Hot Air: Tuning in to Colorado Talk Radio

Originally published in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, this five part series examines the shock jock phenomenon… Colorado-style

Potty-mouthed talk radio hosts serve a lot of masters.

Whether or not they’re simply following orders (the “Shock Jock Nuremberg Defense”), radio stations seem willing to turn a deaf ear to offensive speech – as long as advertisers buy air-time and listeners continue to tune in.After MSNBC pulled Don Imus’ radio simulcast and CBS Radio canned him last month for the now infamous “nappy-headed ho” remark regarding the Rutgers women’s basketball team, Imus claimed he was contractually obligated to offer up raunchy dialogue.

Fans of XM Satellite Radio’s Opie and Anthony are rewarded with a steady stream of coarse humor and noxious entertainment. The nationally syndicated pair was recently suspended for 30 days after airing a salacious bit in which the two fantasized about the brutal rapes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent women.

Closer to home, advertisers bailed on “The Gunny Bob Newman Show” following his on-air rant on May 8 insinuating that all Muslim immigrants are terrorist threats and should wear GPS tracking bracelets. Denver-based Clear Channel management later posted what could be loosely construed as an apology on his program’s website.

For every public whipping boy targeted by people fed up with the constant tirade of stereotypes, untruths and inflammatory language, there are hundreds of local radio stations across America dishing up the same type of overheated rhetoric. While the Federal Communications Commission focuses on nipple-baring wardrobe malfunctions on television and full-on obscenities, local watchdog groups and media researchers have raised concerns that area stations are assaulting the public’s ears with trash talk that skirts the FCC’s own “community standards of decency.”

Scott James serves a dual role at the Loveland-based 600 KCOL-AM as program director and evening drive-time host of “The James Gang.” The Fox News affiliate boasts a lineup of shows that drive liberals to distraction and feed the conservative masses with weekday doses of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and UFO-devotee George Noory.

The off-air James offers self-effacing humor and is a pensive media insider. He refers to himself on the program’s website as “just another schmoo doing my job” – ostensibly an obscure reference to the “schmoo,” a satirical Li’l Abner cartoon character who symbolizes the threat of lazy welfare recipients to government and big business.

On-air, James’ radio shtick takes over, although his is relatively low-watt compared to the oratory firepower of some conservative talk show hosts. But that hasn’t kept him out of the crosshairs of Colorado Media Matters, a progressive group that monitors and analyzes conservative misinformation. He’s been bitten by the media watchdog for referring to Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama as “Barack Osama,” likening Al Gore to a Nazi propagandist, and parroting Republican talking points.

Clearly enjoying the attention that catalogues him with other, more prominent talk hosts of dubious accuracy, James marches on with a three-hour show that riffs on snippets of daily news and conservative commentary.

As program director, he is responsible for ensuring that the stable of KCOL talk show hosts does not violate FCC standards. James confirms that Clear Channel requires each on-air personality to complete annual “decency training,” an online questionnaire on broadcast regulations and definitions of obscenity. The difficulty for talk formats like his, James explains, is that “FCC regulations are a floating target, because we’re supposed to reflect the community’s interests.

“We serve Northern Colorado,” he adds, “and the heart of Johnstown is considerably different than the heart of the CSU campus. What it all boils down to is, the FCC has gotten to where it gets a complaint and it investigates if anything was said that is obscene, indecent, pornographic or salacious, and if by and large the answer is no, they won’t go a whole lot further. If you take a look at the Imus situation, the FCC was never once involved.”

Determining where the lines of personal responsibility and censorship intersect causes a much stickier moral dilemma.

Despite the frequent argument that free speech rights trump all, James agrees that radio hosts cannot say anything they want. The parallel dilemma is that FCC guidelines are so broad that strict definitions of on-air discourse are impossible to come by.

“People say, ‘Well, Scott, then tell me what I can say.’ But I can’t,” he says.

Although James says KCOL relies on listener feedback to a certain extent regarding program content, he claims that his primary goal is to expand the current audience for advertising sales. And controversy does sell.

Tune in to tomorrow’s segment on KFKA-AM’s Amy Oliver, one of the few women who hosts a conservative talk radio show.