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Incendiary Talk Radio

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Call me naive, but there had to have been a time when radio talk show hosts strived for listeners by being insightful, informative or interesting. Now incendiary will suffice.

As we know, one person who is better at starting fires than putting them out is Don Imus, the obnoxious loudmouth who apparently has issues with successful black people and an ugly penchant for treating racism and sexism as punch lines. And let's not forget the condescension -- the implication that he has earned everything that he has achieved but that an African-American in the elite media is a "quota hire'' or, in the phrase he used to describe PBS' Gwen Ifill when she worked for The New York Times, the "cleaning lady.''

The I-Man doesn't have a monopoly on stupidity. Listen in on the mind-numbing world of talk radio and you can't miss the juvenile gags, sexist banter, and race-baiting that pass for entertainment. What do you expect when broadcast executives let the talent -- which is still made up mostly of white males -- take the low road if they deliver high profits?

It wasn't always this way. I was the co-host of a daily radio show in Los Angeles more than a decade ago, and since then, I've filled in as a guest host in other major markets. I've never seen the air so polluted. Blame competition. With more demands on the audience's time -- from newspapers, satellite radio, cable TV, the Internet, etc. -- the main objective for those who make their living in front of a microphone has become simply getting their share of attention.

Now, African-Americans, feminists and others are furious over Imus' awful comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team. Critics were not satisfied with the fact that Imus was originally benched with a two-week suspension. Nor were they content with the fact that his show was hemorrhaging advertisers.

On Wednesday, MSNBC pulled the plug by dropping its profitable simulcast of Imus' popular radio show. On Thursday, CBS Radio, which earned more than $20 million annually from Imus' show, followed, sending a clear message that some lines are not to be crossed.

Imus might move his show to satellite radio, which isn't exactly a career killer. Fellow potty mouth Howard Stern left CBS in 2005 and signed a contract with Sirius Satellite Radio worth more than $500 million over five years. Chances are, Imus will be fine.

It's the rest of us that I worry about. Many Americans could walk away from this episode, assuming that most of the racism on talk radio is white-on-black, when media reports make clear that Hispanics -- especially Hispanic immigrants -- are one of the most popular targets.

That is especially true with radio personalities in smaller, local markets such as Craig Carton and Ray Rossi at WKXW in Newark, N.J., aka "The Jersey Guys.'' Recently, "the guys'' encouraged listeners to turn in to immigration authorities friends, neighbors, co-workers or anyone else they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. Carton and Rossi dubbed the game: "Operation Rat a Rat/La Cucha Gotcha'' in a tacky word play on the Spanish word cucaracha (cockroach). The hosts introduce the recurring segment with mariachi music and set as the end date: May 5 (Cinco de Mayo). The gimmick is juvenile and repugnant, and has drawn the ire of Hispanic leaders in New Jersey.

America can also do without black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson letting their opportunism get the better of them to the point where people see the attacks on Imus as just another corporate shakedown by activists. That would only hurt the cause by clouding the issue and shifting public attention away from the young women at Rutgers and toward these professional grievance merchants, who always seem to profit from such controversies.

Speaking of the Rutgers women, they too need to be careful not to push this too far to the point where they surrender to victimhood and allow one person's stupidity to define them. Judging from their comments during a news conference Tuesday, some of them are teetering on the brink. One of the basketball players exclaimed, "I think that this has scarred me for life.''

Oh dear. I realize she is young, but in time she'll learn that life has many more scars in store. The idea is to not let those experiences defeat you.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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