get through this grieving process," Fedrizzi says. "Then we'll decide what makes the most sense. We might possibly have the show and donate some proceeds to one of the charities or foundations that have been set up--or we might do the show as normal or not do the show at all."
Still, Fedrizzi can't help but be frustrated that Rammstein (and, by association, BGP/CMP) is being put on the defensive. "I don't think it's fair that music gets pulled into a situation like this," he notes. "To me, it's all about freedom of speech. That's why we live in this country--to have those kinds of rights. And obviously, there was a much deeper problem with these guys than just the music they listened to."
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com.