Dr. Laura's N-word Debacle
Dr. Laura Schlessinger has announced she is putting away her microphone for good, following last week's inexplicable use of the "N-word" during her radio program. It's a sad end to a 30 year career and likely might not have happened if Laura had remembered one simple fact: It may be HER radio show, but it's the PUBLIC'S airwaves over which it airs.
I don't think I have ever met Dr. Laura, though our paths may have crossed over the years. I have, though, admired her energy and the drive that helped her become both a best-selling author and once, one of the nation's top radio hosts.
For years, she was one of the only female voices on national radio so she's earned her place in the history books. But it seemed to me that increasingly her message was judgemental and overly moralistic for a national audience. Maybe, I told myself, it was because she wasn't ALWAYS a broadcaster. Me -- that's all I ever wanted to be.
From the age of 17, I aspired to a career in broadcasting. I was deesperate to be in the business and would do anything -- anything respectable, that is -- to get a foot in the door! My freshman year in college, you'd find me up at 4am, headed to the local police station in my hometown. From there, I would broadcast on WBLJ AM1230 the local "police blotter news". If someone got arrested -- and it was usually for drunkenness or fighting -- I'd announce it to my very gossipy hometown. I have no doubt it was a huge audience draw!
Later that year, I worked the overnight shift at an automated FM station, WQMT-FM. The station was at the peak of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I don't know which was more scarey -- being alone in that desolate building at night or restarting the transmitter when a summer thunderstorm knocked us off the air. If you had a Third Class FCC License, you'd be more 'hireable,' so I trotted to some nondesript Federal building in Atlanta and took the course. I learned about amplitude modulation and frequency modulation and parabolas and how frequencies travelled from the tower to your transistor. There I was, the lone girl amongst a sea of guys with plastic pocket protectors taking my exam -- and I GOT that FCC license. But most impactful was my journalism professor who taught me words that have ever since been tatooed in my brain. It's from the Federal Communications Act of 1934. A station "is granted a license in the PUBLIC'S interest, convenience, and necessity.". (Emphasis added). Not the broadcaster's. My show, Inside Edition, Dr. Laura's, and all the others that travel over the airwaves to your radio or tv set are getting there over airspace that is the property of all of us as American citizens.
It is a PRIVILEGE to be a broadcaster -- not a right. I am sure Dr. Laura heard that phrase and has felt privileged to broadcast -- but I wonder if maybe lately she forgot. Dr. Laura apologized immediately after the show in which she said the N-word eleven times. She knew she crossed the line. But what conspired to propell her to cross that line? Is it our shock society of today? Ratings follows heat and heat is generated by controversy? The topic itself was 'zazzy' enough: America's unresolved issues about race, as exemplified by the concerns of Jade, the woman who called about the challenges of being an interracial couple. The woman's experiences easily could have yielded all sorts of material for a riveting, emotional discussion that would have kept listeners glued to the show, waiting in a parking lot to hear the conclusion before exiting the car to do their shopping. Schlessinger chose the low road, the schlock-jock road -- ironic, really since she once refused to work for the same company that then-employed famed shock jock Howard Stern.
It's not the first time Dr. Laura's found herself chewing on her foot -- and truth be told, we ALL say things we later wish we could take back. The public stage makes that harder to do and Laura's paid the price before: On the eve of the launch of what had been considered a promising syndicated television show, her ill-chosen comments about gays ("biological mistake," she called them) earned her widespread criticism and pretty much assured the failure of the program. Her radio show surivied the onslaught and on occasions when I'd catch her program, I would at times be in complete agreement with her 'no nonsense' right-and-wrong approach. Not always -- but that's what makes good radio, when the audience doesn't always agree with what they hear.
Maybe Dr. Laura is tired of the daily grind. That's understandable. She says she'll continue her career, just not on the air. Perhaps she will still be able to give her following the inspiration and guidance they'd come for. But the following will likely be smaller, the damage done by Laura's rant will remain. It's a sad way for any broadcaster to end a career. Too bad Dr. Laura didn't remember another N-word and the words of Nancy Reagan: "Just say no."