No, You Listen to ME!

Wanna get in touch with South Florida's rage? Read through the complaint letters to local radio stations.

Ashbridge's entreaty failed to strike a chord with program director Ed Scarborough. "The issue, Cliff, is defining a popular song," he responded in a note that is included in the file. The radio station spends "tens of thousands of dollars each year trying to nail down that slippery concept," Scarborough patiently explained. "I don't have the luxury of 'fringe' hits that someone may or may not remember," he added coldly.

Sometimes the letters are the most convenient outlet for listeners' rage against cultural changes beyond their control. "I am apalled!!!" [sic] bellowed one fax-sending protester who scribbled his disillusionment in thick marker. "I can't believe you would allow a Cuban/ Spanish Univision ad on your frequency. This is America you scumbags!!! We speak English here!!!"

English, obviously, is a hot-button issue in South Florida, so it is not surprising that the ability to speak it well would preoccupy a certain segment of the listening audience. "Will someone, preferably the program director, tell Jennifer Rehm to take a course in remedial reading (and speaking -- her pitch drives my dog crazy!)," implored a Mrs. Kate Brophy, writing to WIOD in October 1994. "Her pronunciation of names of countries, etc., is really poor. The intros into news is trashy and immature. How did she win all those awards? For what?"

"Thank you for taking the time and having the interest in our news to write us about your feelings about Jenifer Rehm," news director Tom Hopkins deadpanned in his response. "I am sorry that your dog is bothered by the pitch of her voice. That is the first time I have heard that."

WINZ news announcers were also taken to task by listeners. After the ValuJet crash in May, Charles Parmelee was particularly annoyed by a female anchor. "She can't ad lib and she can't interpret the printed word," he groused in a May 15 letter. "She doesn't even know a lot of English. She referred to levies [sic] in the Everglades as lee-vies!"

Parmelee, who claimed to have worked as an announcer himself for 45 years, had another grievance to air: "All of your ethnic people. You have a lot of Hispanics who write and read the news. Whatever their background they have an abysmal knowledge of English. Hispanics on the air can be very difficult to understand. Al Wornell, who I assume is black, is awful on the air. He shotguns through every sentence he reads, showing little comprehension."

Pete Bolger, WINZ program director, responded to Parmelee's letter with his own, extending an apparently serious offer for him to try out as a news reader. When reached by phone at the station, Bolger refused to answer questions about listener mail. "I have too many things going on," he bridled. "We're not doing an interview right now, are we? I'm not interested in being part of the story."

The emotional distance maintained by radio personnel feeds the insecurity of fans who, deep in their souls, suspect a painful truth -- that their devotion is not reciprocated. "Is your commercial intentionally deceptive or did it just work out that way?" Gary Headley of North Miami Beach queried ZETA-4 soon after the station started touting itself as the source for alternative rock in early 1995. "When I sample ZETA-4 all I get is that damned boring '80s 'heavy' metal crap that drove me off my radio addiction in the first place."

Robert Johnson, another dissatisfied ZETA-4 listener, sought to spark competitive jealousy, pointing out that ZETA-4's rival is just a quick flick of the dial away. "If I wanted to listen to the dragged-out old tunes from Pink Floyd, the Stones, or Aerosmith, I would spend my time listening to the other radio station," he wrote. But Johnson couldn't bring himself to follow through. A week went by with no discernible improvement, so Johnson made another appeal. "I can't imagine a radio station that claims to play new music would dare to play more old music than new music. So what's the deal?"

Listeners can communicate their gripes directly to the FCC. Every seven years, when a radio station's license comes up for renewal, federal regulators review the complaints the station has generated in order to evaluate how well it is serving its audience. Since 1988 local radio stations have elicited more than 300 letters, a large percentage of them about WIOD, which logged an impressive 125 complaints. (Other local stations had between zero and twenty complaints each.)

But in practice these letters carry little weight; most are dismissed as misdirected kvetching. "I don't think they generally have any impact [on license renewal]," says Norm Goldstein, chief of the FCC Mass Media Complaints and Investigations branch. "They have to be egregious violations."

The bulk of complaints addresses issues, such as programming, that are outside the agency's ambit. The FCC is prohibited by law from censoring the content of radio shows, though it does enforce prohibitions against obscenity and investigate allegations of fraudulent contests or technical violations.

Fewer than ten percent of complaints are investigated, according to Goldstein, and only a small portion of investigations ever result in disciplinary action. Since 1989, when WIOD was fined $10,000 for broadcasting ribald ditties on the Neil Rogers show (such as the "Penis Envy Song" and the "Butch Beer Commercial"), no local Miami radio station has been sanctioned, though FCC files from recent years bulge with objections to more current material broadcast on both English and Spanish-language stations.

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