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.
"It appears to be the meanderings of a couple of 'bra-snapping,' sophomoric disc jockeys who have no respect for their fellow human beings. I find this sort of programming highly irresponsible, as well as demeaning to the emerging self-esteem of young girls and women. It not only insults my sensibilities as a man who supports the nurturing of the potential of all human beings, regardless of race, age, sex, color, creed, or sexual orientation, but as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works with children and adults who were sexually abused as children.
"I am sending a copy of this letter to Mr. Neil Mirsky, the general manager of WZTA. I would be willing to withdraw this complaint if Mr. Mirsky will immediately put a stop to this type of programming and offer a public apology to the people of South Florida."
Mirsky left ZETA-4 in May 1995. Gregg Steele, ZETA-4's program director, says that as far as he knows the station did not apologize. The Ron and Ron Show was eventually withdrawn, in early December 1994, because of low ratings.
Karen Allen took the show's cancelation personally. "I hate Miami radio," she snarled in a January 1995 letter to the station. Allen, a 42-year-old mom from South Dade, had listened with true devotion, tuning in to the shock jocks every day from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
"You are all a bunch of cowards," she spewed. "I am writing to express my deepest disgust and disappointment at your asinine decision to cancel my favorite (and the favorite of many people I know) radio program, Ron and Ron." Her demographic particulars as listed in her letter: married with two children, a homeowner, and a community resident for 30 years, as well as "a reasonably upstanding citizen.
"I thoroughly enjoyed Ron and Ron," she added. "I can't believe I am such a minority. If you want to play for the majority, you better go Latin." Ron and Ron returned to Miami radio this summer. Their show currently airs from 6:00 to 10:00 a.m. on WIOD-AM (610).
While abrupt programming changes might reasonably be expected to discombobulate die-hard fans, predicting which comments might send a listener over the edge can be difficult.
"I am writing to you with regard to your degradation of persons afflicted with cleft lip and palate," began one neatly typed letter to Neil Rogers, a popular midday host at WIOD. The missive, which was copied to the FCC and to state and national organizations for people with facial disorders, accuses Rogers, who is known for his obnoxious humor, of using the word harelip to describe former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates. "Persons born with cleft lip and palate will suffer many painful surgical operations, the emotional pain of being different and face discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. We do not need your hateful comments," scolded Neil Gillespie.
On July 29, 1995, WIOD then-general manager Bob Green received the following communique: "My letter will be brief and direct. You, sir, have crossed the line of good taste, by airing Ms. Roger for this amount of time. My name is Warren Kramer and I represent the Canadian Front, the foremost and most dedicated office helping, guiding, and making Canadian tourists comfortable in South Florida.
"Our sources in Quebec have named numerous stations, both radio and television, that made them feel unwanted. A name that consistently came up was WIOD Radio and a Ms. Nell Roger.... We Canadians don't have to come to Miami, it's not the only fun-in-the-sun city of the United States, and it's certainly not the safest place, either. We will not allow you to call us cheap 24 hours a day or mock the way SOME of our elderly citizens dress. Wearing shorts and sandals is not odd, it's beach fashion, a small tip for some of you talk show hosts."
Green has never heard of the Canadian Front, but he said he answered the letter anyway. Most program mangers say they usually respond, if only to dispatch a boilerplate reply. They want listeners to believe that their input counts, though they admit that letters almost never result in programming changes. "Frankly, the effect [of listener mail] is minimal," Green confessed.
The profound sense of powerlessness experienced by listeners who love too much is evident in the extremes of their reactions. "Whoever is programming music at WMXJ should be fired," urged Alan Pate of Hallandale. "There is no rotation at all. They never play some of the top ten oldies."
Cynthia Ryant of Pompano Beach didn't bother asking WMXJ to reconsider its change of format, but she made sure the program director was aware of her animosity toward Bill Neal, the new host of the morning show. "He has no sense of humor and is not at all funny," she scoffed in a November 6 letter. "His attempts at jokes [are] almost pathetic."
Other listeners eschew negativity, begging for compassion. "If I hear 'Last Train to Clarksville' by the Monkees one more time, I think I'll go nuts," pleaded Cliff Ashbridge of Miami in a letter to WMXJ. "Come on, folks, you must have a larger collection than I do.... Can I give you some constructive criticism without you getting mad at me? I really like you folk and only want to put in some comments if you're open to them."
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.
Lucille Golin of Lauderhill claimed to have become physically ill while listening to WIOD one night in October 1993. "This station has become a quagmire of smut, noise, and insane ravings of egocentric talk show hosts Randi Rhodes and Neil Rogers," Golin observed. "I want these people banned from broadcasting such filth! Believe it or not, I am not a senior citizen or a prude." An anonymous listener who "accidentally" tuned into WIOD in September 1995 scrawled his outrage on a napkin: "hell, damn, up your ass, jackass ... this person should not be at liberty to spew his disrespect of God and humanity onto our airwaves.... This is not freedom, this is bondage for everybody because of the likes of this Neil person." Rogers, speaking through his program director, declined to talk to a New Times reporter.
More than 2500 people signed a 1994 petition objecting to foul language and obscene jokes on Spanish-language radio stations WRTO-FM (98.3) and WXDJ-FM (95.7). In January 1996 Jorge Vasquez of Hialeah Gardens reported that another Spanish-language station, WAMR-FM (107.5), may be endangering the community by airing sexually explicit jokes. "[The jokes do] nothing but promote sexual promiscuity that ... may prompt sexually deviant individuals to engage in sexual crimes," he fretted.
Federal law prohibits broadcasters from airing obscene speech at any time. Indecent speech, which is defined as depicting body parts or physical activity of a sexual or excretory nature "in terms [that are] patently offensive," is prohibited between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Violations of the obscenity regulations can result in a written reprimand, a fine, or a license revocation. But in order to open an investigation, the FCC must have a tape or transcript of the show in question, as well as details regarding the date it aired and the station's call letters. Most letter writers fail to provide such information.
"We try to pick out the meritorious claims," Goldstein comments. "Just because a person listened to something on the air and heard something that they didn't like doesn't mean we should send out the troops."
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Bob Green, who served as WIOD general manager from 1992 until last October, when the station was sold to Paxson Communications (he's now general manager of WFLC-FM 97.3 and WHQT-FM 105), maintains that he has never been contacted by the FCC during his tenure at the station. "Their license was renewed earlier this year," Green points out, "so obviously the FCC was not too concerned about these complaint letters."
When complaints to management and appeals to the FCC come to naught, listeners have one last option: They can change the dial. The parting is not without trauma. "I know you can get along without me, and I will try to get along without you," J.R. Begley of Miami informed WINZ management in response to the debut of the Rush Limbaugh show.
John Thabes of Fort Lauderdale laid on a guilt trip. "I realize you're running a business, and perhaps you've been able to enhance your listener base with those who like 'talk shows.' You're losing my family, and I'd like to think you care."
Another Limbaugh detractor, Randy Stetzer, was more philosophical. In an October 8 e-mail, he wrote: "I am sorry you have felt it necessary to take this route, but as if something is suddenly decided to be unhealthy, despite how much we like it, I must turn my appreciation elsewhere. Thank you for listening and for allowing me to for the past few years.... All good things must come to an end.