Saturday, November 15, 2008

Media: Why Karel was Fired

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, I went through my possessions and found my Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit. Issued by the US Federal Communications Commission on 24-December-1992, last posted at a radio station sometime in 1994 at KZSU on the Stanford University campus in California, it isn't exactly my most valuable possession. I wanted to look at it for the first time in years to see what it explicitly stated about on-air behavior at a radio station. Unsurprisingly, it states almost nothing, simply referring to the appropriate regulatory code. Those not familiar that regulatory code might not understand why former KGO radio talk show host Charles "Karel" Bouley was fired on Tuesday. It's worth a clarification.

As alluded to in this blog earlier this week, the talk show host known as Karel was suspended following an on-air outburst on 1-November-2008, and as predicted at the time, both he and the engineer involved in the incident were fired by San Francisco's KGO Newstalk 810 on 11-November-2008.

Karel became prominent in the broadcasting world when he and his same-sex partner, Andrew Howard, became the first openly-gay couple on a drive-time show at a major-market radio station in 1998, on Los Angeles' KFI AM 640. The "Karel and Andrew Show" ran during afternoon drive until May 2001, when Howard died of a heart attack. Karel sued as a domestic partner for malpractice in the death and won the case on appeal. Meanwhile, he continued to do a radio show on his own on KFI before he was fired in 2002. Shortly thereafter, he was hired to do the weekend 7-10 pm show on San Francisco's KGO Newstalk 810, a job he had held ever since.

Karel still usually did the broadcast from his residence in Long Beach, a common practice in modern talk radio. As a result, an engineer at the KGO studios in San Francisco actually controlled what went out on the air, including the feed to Karel's studio in the Southland. During the 9 pm network news on 1-November, the engineer in San Francisco left Karel's line going out onto the air as he went to the bathroom, a break he was only allowed to take during the network news. Karel claims that this was not the normal practice, so he was not aware that he was speaking to all the listeners of KGO during the news.

When the news did a story about "Joe the Plumber," Karel got worked up, and reacted to the news with a string of profanities. I suppose I could publish his actual words on this blog, but I'd rather not, so if you want to know exactly what he said, refer to Michael Hood's article on BlatherWatch. Suffice to say he called for the death of "Joe the Plumber" and used a profane word three times in the process. As the engineer was not in the studio, the studio delay was not useful; the words could not be prevented from going out onto the airwaves all up and down the West Coast of the United States. When Karel found out that this had gone out, he did apologize on-air, just minutes later during his show.

After Karel's suspension, many in the media seemed to focus on the fact that Karel had made what amounted to a death threat on "Joe the Plumber." As despicable as that may be, it was legal and KGO did not face any particular sanction for allowing that on the air. In contrast, the three profane words could result in serious consequences. Under current Federal Communications Commission regulations, any occurrence of a profane word may result in a $315,000 fine. Thus, the three occurrences during Karel's outburst could result in a $945,000 fine. It was this prospect of a nearly million-dollar fine that caused KGO management to fire Karel and the engineer. Having taken this action, they can hope that the FCC will choose to levy only a token fine for the incident.

The FCC makes distinctions between obscenities, indecencies, and profanities. As described on the FCC web side, obscenities are never allowed to be broadcast and must meet three standards, "(1) that an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) that the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) that the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Indecency is defined as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." Profanities are include "language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance." Indecencies and profanities are not allowed between 6 am and 10 pm.

I have never thought particularly highly of Karel as a talk show host. He tended to choose topics that focused on culture and celebrity, whereas I prefer politics and hard news. Furthermore, his demeanor tended to include on-air ranting to a greater degree than his other KGO colleagues. Thus, when I heard Karel's voice, I tended to turn the radio to another station, especially when he has filled the 10 pm-1 am slot as a fill-in during the past year. I had a strong preference for his rival Christine Craft as a permanent host in the 10 pm-1 am slot; Craft is someone that I often disagree with but usually find has an interesting viewpoint.

The reason for Karel's firing, though, seems ridiculous. One of the things I enjoy about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation up here in Canada is that on occasion, if a person during an interview uses a term that is considered profane in the United States, it might well be aired. I don't believe I've ever heard anything that would qualify as indecent or obscene on the air in Canada, but in proper context, profanities might be aired. This strikes me as mature--Canada trusts its citizens to handle speech that indeed they may hear on the street, while protecting them from inappropriate sexual or excretory descriptions. Karel and his engineer may each have made a really stupid mistake, one that anyone that has been educated in broadcasting (including me) should know not to do ("treat any microphone as live"), but it isn't a mistake worth nearly a million-dollar fine or anyone's job. An intentional act might merit some serious discipline at the station's discretion, but not a mistake.

Interestingly, during my education leading to the Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit, one of the guests brought in to talk to us was Jack Swanson, who at the time in 1992 was programming KING Newstalk 1090 AM in Seattle. In 1994, KING would go all-news and Swanson would become Program Manager at KGO, a post he holds to this day. So, I've met Swanson, heard him talk about dealing with the FCC first-hand, and I understand why he would have felt he needed to fire Karel.

The only good thing to come out of this situation is that as I type this, Christine Craft is holding down the 7-10 pm weekend slot on a fill-in basis. It would be very nice to see that continue.

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