As if Hurricane Katrina victims didn't have enough going against them, now they're the latest targets of hate radio. Just listen to Fort Lauderdale's WFTL-AM (850), the 50,000-watt home of the Sun-Sentinel and Florida Marlins. It's also the home of some of the most radical right-wing voices in America.
One regular syndicated host, Atlanta-based Neil Boortz, contended after the disaster struck that a "huge percentage" of the evacuees from New Orleans were "parasites, like ticks on a dog." Then he warned, "They are coming to a community near you."
When a caller remarked that most of the evacuees were fat, Boortz readily agreed. "They didn't drown because you couldn't push them underwater if you had to," he chortled.
Then there's Kelley Mitchell, who spent a week broadcasting at the Houston Astrodome among flood victims. Mitchell, a big-boned blond who spent years on South Florida television news stations, didn't seem too concerned about the harrowing stories from the people in the stadium. Instead, she was virtually obsessed with the reports of looting and railed for days against the alleged behavior of poor New Orleans blacks during the disaster. She took to calling the state "Lose-iana" and announced she was boycotting any monetary donations to the victims.
"If I heard, 'I'm looking for my mom, my dad, and my "baby-daddy" again,' I would cringe...," she said, referring to the victims who had lost relatives. "Everybody knows it's important to speak English but these knuckleheads."
Who cares if the knuckleheads in questions lost relatives in a flood; the news here is that they don't talk right and may have had children out of wedlock. Another Mitchell gem: "When I see bad behavior... that's when it became about race. Whoever got over deep-seated prejudices is now wondering if it was right to do so."
Yeah, Kelley, maybe that whole civil rights thing was a bad idea. Why did we think blacks could ever behave in the first place? In her wisdom, though, Mitchell decided that black people have a purpose in America, though she couldn't help but wonder why they have to "spend every dime on an Escalade."
"We need to let black America know, we do want you, but we want you on the terms of the United States of America," she explained in a voice that sometimes sounds eerily similar to that of similarly built actress Kathy Bates. "And we want you to be full and complete human beings."
That's just a taste of the hate WFTL has been serving in Katrina's aftermath. Maybe once the corpses have been gathered, the hosts will stop tiptoeing around and say what they really mean.
To find out who is supporting this toxic drivel, all you have to do is open the Sentinel, which has had an exclusive cross-promotion and news-sharing agreement with the station since October 2003. The newspaper's reporters share their stories on the radio during the early-morning news show. The rest of the day, you hear a bunch of those sad and pathetic Sentinel "How Can I Help You" ads. The Tribune-owned paper, in turn, runs ads for 850, touting WFTL as "Your Sun-Sentinel News Station."
When I asked Tribune spokesman Kevin Courtney why my Sun-Sentinel news station had become a refuge of the right wing, he declined to comment ("We choose not to participate," he told me twice before bidding me adieu). To be fair, it has to be said that WFTL was an entirely different radio station when the deal with the newspaper was inked two years ago. Based in Fort Lauderdale, "Live 85" had just been born, and with a signal that went from Fort Pierce to Key Biscayne, it was a burgeoning force in local radio. Again, that's local radio, meaning that 850 had on it a slew of people who live here, talking about South Florida issues.
But last month, the bold local format was snuffed out. The station canceled its last three homegrown shows, one starring local yokels Russ Morley and Mickey Miller, another featuring dueling lawyers Norm Kent and Al Milian, and the other with the budding sociologist herself, Kelley Mitchell.
What's left is an all right-wing, all nationally syndicated lineup. From 9 a.m. to noon, there's Dr. Laura. Yes that ol' gay-bashing chestnut. The next three hours you have Boortz, a pro-Iraq War libertarian who wants to throw the disenfranchised to the wolves. Then there's a special hour of reruns of Michael Savage, who is now WFTL's signature voice. You may remember the bilious Savage from his short stint on MSNBC in 2003. He was fired after he yelled at a caller that he was a "sodomite" who "should die of AIDS." Nice. But the San Francisco-based Savage isn't really a conservative -- he's more a huckster fascist.
After that hour, Fox's Bill O'Reilly takes over until 7 (and he seems like one of those nutball liberals next to Savage). Then it's three more hours of prime-time Savage, and to top off the day, there's Republican propagandist Laura Ingraham and a dose of Fox News.
I spoke with WFTL Station Manager Steve Lapa about the end of the grand experiment in local radio, and while he defended his station, the man basically admitted the dream was over. "You invest in local programming, and local programming isn't getting the ratings we would like," he said. "What do you do? The audience told us it didn't work. The audience told us they want a national conversation."
Kent, one of the station's outcasts, doesn't agree. A gay liberal attorney, he says WFTL's failure stems more from a lack of vision and poor management decisions than ratings. "The station is hemorrhaging money at every level," says Kent, who is starting a new weekend show on 1470 AM. "So they are slotting in syndicated hosts for nominal amounts of money. You don't have to hire local talent; you don't have to hire producers. It's the cheaper, easier way out."
Lapa counters that the station still has the best local news show in the morning and pointed at none other than Mitchell as a star in that regard: "She's being pushed -- well, not pushed -- she'll have a position in the morning. And when these huge news events happen, she will spearhead the operation."
Wait a second. Lapa thinks of Mitchell as a "news" person?
"Yes, she's considered news," answered Lapa, who has worked at South Florida radio stations for nearly 25 years. "She's the new world of news-news analysis. She's the local version of what's going on in MSNBC and Fox News. And the payoff for today's listener is the ability to interact with her."
And boy, has there been a payoff the past couple of weeks, as Mitchell filled in for vacationing Boortz and O'Reilly. She outdid her syndicated brethren when it came to monumental insensitivity to the suffering Katrina victims. As for interaction, some callers vehemently disagreed with her negative characterization of the black race, while others really liked what they heard.
"My father told me that when the blacks move in, everything is going to be really bad," one caller said, adding, "He was right!"
"I don't think there's anything wrong with what you're saying," Mitchell responded. "That's because there are cases in Liberty City of that happening. You see the same thing up and down Broward, and that's why you have the issue of eminent domain... You've got these places that are trash. The only explanation was that blacks were brought to America [against their will]... Their entrance into America was different than anyone else's."
The Oklahoma-bred broadcaster told listeners that her mother was once mugged by two African-American women and that if she were a poor black mother, she'd be "angry and embarrassed" at her race for its behavior. On the other hand, she pointed out that wealthier people did really well in the storm's aftermath. "I read a beautiful story about people in an upscale neighborhood" who went into a grocery story and "took only what they needed," she said.
And while defending George W. Bush's performance at every turn, she went off on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "The mayor is racist," she said of Nagin, a black man. "The mayor must be racist, because he put his people in this position and he doesn't care about them."
At one point, she compared Nagin to the September 11 terrorists, because she claimed he was the first to strike with allegations of racism involving the slow federal response.
This kind of talk went on for days. It was as if, in Kelleyland, there had been no hurricane or flood -- just criminal black people who were finally exposed as the bad citizens they so obviously are.
But don't get her wrong.
"I don't know what I'd do without my black friends," she said during one show, adding, "We have dinner parties."
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