Radio Bullies

Okay, hang on to your cowboy hats for this revelation -- Sammy & Bob are funny. That's right, sometimes they tell decent jokes, and Sammy Allred's sense of timing and delivery is a gift to admire. And who can deny chuckling every so often when the pair banters with and/or insults callers? Of course, they're also inane and infuriating at times for various reasons. There's their rabid, right-wing mentality, especially their hateful attacks on environmentalists, and their flat-out irresponsibility with their use of public airwaves. And that abuse of their radio frequency is what has gotten them into trouble.

Don't expect much to come of it, though.

For those of you who are a little behind on this minor melodrama, KVET Broadcasting Company, Inc. -- the parent company of country music giants KASE-FM (100.7) and KVET-FM (98.1) and news/talk station KVET-AM (1300) -- has come under attack from Austin activist Dorothy Richter, who has filed a petition to deny the company's license when it comes up for renewal next month. The petition makes a long list of complaints against the company, mostly aimed KVET-FM's morning team, Bob Cole and Sammy Allred.

By now, the news has spread throughout town, no doubt setting off titters of glee throughout Austin's liberal community. However, enjoy the thrill of watching KVET management break into a minor sweat while you can, because history doesn't suggest that anything major will come of this, license removal being especially unlikely.

The major obstacle is the FCC itself. In the last decade or so, the commission has shown a continual pattern of letting commercial stations do whatever they like with their frequencies, especially in the political arena. The most prescient example of this is the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

At one time, radio and television were expected to give equal time to "both sides of the issue" whenever its commentators touched on political issues. The Fairness Doctrine was a FCC rule that mandated this, requiring that any station which editorialized grant the political opposition, whomever it may be, the use of its facilities to deliver a rebuttal.

Over time, however, it became clear that most issues don't have two sides, they have several, and the stations complained of the burden that was placed upon them and became discouraged from airing politically controversial programming at all. Rather than make some reasonable modifications to the rule, however, the FCC simply scrapped it altogether, resulting in the current talk-radio climate -- a world where the likes of radical right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh,
G. Gordon Liddy, and Bob Grant can ramble for hours, often without response. Occasionally their shows are balanced by some tepid Clintonian liberal, but certainly not by someone of the far-left persuasion.

Attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine over the last decade have washed aground, the most recent being erroneously slammed by Limbaugh as the "Hush Rush Doctrine."

The other problem, frankly, is the petition itself. The document tries to establish a "lengthy pattern" of rule violations and failure to serve the public interest; some of its examples are indeed damning, but some are rather weak, and thus may fail to prove a pattern. Given some of the abuses that the above-named national hosts have been able to get away with, a few incidences won't be enough to persuade the FCC.

The cornerstone of the petition is FCC Rule Section 73.1920, which requires that whenever a station's programmers attack "the honesty, character, integrity or like personal qualities of an identified person or group," the station must inform the subject that they have been attacked, provide them with a script, tape, or accurate summary of the attack, and offer said person/group a chance to respond over station facilities.

Several of the instances cited are indeed heinous. The ugliest stain of this year's city council election came when detractors of Councilmember Willie Lewis began a phone-calling and letter-writing campaign against the then candidate, spurring Allred to ponder on the air as to whether Lewis might have molested children -- despite the absence of any evidence to support such a notion. KVET eventually issued a formal, on-air apology for the incident.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Last year, the radio duo accused the Samsung semiconductor company, which is building a huge factory here in Austin, of being socialist and likened its employees to slaves. While I don't quibble with Allred's distrust of multinational corporations (although calling them anything but aggressively capitalist is laughable), the pair clearly stepped over the line when Cole joked that Samsung would have a radio station and "All the disc jockeys will be named Lee" and Allred cracked, "Hi this is Lee in the morning. Stay tuned for Lee at noon and we'll have that afternoon program with Lee and Lee" (Samsung's president at the time was Sung Lee). Such racist "humor" has no place on the radio.

Other egregious examples include: a Flag Day comment by Allred, "It's Fag Day -- do we have to salute Glen Maxey today?"; an insinuation that environmentalist and former city Councilmember Brigid Shea had an affair with political foe Roy Minton (at a time when Shea had suffered a miscarriage).

At the same time, other exhibits in the petition aren't as strong. Austin American-Statesman radio columnist Rob Patterson was referred to on the program as a "rodent" and Rob "Splatterscum"; former Chronicle "Media Clips" columnist Chris Walters was called a liar; and Robert Singleton was called (by KVET-AM host John Doggett) "a bomb-thrower." Unfortunately, calling someone a liar has become so common these days that it is unlikely that the FCC will care, so the petitioners will need something more damning; "bomb-thrower" is merely a figure of speech and the FCC will recognize it as such; and "rodent" and "Splatterscum" are merely childish, at worst.

Two exhibits in particular flat-out undermine Richter's cause. The petition assails KVET for calling George Cofer a convicted felon, which, in fact, is true: Cofer was convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute less than 100 pounds of marijuana, and admits as much in his affidavit. Cofer's main complaint was that when he was allowed to appear on KVET, Sammy & Bob didn't allow him to adequately respond, although the FCC may regard a mere appearance as enough. Cofer also claims that he was called an "idiot," which only ranks somewhere between "liar" and "rodent." (More worrisome is Cofer's claim that Allred had to be physically restrained from lunging at Cofer during the on-air appearance, although that may not legally constitute an abuse of the frequency).

Also, the two slammed developer George Mitchell, father of local environmentalist Kirk Mitchell, as being a major water polluter. The petition says George Mitchell was "falsely" accused of such, but Mitchell's company did in fact lose a trial court judgement for groundwater contamination. Kirk Mitchell's affidavit claims the judgement "has been widely reported as a miscarriage of justice" and "is on appeal," but as long as it stands, it only puts the complaint in a poor light.

The least notable of the affidavits comes from John A. Watson, who complains about an Allred joke that black-capped vireo tastes "like a cross between a bald eagle and a whooping crane" (@  Ú < are on the Endangered Species List). As Allred himself says, lighten up and get a sense of humor. Hell, even I laughed at that one, and I consider myself to be one of the radical environmentalists that Cole and Allred hate so much.

None of these comments are meant to belittle Richter's cause -- Sammy & Bob do make unfair attacks, and don't give people ample opportunity to rebut. But in order to get the FCC to take the petition seriously, Richter would need to produce some overwhelming evidence to make her case -- something far more rock-solid than this. Even if KVET has failed to notify its attackees, one is hard-pressed to imagine that the FCC takes rule 73.1920 seriously. If it was willing to completely scrap the Fairness Doctrine, can we reasonably expect anything more than wink-wink, nudge-nudge over this? Richter herself admits as much, saying, "The FCC will probably just give them a slap on the wrist."

The petition may ultimately prove useful, however -- as Richter also says, "It's going to get their attention." Having one's license challenged is still a serious matter to station owners, at the least costing them hefty legal fees, so perhaps KVET management will finally put the reins on Cole and Allred, which would be a great thing for everyone involved. Both their listeners and the station itself would benefit from factual, intelligent debate (something of which Sammy & Bob may not be capable) -- listeners, because they may actually get to understand local politics by hearing a diversity of views, and the station, because it would keep itself out of problems like this. Such common-sense practices could also keep KVET free from lawsuits and having to make embarrassing apologies, such as in the Lewis incident.

And Sammy & Bob themselves would gain. One minute, their show is fun, and the next minute, they turn into ugly, mean-spirited assholes. If they would engage their brains before they speak instead of just shooting from the hip, they could emphasize the former instead of the latter.

(Cole and KVET General Manager Ron Rogers declined to comment on the case, referring all calls to attorney Jason Shrinsky in Washington, D.C. Shrinsky was unavailable for comment as of this writing.)

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