Loh Blow for Public Radio Free Speech

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For six years, writer/comedian Sandra Tsing Loh has been delivering chatty, somewhat manic, and bravely trivial monologues on the Santa Monica-based National Public Radio powerhouse KCRW. No more.

On Feb. 29, she recorded a bit about how, because her husband plays in Bette Midler's touring band, "I guess I have to fuck him." The word "fuck" was to be bleeped for comic effect, but the engineer didn't do it. Loh was then immediately fired by the legendary and irritable KCRW overlord, Ruth Seymour. "You cannot say 'fuck' on the air, period," Seymour told occasional Reason contributor Cathy Seipp. "We could lose our license. She's obviously having problems." Seymour delivered more Loh blows to the L.A. Times:

And if Sandra says she's angry, how do you think we at the station feel? Apart from endangering the license, we could well incur a heavy fine. We really are serious with her, that with such a trivial, self-serving piece, she put us all in danger.

It might be pointed out that Seymour describing anyone as "trivial" and "self-serving" is like the pot calling the kettle a "pot." Anyway, there have been no reports of anyone from the FCC contacting KCRW, whose obscenity guidelines (and Loh-firing memo) can be found at L.A. Observed. First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh responded by asking, "Shouldn't public radio stations be a bit less timid?"

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  1. Catfight?

  2. Don`t you just love PUBIC radio?

  3. “Shouldn’t public radio stations be a bit less timid?”

    No, no, no. You don’t get it. Public radio is defined to be neutral, and its content is defined to be important.

    Only the dirty corporate media have to answer to their bosses, so if this seems timid, you must be mistaken.

  4. I have a new post about this on my blog today, the one called “Sandra the Love Sponge.”

  5. Wait… people listen to public radio? Whenever I decide to give it a chance, they put me to sleep, and on the drive home that’s not really what I want.

    I just stick with my commercially sponsored Larry Elder… All that money censoring what he says really gets me angry.

  6. What interests me is how the FCC has managed to create a climate of uncertainty (I wouldn’t call it fear just yet) in the post-Janet Jackson era. The White House’s general indifference to the regulatory agencies only compounds the confusion. And then there’s the partisan divide within the FTC between the anti-media, anti-free speech forces led by Michael Copps and the pragmatist, let’s-compromise-for-the-sake-of-compromise school led by Michael Powell.

    If the Jackson incident performed any useful function, it’s to demonstrate the frightening level of ineptness and confusion displayed by federal communications regulation. If only the major parties actually differed on the ideological substance of this issue?rather than taking different facets of the pro-regulatory position?there could be a meaningful public policy debate on this question.

  7. In all fairness NPR could have been employing a deaf engineer that day sanctioned by another federal regulatory agency trying to acheive “neutrality”. KCRW likely is a recipient of federal CPB dollars.

    Could also have been a test of No Obscenity Left Behind.

  8. Free speech only applies to stuff that doesn’t offend anybody.

  9. If what you say doesn’t offend anyone, it’s not worth saying. Anything of meaning offends at least one person.

  10. Mo:

    Usually joe …

  11. Ahhhh… The smell of National Public Radio and ‘Fresh Air’. Radio Moscow is on life support; trouble is we’re all footing the bill for this bastion of pseudo-intellectual, third-rate talent, soft-talking latte suckers. This is just a stunt to stir up some PR—any PR! NPR likely feels left out in the cold with the recent tempests surrounding Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge. In some ways, its a welcome move to the ‘center.’ Thank God my SUV has presets so I don’t have to scan through that region of the dial…

  12. “Shouldn’t public radio stations be a bit less timid?”

    I’m no fan of public broadcasting, in principle. But, it doesn’t suprise me that KCRW is so sensitive (AKA timid) because, unlike traditional, commercial broadcast media, KCRW gets a HUGE portion of their income directly from the listeners.

    For those of you not from Southern California, KCRW is a phenomenon. They raise millions with pledge drives. I suspect that the budget of NPR stations in some markets, including tax payer support, is smaller than the total income KCRW enjoys counting subscriber contributions alone.

    Here’s the point. Because such a large portion of KCRW’s income comes directly from consumers, rather than indirectly by way of advertisers, the management reacted quickly and decisively to the desires of the market place.

    Ironic isn’t it?

    The direct accountability of NPR via direct subscribers, in spite of NPR being funded by tax payers, makes KCRW’s management enforce moral standards with much greater efficiency than public threats from the FCC or the vibratto of a Senator from New Mexico.

    If we cut tax payer funding for KCRW enirely, it would probably become more responsive still.

    All this suggests that moral standards in broadcasting aren’t necessarily a product of regulation, they might be a natural consequence of a consumer driven, free market.

  13. or it might be worries about the giant hammer of anti-nastiness the FCC is tossing about.

  14. dhex

    Of course, that’s part of it. But, in the same environment, Howard Stern had a stripper vomit on naked weirdo.

  15. For a wife to refer to sex with her husband as to fuck may be indelicate, but hardly pornographic. One of the benefits of marriage is socially ondoned sexual intercourse. In the situation cited, it would have been more disrupting to hear her say “I guess I had to carnally know my husband” or “I guess I had to let my man bang my box.”
    Unfuck ’em.

  16. Since when does anyone have a right to host a radio show on public radio? Free speech doesn’t create an obligation to hire any schmoe who wants to be heard, does it?

  17. IF only they would ban everyone
    who has ever done one
    of those ego-laden monolo(n)gs.
    ONE claim to fame is more than enough!!

    And how does NPR get away with those commercials,
    and then come begging twice a year.
    I call them and tell them I won’t pay, not a dime,
    but will freeload as long as they have better programming
    when the fund drive is on than during the rest of the year.

  18. I’m not arguing with you about the 2% Mojo because I really don’t know.

    But I do have some questions.

    Do the producers of programs like All Things Considered, This American Life, etc. get tax payer money?

    Do NPR stations have to pay license fees to the FCC like commercial radio?

    Once again, really I don’t know.

    One thing I do know is that KCRW is hosted by Santa Monica Community College, and a lot of other NPR stations are hosted by Colleges that receieve a ton of tax payer money, albiet indirectly.

    Regardless of whether or not NPR stations take tax payer money, however, KCRW is showing itself, because of direct subscription, to be more responsive to the mores of their listeners than commerical radio.

    This may come as a shock to people who advocate tougher regulation via the FCC as a means to cleaning up the airwaves, and, as a Libertarian, those are the people I’m trying to reach.

    Many of them already understand this argument regarding public vs. private schools; it’s, essentially, the same argument.

  19. “Public radio” is a squishy term that describes outlets with several different types of structures. Some licensees are governments or government-owned entities, as Schultz has pointed out. As such, I think those violate the first amendment. Government has no business owning and/or operating any media outlet, be it print or broadcast. My favorite PR station is owned by a private university. It gets the bulk of its funding from donations from listeners and underwriters (advertisers, in the real world) and about 10% of its budget from federal, state or local tax funds. I listen to another college station, also from a private school, that may not get any tax dough, though the school may get federal grant money for research unrelated to radio. There’s another station I like that is owned by a community-based non-profit membership organization. Just as “public schools” in Great Britain are actually private schools that are open to the public, “public radio” need not be government radio.

    But then we get to funding. CPB, though chartered by the Congress, pretends not to be a government operation. Congress grants it money, and CPB gives grants to individual stations and to programmers. It claims @ http://www.cpb.org/pubcast/#who_pays that:

    “Less than one-third of public broadcasting’s total revenues comes from tax-based sources such as federal, state, and local governments. The remaining two-thirds is from private sources such as memberships, businesses and foundations.”

    Totaling all govt. sources from their chart gives:

    State Governments $331,203,000……………….14.5%
    CPB Appropriation $340,000,000…………………14.9%
    State Colleges $182,523,000……………………….8.0%
    Local Governments $60,933,000…………………..2.7%
    Federal Grants and Contracts $45,185,000…….2.0%
    Other Public Colleges $18,790,000…………………..8%

    Total from govt. sources……………………………..42.9%

    I’d expect that there may be hidden subsidies (below market rent for on-campus facilities, frex) that would bring these figures up a bit, possibly over 50%. How nearly 43% got to be 1/3 strikes me as strange.

    Kevin

  20. I don’t believe for a Santa Monica minute that Seymour did anything but use this as an excuse to get rid of Loh. And speaking of The Gorgon-when was the last time someone did a piece on Her?
    Seems to me it was about 15 years ago, in either the NY or LA Times magazine…or perhaps it was the old, old L.A. Weekly? At any rate, with each new pledge drive, shameless name-dropping of ARCHANGEL Tom Hanks, or commercial thinly disguised as a “contest” prize giveaway super-dooper vacation to exotic wherever, there seems to me to be more fodder for a fabulous piece on the old crone…anyone?

  21. > I’d expect that there may be hidden subsidies

  22. Public Radio is NOT supported by tax dollars. It recieves less than 2% of its budget from competitive grants from the NEH and NEA. Thats it, the rest comes from subscribers who are guilted into uying a 50$ coffee mug during one of their beg-a-thons.

    It is clearly a left leaning media outlet, and as such it would be very vulnerable, to say the least, to political influence if it recieved a substantial source of funds from the federal government. Frankly, they are watching their asses because they know that the FCC would LOVE to have a reason to clamp down on them during an election year.

  23. The sad thing is that Sandra really is funny. Not “South Park” funny, but still funny. I hope I still hear her on Marketplace. Howard never was funny. If regulation is what it takes to get him off the air, it’s no big deal. I’m writing my congressman to try to get Linkin Park classified as a C&W band so they get play on altrock stations.

  24. Mojo: “Public Radio”(I only know of NPR, so maybe you’re talking about something else) receives no funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? None? The member stations don’t get zilch?

    Maybe this is new, but aren’t grants from the NEH and the NEA funded with tax payer dollars?

    I’m aware that NPR’s national broadcasting receives little if any at all tax payer funding, but the member stations most ceratainly do pay bills with tax dollars.

  25. Competitive grants are open to everyone, and generally fund specific segments. I agree the government should not be giving these grants out to anyone; but lots of private companies recieve them, not just NPR. If NPR wants to do a piece on lesbian transexual Jazz musicians in Anchage Alaska with federal funds, they have to apply just like anyone else. GB’s aircraft carrier stunt alone cost the government about as much as all of these grants combined over the course of his presidency (about 20$ million dollars).

    The misconception that the corporation for public braodcasting is a government entity or that they recieve a significant portion of their funding from the Federal governent is simply wrong. 98% of their support and 100% of their day to day operating income comes from either individual donors or corporate sponsorship. You could make the case that NBC is far less independant, since their parent company, GE, does Billions of dollars in business with the US government.

  26. As far as individual stations. I guess that would vary on an individual basis. I’m sure there are member stations that recieve local funding.

  27. Matt, you have singlehandedly rescued the “pot and kettle”… such a worthy aphorism, from PC induced obscurity. Remove the “black” and we all breath a bit easier!

  28. dj, I refuse to accept the concept that revenue foregone by the state, and left in the pocket of the individual, is in any way a subsidy. At the heart of that contention is that you aren’t the owner of your own wealth unless the government gives you permission to keep it.

    BTW, I’ve left my analysis of their own figures on CPB’s webpage’s comments area. It will be interesting to see how they respond to it.

    Kevin

  29. Ruth Seymour’s bias against Loh is more than evident in her comments in the LA times. I can’t imagine calling Loh’s piece “self-serving” — ?? Loh always has a comic and wry wit – usually making me laugh out loud- a needed respite between the recent self-serving stories KCRW has been offering. In response to my complaint via email, Seymour’s email seemed over-reactive and vindictive towards Loh. I copy it below – you decide. I responded back but was informed Seymour will be gone for two-weeks.
    “Dear listener:
    There are some things in life that you go to the wall for. The right to use obscene or indecent language on the radio is not one of them.

    The Loh Life feature that caused KCRW to cancel Sandra Tsing Loh’s program uses this language in an intentional and unambiguous way. Moreover, it was presented in a context that shocked and offended listeners who phoned, wrote and e-mailed the station after the broadcast.

    This language violates KCRW’s policy on offensive language. It could endanger the station’s license and/or result in heavy fines.

    In the wake of recent events, is there a radio or TV programmer today who is not aware of the serious risks involved?

    KCRW is original, idiosyncratic and adventurous. It is also realistic and grown-up. We know access to the airwaves is both a privilege and a responsibility.
    The station has fostered an independent, free-thinking spirit that pervades its influential public affairs and cultural programming and its trend-setting music broadcasts.

    These programs and that spirit are far too important to put the station at risk over a crude four-letter word.

    Sincerely yours,

    Ruth Seymour
    KCRW General Manager

  30. > I refuse to accept the concept that revenue foregone by the state, and left in the pocket of the individual, is in any way a subsidy.

  31. dj:

    Until and unless the govt. makes income tax strictly proportional, I don’t mind those who are in a higher bracket than I am reducing the unfair amounts they are charged by means of deductions. I’d rather abolish income tax altogether, but that’s a whole `nother smoke. Do you really believe that any “revenue enhancement” resulting from eliminating charitable deductions wouldn’t just go to increased federal spending, anyway? Better that some citizen gets to keep some more of his scratch. It is usually good to starve the beast.

    On a public policy basis, I, a non-believer, don’t even have a problem with your taking a deduction on your tithe. If your church does charity work, it is probably more cost-effective than any parallel government-funded program that would be funded should your and other congregations bow out. Similarly, I’d prefer that non-commercial stations not be state-owned, so if deductability helps keeps those licenses from being reassigned to University of State at City, that’s all to the good.

    Kevin

  32. Kevin Robert -> Do you really believe that any “revenue enhancement” resulting from eliminating charitable deductions wouldn’t just go to increased federal spending, anyway?

  33. dj:

    The damn gubmint estimates how much revenue they expect to get in the upcoming year, but that has little or no relation to what they plan to spend. If it did, the Feds wouldn’t be piling up deficits by the hundreds of billions.

    What they really do is set spending levels, and then hope the economy will generate enough revenue to cover their profligacy. Absent a tax system overhaul, such as one of the many flat-tax proposals, or a shift to a consumption tax, getting rid of charity deductability wouldn’t lower anyone’s taxes.

  34. CC: To the NPR Ombudsman

    How pitiably pathetic your — and NPR’s — words regarding the unconscionable firing of Sandra Tsing Loh appear to many of us. And not just pitiable, but ironic. If you use four asterisks to prompt us to fill in the blank while reading, have you not, then, engaged in the same potentially offensive speech as Ms. Loh? And, honestly, if none of us have any trouble calling the word to mind when we stumble onto those aterisks, is it not, then, clearly enough a part of commonplace American vernacular that we probably don’t need to be shielded from it?

    The firing — and NPR’s subsequent hypocrisy — sadden me greatly. Political correctness driven by the hardcore religious right run amuck.

    It’s made me toss my local affiliate’s latest fundraising solicitation letter in the circular file — and to begin my own one-listener crusade to get my friends to do the same.

    Shame on KCRW. Shame on NPR. Shame on you.

  35. EMAIL: nospam@nospampreteen-sex.info
    IP: 210.18.158.254
    URL: http://preteen-sex.info
    DATE: 05/20/2004 10:10:45
    Buildings burn. People die. But real love is forever.

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