"A stand against pompous gasbags"

After firing humorist Sandra Tsing Loh for letting the F-word slip onto the airwaves, a public radio station offered her job back. But Loh said no, and tells Salon why.

By John Gorenfeld
Published March 17, 2004 1:04AM (EST)

Janet Jackson, Bubba the Love Sponge, Howard Stern and ... Sandra Tsing Loh? The latest victim of the FCC's new game of fear factor is a humorist whose recent "Loh Life" commentary for NPR affiliate KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., was a series devoted to knitting. But when she used the F-word in a pre-recorded commentary last week that an engineer forgot to bleep, her NPR bosses pulled the plug.

Loh had been riffing on domestic life and her husband's stint playing guitar for Bette Midler, when this thought aired, uncensored: "He does play guitar for Bette Midler on her massive new stage show, so I guess I have to fuck him."

The piece aired twice before the management noticed. And when it did, the station went into overdrive. Station manager Ruth Seymour told the Los Angeles Times: "We really are serious with her, that with such a trivial, self-serving piece, she put us all in danger." A page devoted to Loh's commentary was deleted from the KCRW Web site and with it links to such potentially inflammatory "Loh Life" features as "I'm Knit-Crazy, Pt. 1" and "Season of Good Will." Loh faxed a letter of apology to Seymour taking blame for the "disaster," but of course, she was fired, her weekly commentary canceled.

Finally, on Monday, cooler heads seemed to prevail, and KCRW management called Loh to see if she wanted to resume her column. But Loh, 42, declined to go back. She talked about the decision, and the whole imbroglio, to Salon by phone:

How did this all happen?

For six years I've been doing weekly commentaries at KCRW. They used to be four-minute segments; now, three. It's a pre-taped situation: The computer runs, and we record about three takes. They edit for pick-ups, for length and little sound effects. And in my case we had agreed on a bleep.

It was a piece about Bette Midler's recent concert in Los Angeles. My husband plays guitar with her on this tour. Miss Midler, if you've seen any of her live shows: she's just a little bit blue. It's hilarious; it's political. One of the jokes is, "What's the generic name for Viagra? Mycocksafloppin." It's in that bawdy, vaudeville rhythm. It's all about a certain rhythmic timing.

I was just alluding to my husband playing in connection with that band. I said, blahblahblahblah -- and then, "So I guess I have to BLEEP him." It was always meant to be bleeped. This engineer and I had done this maybe a dozen times over the last few years. I'm not like the guy in the Federal Express commercials, but I have a fast rhythm. It works better to say the word and then bleep it.

It's not anything that I would ever do again, now that I'd had this experience.

And the engineer, he's still at KCRW?

He is. He was given some probation. It was a simple, honest mistake. He's a father with two small kids. I'd brought my children into the studio -- we'd exchanged Pampers. He's young -- I think he's in his 20s. He'll never do that again. It's a mistake. You can get warned and reprimanded. He owned up to it. He's a pretty stand-up guy.

Is that standard policy, to warn hosts first -- like the yellow card in soccer?

Yeah. I would have to think it's just the times that we live in -- the post-Janet-Jackson's-breast age. The bigger picture is that the FCC's raising the fines from $27,500 to $500,000 [for obscenity]. That is great. Even though the FCC hasn't warned KCRW, which is a local public-radio station.

NPR hadn't been warned before. There was an episode that was in the L.A. Times this morning as a factoid ... [On May 29, 2002, according to the Los Angeles Times, current station boss Seymour was interviewing Dennis Hopper, when the famously reckless actor uttered the F-word in a discussion of Andy Warhol.]

But because he's Dennis Hopper -- nothing. No bleep. But he's cool.

And you could say you were using the F-word to describe a wholesome, pro-marriage sentiment.

Yes. Totally within the bounds of marriage. A 15-year marriage -- in the Bush years!

What would you say to critics who'd say you'd crossed the "Bono line" -- of using the F-word literally, as opposed to as an expression, or an exclamation.

Technically I did. Because the Bono is the transitive form ... he's using it as an adjective. I was using it in verb form, which is classified as strong.

[She discusses how Howard Stern ridiculed this distinction while coming to her defense on "The Howard Stern Show."]

Are you skeptical of Stern's claims that Clear Channel fired him for attacking Bush?

It's ... hard to say, and I don't want to say anything about Howard Stern, because in the first week he was the first vocal supporter of mine.

Did you feel isolated?

Yes. I went on the NPR official Web site, and front and center was the NPR ombudsman...

Yeah, writing about your case, NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin said the rules about on-air obscenity are clear in FCC regulations. He concludes: "Too late for Loh, perhaps, but a cautionary tale for the rest of us."

Oh my Lord. That's their official take? Let's see ... I was just going to say something unprintable. He's a pompous gasbag. If that's what they think, they're out of touch, head in the sand, thesaurus-suffocated, timid antiquarians. I think his essay delineated the very definition of pompous gasbag, and I'm sending you a draft of what I've written to him ... about his timidity, taking this case and mentioning me by name, and then deliberately leaving out a few facts. He made it more like, "This is a gal who talked blue into the mic..." It was listed as the editor's pick. They were really proud of it, like, "Hey, this is great."

My daughter has just pooped in the toilet. I'm going to take a break to wipe my daughter's bottom ... getting really scatological here!

[Loh leaves for a moment. Her letter in progress to Jeffrey Dvorkin reads, in part: "While ... details were documented as early as March 5th in news outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Reuters to the BBC, your own reportage dated March 10th is surprisingly vague on what happened ... so vague it seems intentional. I can only surmise that you willfully sacrificed the actual facts of my story to creative a convenient 'news' or at least 'news-like' housing for a personal agenda of your own fancy. I think what you were attempting -- over the body of my case -- was a witty little feuilleton subtly bemoaning, between yourself and complicit readers, the lapsed values of a sloppy, loose-talking younger generation. And I must say, your misleading essay is indeed a fine example of this hoary old literary chestnut: it pumps fresh new vigor into the phrase 'pompous gasbag.' ... My case is not about the right to say 'fuck' on public radio airwaves. The question is: Is it gross overreaction, on the part of a public radio station, to fire -- rather than warn, reprimand, suspend or even fine -- a commentator of six years for their own young station engineer's honest -- and fully admitted -- mistake?"]

What's the response been like from the public?

I got outraged e-mail from all over the country ... from L.A., from England.

Sympathetic e-mail?

Only one of them wasn't, kind of one of these ... [sotto voce, out of her daughter's earshot] "Bitch. Whore." Like it may have come from someone in prison...

But another was a dad who heard my commentary with his daughter, and didn't know why I couldn't take my firing with good grace. I wrote him a letter back, apologizing to his family, and explaining the situation. And then he wrote back an apologetic e-mail.

These were strangers. My address wasn't listed, and they Googled me off a 15-year-old jazz piano CD I did off a small piano label.

In a piece on you in the National Review, you quote KCRW's boss, Ruth Seymour, as saying, "Sandra, I know this comes at a hard time. I don't know what's going on with you. But please, Sandra, get help!"

[Pause] Well, she certainly did say that ... She's now said that she really didn't mean "emotional help." She just meant ... get a nanny.

So that parental stress wouldn't lead to more on-air profanity?

Yeah, something like that. It took her an awful long time though.

In a commentary for "Marketplace" after your firing, you accused public radio of becoming timid.

Why I think this case has gotten so much attention is that KCRW is known for the opposite. They're known for being free-speech advocates, independent-thinking ... a place where Dennis Hopper, Helmut Newton, could say the F-word, no problem.

But NPR, yes, it tends towards blandness. I always joke about NPR commentators, having been one myself. "Autumn leaves are falling ... my antique baseball card collection reminds me of my grandmother..."

There was one I heard recently by a guy who'd really been into R&B in the '60s. He'd been living up the street from Marvin Gaye, who'd always call out to the kids, "What's goin' on?" while mowing his lawn. Of course, then the song fades in.

Right, when you just go, "OH MY WORD." It's not that we don't all love chess, and crossword puzzles, and funny little news quizzes with puns, and discussions of cobbler we had in Alabama in the old days. It's not that there isn't a place for that. But perhaps NPR should just look and see if we can't change the ratio of pieces on antique baseball cards to cobbler ... [fuddy-duddy voice] crossword-puzzly puzzle ... lame humor. How many funny little news quizzes do we need over the week? It's just a little bit of a bowtie nation.

Anything else you'd like to say about your old bosses -- since the FCC can't yet touch the World Wide Web and Salon?

Today, they actually called to offer me a job back on their radio station. They waved the white flag. And I declined.

My show would have been back on the air, and back in drive time. My fabulous four minutes. And the station manager who called me said she hadn't been in full possession of the facts the first time. She wasn't aware that we had done this a few times before. That this really mitigated the circumstance for her. And that, in fact, I could continue, "if you agreed not to do any more bleeping."

And your response was no?

I would not feel comfortable going back to work there. How many times do you want to get shot through the cannon? I couldn't go back there. And the culture ... Within the building, that first week, of people I'd known for six years, walked by in the halls. But not one person from inside the Kremlin even sent a one-liner of "Jeez! Sorry!" Not one did, except for dear Harry [Shearer, of "Spinal Tap" and "The Simpsons," who has a long-running show on KCRW].

That was just a toxic, fear-based culture.

On his KCRW program "Le Show," Shearer has this parody of an NPR host, Ira Zipkin, who hosts fictitious shows called "Bookbag" and "Said and Done."

He did a skit [this last weekend about her dismissal]. It was about a "Bleepmation" device, made by a company in Canada. So KCRW is a once-great station that once had a sense of humor about itself.

But it really has gotten like that. The pledge gifts you can win are like, "The Jaguar. The Jag-u-ar." [Savoring the word.] But it's kind of a cool, retro Jaguar, of course. IMacs and iPods and vintage wines. Literally, this one time, that was the import of the thing: "If you have any wines in your cellars that you'd like to get rid of, please give them..."

The idea being that the listeners would tend to have actual wine cellars, with wine in them they'd like to donate.

We have wine cellars! And we have extra bottles in there that maybe we're bored with.

So what's next for you?

I'm going through some other offers. I'm still on "Marketplace." I stopped, but I'm back on there once a month. Not going on KCRW will help me. I think we have to take a stand against pompous gasbags.

John Gorenfeld

John Gorenfeld is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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