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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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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