By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
State Rep. Steven Geller had a disturbing experience last October. He turned on his radio for a news update, only to find that the format on WINZ-AM (940) had been altered. "It was like a slap in the face," Geller exclaims, his voice rising in volume as he recalls the indignity of the discovery.
Not ready to meekly resign himself to an unpleasant substitution, Geller fired off a note to station management, printed on letterhead from the Florida House of Representatives, requesting a return to the old format. "I listened to you because I wanted information, not uninformed opinions on sports.... Now if I drive to and from meetings during the day I find myself assaulted by conservative viewpoints, either those of that annoying woman, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, or that more annoying unpleasant individual, Rush Limbaugh. I have heard you advertise that you are South Florida's only 24-hours-a-day news station. Candidly, this is false advertising, and you must remove that claim."
For some people radio is mere white noise. For others it is an indispensable news source, a low-maintenance companion, and a disembodied friend. Modifications in programming are not something to be taken lightly. They are a betrayal, an unpardonable affront, a cause for mutiny.
"It was a sad day when I first heard the ignorant ranting and shouting on WINZ of Rush 'LIMBO,'" lamented Sue Guest, a listener from Hialeah. "There must be many thousands who join me in my resentment of your decision to wedge into my very busy life such worthless, trashy, insanity under the guise of news."
"I have never written to a radio station in my life," confessed Irwin Rubenstein of Plantation. "But [I] have been moved to do so by your hiring of that paranoid garbage-mouth Rush Limbaugh. I now have trouble listening to WINZ -- you have taken most of my afternoon listening hours."
Such impassioned declarations are typical of the hundreds of letters received each year by local stations. Whether complaining about programming changes, carping about mispronunciations, criticizing playlists, or denouncing offensive language, these letters come from the heart. They are quirky screeds, unpolished epistles whose emotional rawness reveals the peculiarly intimate bond between radio listeners and broadcasters.
While stations are not required to air the contents of the letters or to respond to their authors, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandates that all correspondence -- except that which is specifically marked confidential -- be stored for at least three years in a file open to public inspection. The files are usually kept at the station's main studio. The theory behind the requirement is that the public is the true owner of the airwaves; a station license is held in the public interest and is not private property. The public's ultimate ownership may explain listeners' emotional candidness, their readiness to criticize, and their willingness to identify with the voices they hear.
"I am continuing to recuperate from my surgery," WMXJ-FM (102.7) listener Dan Riley informed host Mindy Lang. "Like I told you in my last letter, when I was in the hospital, I couldn't wait to put the Walkman headphones on and listen to your sweet, soothing voice. Your show has done more to help me recover from that awful period in my life than all the doctors and drugs in the world.
"I am still having a problem with my walking," the letter continued, its tone intensely personal, as if Riley were addressing a trusted family member. "I am not too stable on my feet and fall quite often. I am trying to improve on it so I don't have to get a walking aid.... That blind lady walking with Janet Brill was Sandy Merideth. I have been seeing her for about two months. She is really a fantastic lady, and I like her a whole bunch. She is very intelligent, and she does a lot of work with the Braille Institute for Palm Beach County." Riley ended his letter warmly, signing off as "your friend forever."
But in radiodom as in real life, unconditional affection is hard to find. Even the most supportive letters tend to be characterized by not-so-subtle quid pro quos. "I feel like I have known you all my life," gushed Lucy Civile in a June 1995 letter to WLYF-FM (101.5). "Your voice is a friend. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to write and ask if it would be possible to introduce a little change in the format of WLYF."
Other listeners dispense with flattery altogether and resort to outright threats when what they hear displeases them. Roger Miller, a ZETA-4 (WZTA-FM 94.9) listener in Miami, became incensed while listening to broadcasters on the Ron and Ron Show describe an imaginary sex scene (exotic dancers on a spring break bus) as a "munch fest."
"I want to state clearly that I am a libertarian and steadfastly believe in the First Amendment of our constitution," Miller huffed in a 1993 complaint he sent to the FCC. "However, I also believe that this discussion over the airwaves during "drive-time" radio is beyond all semblance of decency and good taste. It is not even bad art.