|Loh was initially sacked and her engineer later disciplined in one of pubcasting's first reactions to the new crackdown on naughtiness.|
Four letters, major buzz
Loh, KCRW part ways over F-word slipup
Originally published in Current, March 22, 2004
By Mike Janssen
Sandra Tsing Loh and KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, Calif., will remain parted, with a memorable four-letter word hanging between them.
Ruth Seymour, KCRW's g.m., bumped Loh from the air March 1 , the day after the station aired a commentary of Loh's that inadvertently included "fuck." Seymour cited the growing regulatory crackdown on broadcast indecency and took heat from listeners and media-watchers in southern California and beyond.
Observers in public radio debated Seymour's actions, and some execs found themselves in similar circumstances just a week later when Michael Feldman, host of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally distributed comedy program Whad'Ya Know?, said "shit" three times in one show. He later apologized.
But Seymour, whose from-the-gut management style has earned her the nickname "The Lady of the Iron Whim," reversed her decision March 15. She "was not in possession of all the facts" when she canceled Loh's show, she said in a press release, and asked Loh to return.
Loh refused the offer, calling the station "toxic ground." [Within days she had taken a job at competing pubradio station KPCC in Pasadena.]
In the weeks following her departure from KCRW, Loh had become a national poster child for casualties of the escalating war against indecency, launched by Janet Jackson's exposed breast. Now Loh worries the uproar could contribute to a repressive climate of fear within public radio.
"I'm like a canary in the coal mine," she told Current. "They revived me. I'm still living." But the system's future, especially with the threat of ballooning indecency fines, is "frightening to think of."
The Divine Miss Loh
For Loh, becoming a martyr for the First Amendment was anything but intentional.
In her Feb. 29 commentary, a paean to entertainer Bette Midler, Loh griped about her guitarist husband but conceded that because he was backing Midler on her latest tour, "I guess I have to fuck him." She used the vulgarity in homage to the salty comedienne, but said she told KCRW engineer Mario Diaz to bleep the word, as he had with profanities in earlier commentaries of hers. Diaz forgot to obscure the word and the piece aired twice on a Sunday morning with the F-word flapping in the breeze.
Seymour canceled the "Loh Life" series and went on vacation, and during her absence the media buzz grew around the ousted author and performance artist. Loh delivered a commentary on public radio's Marketplace March 8 in which she accused public radio of "timidity" and becoming "bland, vanilla, beige."
Her defenders pointed to her show's cancellation as a troubling sign of things to come in the face of an ongoing crackdown, led by Congress and the FCC, on broadcast potty mouths. Others, especially in public radio, argued that Seymour made the right choice.
Shock jock Howard Stern, whose show was recently dumped by some Clear Channel stations due to a new company crusade against indecency, defended Loh on his show, she said. In gratitude, she's knitting him a scarf.
PEN USA, a writers' group, objected to Seymour firing Loh even though the FCC had not yet threatened to discipline the station.
"KCRW, normally a place for innovative and charismatic programming, has denied its audience an independent, inventive voice out of fear that the government might reprimand the station," said Steve Rohde, a PEN v.p. "Given all the circumstances, the FCC might well not have taken any adverse action at all. But now, KCRW has taken the most draconian step all by itself."
After reversing her decision, Seymour said she hadn't known that earlier commentaries of Loh's included bleeped profanities or that Loh did not review the final edits of her pieces before they aired. KCRW's other commentators vet their final edits, she said.
"It was their way of working, and it didn't occur to her that this would go awry," Seymour said.
"But if I had known about it, I would have put a stop to it right away, because it was an accident waiting to happen," she adds. "And it did."
Diaz was put on probation for three months.
Breasts and butterflies
Loh's controversy came as Congress and the FCC threatened tougher decency regulations. Radio shock jocks have drawn crowds with raunchy sex talk for years, but it took Janet Jackson's Super Bowl indiscretion to turn up pressure on them.
The FCC proposed a total of $247,500 in fines March 12 against radio giant Clear Channel for alleged indecency on a morning show, Elliott In the Morning. The agency also rejected a request from Infinity Broadcasting March 5 to reconsider another maximum fine.
Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat who has spoken out against indecency since well before the current brouhaha, called the maximum fine of $27,500 per incident inadequate and only a negligible "cost of doing business" for the broadcasters.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate moved toward raising the maximum fine to $500,000. The White House supports the legislation, according to the Washington Post.
Loh and others worry such fines could crush noncommercial stations, which have much smaller budgets than huge conglomerates such as Clear Channel.
"What kinds of decisions are you going to start making?" Loh asked. Would stations start pre-taping more material or avoiding live interviews with guests who might blurt profanities?
"It's a lot easier for Congress to look at a four-letter word and a woman's breast than it is for them to deal with issues like the FCC allowing multi-conglomerates to buy up hundreds of local stations across the country," Seymour said.
But she acknowledged that an increased responsibility fell on stations to avoid the steep penalties and protect their licenses. "Every station manager, I'm sure, is increasingly aware of it," she said.
Also in recent weeks, WGBH minimized shots of cleavage in an installment of its American Experience series about the anarchist and activist Emma Goldman, according to the Washington Post. And a rival of KCRW's, KPCC-FM in Pasadena, dropped a drama series, L.A. Theatre Works' The Play's the Thing, whose broadcasts had included profanities, the LA Weekly reported.
Michael Feldman's March 6 Whad'Ya Know? drew about 10 complaints from stations, said Greg Schnirring, director of Wisconsin Public Radio. Feldman said his brother, Arthur, had nicknamed a certain moth a "bird-shit butterfly" as a child.
"Pardon me — you can bleep that out if you want. We're on delay here," he said. But the word made it to the air.
A week later, snickering, Feldman apologized on his show "to anyone I might have offended, and the six people who wrote in to the FCC." Schnirring said Feldman apologized of his own volition.
"The FCC's pretty much targeted the shock jocks," Schnirring said, but added he's taken recent events "as an opportunity to talk with all of our hosts and producers."
John Hingsbergen, p.d. of WMUB-FM in Oxford, Ohio, was one station staffer who complained to Schnirring about Feldman's language.
"I wish we were in an environment in which a silly comment like Michael's could pass without reaction," Hingsbergen told Current. "But, especially in the current environment, we felt it necessary to react to listener complaints."
Web page posted March 24, 2004
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.