On Feb. 14 or 15 (accounts differ), less than 100 hours after Whitney Houston died, Los Angeles AM radio talkers John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, known ubiquitously in Southern California as "John & Ken" (and also as "the most listened to local talk radio program in the United States"), reacted to the news by pointing out that the death was no surprise given Houston's two decades of erratic, drug-addled behavior. Oh, and they also called her "crack ho'." Listen here:
The reaction was swift: Before the end of the week, KFI, a Clear Channel flagship station, suspended its popular drive-time duo for six working days "for making insensitive and inappropriate comments" about the singer. "KFI AM 640 Management does not condone, support or tolerate statements of this kind," management said. John Kobylt swallowed his medicine: "We made a mistake, and we accept the station's decision. We used language that was inappropriate, and we sincerely apologize to our listeners and to the family of Ms. Houston." The hosts were slated for "sensitivity training."
That did not prove to be enough for the L.A. City Council (whose members, incidentally, earn [as of one year ago] an average salary of $178,789, widely considered to be the highest in the country). The Council last week voted by a 13-2 margin in favor of a resolution stating that "the derogatory language used by some radio personnel has no place on public airwaves in the Great City of Los Angeles or anywhere in America," and urging "the management of radio and television stations in Los Angeles to do everything in their power to ensure that their on-air hosts do not use and promote racist and sexist slurs over public airwaves in the City of Los Angeles."
What does "everything in their power" include? The Council includes this guideline:
a truly diverse work environment must include the hiring of women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians not only as on-air talent, but as fill-in talent, paid contributors, producers, engineers, news reporters and online Web site owners.
It is to my free-speechin' heart never a good thing when an organ of government singles out a company, a station, a show, and its hosts for a tongue-lashing that includes the word "must." Though the legion of John & Ken haters in the media will complain about the resolution being toothless, it is next to impossible to do any kind of business in the City of Angels without going through a series of potentially politicized approvals at City Hall. And as Jesse Walker discussed in his 2008 feature "Beyond the Fairness Doctrine," the issue of ethnic diversity is precisely where the federal government has been concentrating its leverage over the radio business. I have no doubt that the most popular public-affairs radio station in Southern California is feeling intense pressure to placate the politicians it otherwise criticizes, which veers damn near close to the dictionary definition of "chilling" (a fact I was happy to see at least Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams admit).
I cannot imagine saying the phrase "crack ho'" even in private jest (though maybe that's because I find the fully pronounced "whore" much more hilarious), and if I had a dime for every time I winced at John and Ken talking about illegal immigration I could probably buy the Tribune Company*. But the fact that the City Council passed this resolution after KFI suspended the two suggests to me that the only real distance between L.A.'s politicians and The National Hispanic Media Coalition's "Take John and Ken Off the Air" campaign is that meddling Congress-shall-make-no-law stuff.
Though I take non-politicians who accuse John and Ken of "hate radio" at their word, I am much more suspicious about the motives of those in power. That's because having both listened to John and Ken on occasion and appeared on their show (including twice during their suspension!), I can testify that those two shouties, whatever you may think of them, cover the living hell out of local news. Here they are last week, for example, going after the L.A. city attorney, whose name is probably known by less than one in five journalists in town. It is one thing to throw long-distance rhetorical bombs at Rush Limbaugh (who is name-checked in the City Council's resolution, natch), but another altogether to target a powerful duo who come to prominence by knowledgeably ridiculing the local (and eminently ridiculable) political class. There was, needless to say, nothing like this level of enthusiasm for a City Council resolution back when Augustin Cebada was spouting anti-Semitic nonsense on the local Pacifica outlet.
* Joke totally stolen from Matt Novak.