Neal Justin: Latest static over remarks at KQ a clear sign of times

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2007 - 6:13 AM

Another year, another Tom Barnard dustup.

Another year, another Tom Barnard dustup.

The state's most popular radio personality made news last week after his sidekick, Terri Traen, suggested that genetics and incest may have led to high suicide rates on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. KQRS-FM apologized and pledged to devote more air time to Indian issues, invite tribal members on the morning show and hire Indian interns.

The station's swift and expansive response is noteworthy for the industry that gave us the shock jock. And while the latest controversy isn't likely to affect Barnard's ratings, it's a reminder that these are hypersensitive times and that there are more than seven words you can't say on the air. That is, if you want to keep advertisers, listeners and the FCC happy.

"As far as an industry, everybody is a little more guarded, not just legally, but culturally," said Dave Ryan, host of KDWB's morning show. "We've had to learn to walk the line."

The wake-up call for broadcasters was 2004's Nipplegate. Janet Jackson's songs might not get much radio play these days, but her nationally televised wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl made her today's most influential artist.

"That's when the clamp came down," said Lori Barghini, co-host of FM107's "Lori & Julia Show."That's the shadow that hangs over everyone on the air."

It's not just the fact that the Federal Communications Commission levied a $550,000 fine, a decision being appealed by CBS. It's that the panel's definition of indecency is as hard to decipher as an early REM single.

The reaction is best reflected in Clear Channel's unofficial motto: When in doubt, leave it out. That's the philosophy adopted last month by a New York public-radio station that decided not to air a reading of Allen Ginsberg's legendary poem "Howl," which deals frankly with homosexuality, in fear of violating the FCC's obscenity standards.

"By increasing the amount of fines, the FCC has certainly had a chilling effect on content," said Jim DuBois, president of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association. "As soon as that happened, I know a lot of broadcast groups went out and invested in delay equipment."

But the FCC's wrath is only part of the story, because the organization limits itself to swear words and nudity. The fact that many radio personalities are also wary of highly charged subjects like politics and race has to do with concerns about raising the ire of advertisers. With all media companies scrambling for ad revenue, the idea of major corporations pulling their support is more threatening than ever.

"Advertisers have less of an interest in First Amendment protection than broadcasters do," said Jon Katz, a First Amendment attorney based in Maryland. "They are more worried about people identifying their products with what offends them."

But a swift, highly publicized mea culpa can help rehabilitate the offender. Popular New York talk-show host Don Imus, for instance, is scheduled to return to the air in December, just eight months after CBS fired him for calling members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."

Tom Kay, executive director for Conclave, a local organization for radio programmers and DJs, said the combination of today's legal tenor and the possibility of lost advertising revenue has created "the perfect storm."Everyone's paying a lot more attention than they did five or seven years ago," he said.

Of course, you don't have to be a federal commissioner or a major advertiser to give radio stations some static. The little guy is not so little anymore.

Mike Kronforst, who teaches broadcasting at the Brown College of Minneapolis, said this is especially true in small markets.

"We tell our students, 'You get one phone call and you're going to get called on the carpet,'" he said. "You've got to be a little more careful."

Pong Vang knows firsthand what a difference a few people can make. Almost 10 years ago, he and some college friends protested against KQRS after Barnard's show made disparaging comments about the Hmong community. Their grassroots effort eventually led to a pullout by major advertisers, like Texaco and Perkins, and an on-air apology. Vang, a cultural consultant at St. Paul's Harding High School, believes the growth of the Internet makes it even easier today to make a difference.

"The media is more sensitive than it was a few years ago. It has to be," he said. "The community is made up of all kinds of consumers and if you only appeal to one group, you're not going to stay in business very long."

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