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Radio host calls for eradication arabs

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Controversial hosts test station's tolerance
By Clea Simon, Globe Correspondent, 8/21/2003

After WRKO-AM (680) morning man John "Ozone" Osterlind received a two-week suspension last week, a lot of folks started chatting about the all-talk station where he cohosts the 5:30-9 a.m. shift with Peter Blute. Osterlind's remarks last Tuesday, calling for "the eradication" of Arab people, prompted the suspension, along with several comparisons to the earlier one-day suspension of West Coast-based talk-show host Michael Savage. The syndicated Savage had been pulled off the same Entercom station for homophobic comments only last month. Radio listeners wanted to know: What's up with WRKO? Is there a new level of anger spewing forth from the mikes there, or has management just become more sensitive?

Neither, says Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine. What we're hearing is simply business as usual, and the so-called punishments are part of the act. "This is formulaic," says the editor of the Springfield-based trade magazine. Sean Ross, editor of the trade magazine Airplay Monitor, adds, "You can't really tell which suspensions are real anyway in radio."

Harrison explains the purported controversies as a kind of cat-and-mouse game between the on-air talent and station management, designed to entice the public.

"Talent is encouraged to be as outrageous as possible," Harrison says. "The whole purpose of talk radio is to create attention, to stimulate, to entertain. It's not meant to be educational or academic."

The problem, he says, is that these hosts are walking a very fine line between commercial controversy and unacceptable speech. It's a line that shifts with the social and political winds, as various topics become fair game and others -- such as hate talk about specific groups -- become too hot. "There's no real way of knowing for sure how far you can go," Harrison says. "We're always sensitive about something."

When talk jocks do overstep, he says, what happens to them depends in part on their popularity.

"If the host is completely expendable and the heat outweights the value [of the controversy], they fire the host," Harrison explains. "If the host is kind of valuable but there's a lot of heat, they suspend the host. And if the host is really valuable, they pay the fine, and they don't respond."

So both Osterlind and Savage are valued employees who were conducting business as usual, but went a bit overboard? That's not the way WRKO management would like listeners to read their actions. Following the suspension, the station issued a brief press release about Osterlind's "inappropriate statements" that read in part: "WRKO and Entercom Communications do not tolerate this behavior and will take the necessary steps to ensure this situation does not happen again."

When contacted to speak on the larger issues, including whether radio standards have changed, station management refused to comment further.

Harrison isn't surprised. "We're in a period of saber rattling," he says. "Right now, stations are a little bit guarded about indecency and things of that nature. But nothing has really changed. This has been going on forever."

Spinning the dial
Barry Scott hosts the 19th annual "Lost 45s" Labor Day countdown of the WODS-FM (103.3) oldies show's 100 most-requested songs, Aug. 31 starting at 7 p.m. . . . Today from noon to 2 p.m., Jeff Tamarkin, author of "Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane," will discuss his book with host Eli Polonsky on "Lost and Found" on WMBR-FM (88.1).

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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