Point Austin: Stepping on Your Punchline

When free speech becomes hate speech

Point Austin
From the Department of Unintended Irony: On Monday, July 20, KLBJ-AM was nominated (along with four other stations nationwide) by the National Association of Broadcasters for its Marconi Radio Award for News/Talk Station of the Year.

As it happens, that was the same day that the station's owner, Emmis Austin Radio, announced it was canceling the weekday morning Todd & Don Show, following a week of protests by the Austin Hispanic community of the show's July 14 episode and an initial two-week suspension of co-hosts Todd Jeffries and Don Pryor. At a Mon­day afternoon press conference held at Plaza Saltillo, Emmis vice president and market manag­er Scott Gillmore announced that after hearing from listeners and consulting with community leaders, "We determined that the cancellation of the show was the right thing to do for our employees, our station, our company ... and for the community." (Jeffries will return to his job of news director, and Pryor will be reassigned off-air.) Call it a basic lesson in broadcasting: How not to win friends and influence people? Don't go out of your way to insult and alienate more than a third of your potential audience.

The cancellation was the climax of a week of controversy over the July 14 show, during which co-host Pryor – ostensibly as part of a discussion of "politically correct" synonyms for "illegal immigrants" or "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers" – asked his listeners, "Whatever happened to the good old term 'wetback'?" Pryor then proceeded, over intermittent and unconvincing protests by co-host Jeffries, to repeat the word "wetback" again and again, occasionally declaring, "Okay, I'm done; I've made my point" – and then interjecting with enthusiasm, "Wetback!" In all, Pryor repeated the term more than 30 times, calling it a simple and "efficient" term and an instance of "good old Ameri­ca­na." Near the end of the show, he halfheartedly insisted: "I should apologize; I don't really mean it. I don't want people calling people 'wetback'; I'm using humor cloaked in racism." Yet the very last moment of the recorded show is of Pryor calling out, "Wetback!"

As anybody who's spent any time in Texas certainly knows, although the slang term refers most directly to Mexican or Central American immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally – i.e., crossed the Rio Grande River – it has long been employed, here and elsewhere, as a generic, bitterly racist insult for anyone with brown skin. Indeed, the closest equivalent in English is the reflexively racist term for African-Americans: "nigger."

Offensive and Outdated

If Gillmore was in any doubt about this history, it was firmly explained to him by local Hispanic officials and dignitaries, most prominently former state Sen. Gonzalo Barri­en­tos and former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, in a series of meetings arranged after vocal protests by the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, an Austin-based national organzation that has increasingly taken action on civil rights matters, and its chair, local businessman Frank Fuentes. "We're aware that the workers in our industry are among the most vulnerable to this kind of hate-mongering," said association spokesman Paul Saldaña, "and we are speaking out for those who cannot readily defend themselves."

The next day, before his suspension, Pryor apologized on air, saying in part: "I frequently use sarcasm and satire in my humor. The first mistake I made is using the term. It's a highly offensive and outdated term that should never be used." A few callers had made the same point, but others called in to approve using the term and to blast Hispanic immigrants for attempting to "take over" the country, steal jobs, commit crimes, etc., etc., to little dispute from the hosts. Defenders of Pryor have argued that it was all a joke, and Saldaña conceded that had Pryor used the word once or twice, "people would have been upset but would have gotten over it ... We're aware that there's always going to be racism, but this is a corporation using its bully pulpit irresponsibly, allowing language that is hurtful and frankly racist."

It didn't help that KLBJ's national hosts (e.g., Neal Boortz, Rush Limbaugh) hardly shy from immigrant-bashing or that the station's longtime morning ranter Sam Cox enthusiastically blasts all things he considers foreign, once reportedly asking if minority children were to receive equal education, "Who's going to do the menial work?" This history inevitably became part of the discussions between Emmis management and the local Hispanic representatives, and in his cancellation announcement Gillmore agreed that Pryor's "offensive comments" violated the company's declared commitment to "create an environment of fairness and equality that appeals to our employees and the extraordinary people in our marketplaces."

What Would Cactus Do?

Gillmore told me he believes Pryor and Jef­fries have come to understand the nature of their "very bad error in judgment," and that although they hooked the offending discussion to recent national news, "They clearly didn't realize what they were getting into ... or the power of that word in a negative sense, when it's used in a racist way against any His­pan­ic or Latino." He said KLBJ's other hosts will continue to discuss immigration – "You don't solve a problem by shutting down discourse about it" – and he expects some backlash from listeners who believe this is only an issue of "free speech." "We also get criticized as being 'liberal elite' because of some of our other stations, like KGSR-FM," Gillmore concluded. "We'll continue to feature many points of view – but that doesn't mean we should allow hurtful, hateful speech."

Yet another irony in this hapless tale is that Don Pryor happens to be the son of longtime radio humorist and Lyndon Johnson associate Cactus Pryor – a few local liberals reportedly tried to intervene with Garcia on Don's behalf. (Some of that personal history may have helped save his job, if not his microphone.) There were moments in the broadcast when Pryor himself seemed to realize he was going too far – as when he almost apologized to his producer, Vickie Alvarez, saying, "I really didn't mean to ..." and then trailing off.

Perhaps the most pointed comment on Pryor's behavior was supplied by one of the callers to the show, a woman who told him she was about to take water to the hardworking Hispanic workers on her roof and that Pryor should ask himself, "What would Jesus do?" Moreover, she continued, of the son of Cactus Pryor, "I think his daddy would be ashamed of him."

A complete version (minus commercials) of the July 14 KLBJ-AM Todd & Don Show is available below.


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The Todd and Don Show, Todd Jeffries, Don Pryor, Scott Gillmore, Emmis Communications, Gonzalo Barrientos, Gus Garcia, Frank Fuentes, U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association

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