Kitty Stark doesn't seem like the type of person capable of raising anyone's blood pressure. She's a 63-year-old child-care provider with a kindly personality and a ready laugh. Yet when she objected to an offhand joke about "Vietnamese hookers" made by KHOW's Craig Silverman and shared her thoughts about the incident with Westword, she unwittingly got under the skin of the attorney/talk-show host — and so did I. During a May 22 phone interview on this subject, Silverman spent several heated minutes fulminating about Stark, whom he charged with calling him a liar, among other things, and pointedly derided yours truly for giving such a person publicity. The next morning, in a face-to-face at Westword's offices, Silverman spent more than an hour ardently expanding upon these points and expressing exasperation that he'd been put in the position of responding to what he saw as "a big nothing."
These days, however, big nothings can turn into big somethings awfully fast. Nationally syndicated yakker Don Imus could never have guessed that his description of the Rutgers women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos" would backfire on him, but after he was assailed by a coalition of critics led by the Reverend Al Sharpton, he lost his job and his platform. In the wake of his dismissal, managers at Clear Channel-Denver, who oversee eight stations in the metro area, including KHOW, held an April 19 meeting with the majority of its opinion purveyors to discuss the possibility of a similar incident taking place here ("Sound Check," April 26, 2007), and their concerns soon proved justified. Earlier this month, ProgressNow Action, a left-leaning political organization, launched a campaign against KOA's Bob Newman, one of those who attended this session, for suggesting that "every Muslim immigrant to America who holds a green card, a visa, or who is a naturalized citizen [should] be required by law to wear a GPS tracking bracelet at all times" to prevent prospective terrorist activities.
Silverman's attempted jest is exceedingly benign in comparison with Imus's words or Newman's proposal, a high-tech variation on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, one of the darkest and least admirable chapters in American history. Still, Silverman can't be blamed for being on edge. In the current atmosphere of confusion over shifting standards, even someone like Kitty Stark can seem scary.
The Newman affair presents a case study about how an incendiary remark can lead to negative repercussions. Colorado Media Matters, a progressive operation that monitors broadcasts and publications in an attempt to expose what it sees as "inaccuracies" with a right-wing slant, posted a piece about Newman's GPS idea on May 9, the day after he floated the notion. CMM's Bill Menezes spread the word about the item to like-minded groups, several of which promptly weighed in against Newman. Press releases excoriating the comments were issued by local offices of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee.
At first Newman responded to these condemnations in typically combative fashion. But he went into retreat, more or less, once ProgressNow Action got involved. Fearing that going the press-release route would simply give Newman more ammunition, the group's staffers monitored his broadcast and came up with a list of eleven advertisers. Then they sent out an e-mail to the 6,000 most active ProgressNow members requesting that they make their displeasure known to the businesses and to KOA. Michael Huttner, the driving force behind ProgressNow, estimates that around 20 percent of them did so — a huge number, given that the participation rate generally hovers around 3 percent.
The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News subsequently ran articles noting that three of the eleven firms asked that their commercials not be aired during Newman's program in the future — and John Eden, sales manager for Westminster's Revive Inc., confirms that he's directed the ad broker with whom his company works to make a similar request, bringing the total to at least four. (Eden points out that Revive hasn't been specifically buying time on the Gunny Bob program. He presumes the commercial heard by ProgressNow Action was "a freebie" thrown in as part of Revive's overall package.) Moreover, even Vince Carroll, the Rocky's reliably conservative editorial-page editor, branded the GPS proposition "indefensible."
Newman hasn't discussed any of these developments on the air, and neither has he promoted the GPS initiative again, despite getting an attaboy from well-known mouthpiece Laura Ingraham, who played the original clip on her syndicated forum. Additionally, snarky comebacks that once appeared on his KOA web page have been replaced with what CMM's Menezes calls "a non-apology apology." The blurb begins, "Newsradio 850 KOA understands that some of you may have been offended by remarks Gunny Bob made regarding Muslim immigrants to the United States. That was not the intention..."
As for Newman himself, he submitted a blanket "No comment" to Westword — a strange stance, since talking about what's got people talking is generally considered to be a talk-show host's job.
In contrast, Jay Marvin, who hosts the morning-drive slot on AM 760, Clear Channel's progressive station, tackled the topic, batting Newman around for much of his May 11 offering. Afterward, Marvin says, Kris Olinger, head of AM programming for Clear Channel-Denver, discussed the content of the day's broadcast with him, and he hasn't returned to the theme since. Even so, he stresses that Olinger didn't castigate him for going after fellow Clear Channel talent, nor did she warn him against revisiting the territory. That was his own decision, he maintains, because he'd already gotten it off his chest — and he praises Olinger for publicly defending Newman against those attacking him. "It's good to know management supports you," he allows. "If there's no management to support me, why the hell should I crawl out on a limb about anything?"
Although Olinger says she hasn't ordered Newman to clam up about his hackles-raising statement, she hasn't encouraged him to yap about it, either. But in general, she thinks more discussion is better. "That's really what talk radio is all about," she asserts.
Of course, such discourse also has its messy aspects — like those that turned Silverman against Kitty Stark, and vice versa. According to Silverman, a caller who'd just been welcomed onto a mid-May show said, "First time, long time." The phrase reminded Silverman of "Love you long time," a line associated with Vietnam War-era prostitutes that was used in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket; these words were later sampled by 2 Live Crew in the nasty hip-hop favorite "Me So Horny." Hence, Silverman made a wisecrack about "Vietnamese hookers," which Stark inaccurately remembered as "Vietnamese whores."
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Even Silverman says this comment doesn't qualify as "hall-of-fame humor," and on the show, he quickly noted that he meant no offense. All the same, Stark believed Silverman still should have offered a fuller apology, and several days after contacting Westword (thereby spurring a modest blog item), she phoned KHOW and was put on the air with Silverman's partner, Dan Caplis. While Caplis remembers treating Stark with "great respect" in the context of defending Silverman (as does another listener who heard the conversation live), she was upset. "He lawyered me, cutting me off so that I had no voice," she says. "I felt like I'd been in a courtroom."
By coincidence, Silverman had been in a courtroom, and when he was reached by Caplis after completing his work there, he passionately rebuked Stark for mistaking "hookers" for "whores" and for implying that his comment could be construed as racially insensitive. He struck these same chords in his Westword interview. "This isn't making a mountain out of a molehill," he fumed. "This is making an anthill out of flat ground."
For her part, Stark doesn't think her criticism was any big deal, and she concedes that she may be a bit more sensitive than most people to comedy that references nationality or ethnicity due to her job. Stark has spent the past two decades-plus working at a University of Colorado at Boulder preschool, where she cares for children of faculty members, staff and students — a diverse population that comprises what she looks upon as "a little United Nations." As such, she specializes in teaching tots of every description how to resolve conflicts peacefully and positively.
Doing the same in radio is a lot tougher, especially in the post-Imus environment. Can't we all just get along?