Sirius Radio: The Refuge for Racist, Homophobic Right-Wingers Like Dr. Laura
Last August, after an illustrious, decades-long career calling women whores, screaming about couples who "shack up," and attacking gays, Dr. Laura Schlessinger had to quit her radio show after hurling the n-word, 11 times, at an African-American caller. OnLarry King LiveSchlessinger announced that she would not let her First Amendment right to million-dollar paychecks and thousands of listeners be trampled by critics calling her out as a racist.
But thanks to Sirius radio, the flailing satellite company where Howard Stern has plied his craft (grotesque sexism) for five years, Schlessinger's hiatus from the airwaves will last exactly three days; that's the gap of time between when her non-renewed contract with her broadcast station runs out and her new gig with Sirius -- announced this week -- begins. Obviously she couldn't be happier, gushing in a Sirius press release, "I can't wait to preach, teach and nag about morals, values, ethics and principles ... My brain is buzzing with new ideas for my program's content, direction and expansion, including guest interviews with people who intrigue and inspire me. I couldn't be more giggly if you tickled me!"
Putting that image aside for a second, how did Schlessinger's fortunes turn around so quickly? In a Larry King interview the shock jock claimed that the day after she announced her retirement the head of Siriuscalled to say "Come on over here, the water's fine." She said she met with a crew of Sirius execs two months later. "I sat there and I listened to these men appreciate what I had done my entire career, appreciate my guts in never giving up, appreciate the value I offer on the air, and wanting to support me. That was it. It took me two seconds. I said, 'I'm on board.'"
They weren't kidding about the water. When her show premieres Jan. 3, Schlessinger will be joining a spate of racist, homophobic right-wingers who make Glenn Beck look good (including Glenn Beck, whose show Sirius runs in syndicate).
As part of its political programming, the satellite broadcaster offers a liberal station and a conservative one: Sirius Left and the infuriatingly named Sirius Patriot. An outgrowth of the now defunct satellite station America Right, Sirius Patriot boasts the "true voices of conservatism."
One true voice of conservatism on the station is Mike Church, who calls himself "the Dude." Church once lamented the political correctness that prevents him from expressing himself on race, saying on his show that when it comes to race issues, "regardless of ... what you may want to say, you always have to temper it with what is still politically acceptable speech."
If Church's output represents a capitulation to propriety, his uncensored views towards minorities seem like they would involve sheets. The Dude's schtick is putting out vilely offensive (and unfunny) "parody" songs, mostly starring undocumented immigrants. One pits a Mexican named Manuel against Bubba, defender of White American work ethic, in a cleaning contest. The chorus actually goes, "The wetbacks are in Georgia and they're looking for green cards. If you win we'll deport his ass back to Mexico... But if you lose we'll all speak Espanol!" (In case you're wondering, Bubba comes out on top, while Manuel "bowed his head, knowing that he'd been beat, and he lay his welfare money on the ground at Bubba's feet....")
In a tribute to the Minute Men, set to CCR's "Lookin' Out My Back Door," we get, "Just got in from Illinois, cocked my shotgun Oh Boy, got to stop these illegal aliens!/ ... Pretty soon I'm singing ... Shoot, Shoot, Shoot wetbacks at the border!" In "We're Fucking Up America," Church and the gang fret that some (very generous) liberals will "fill our beds with lesbos and gays!"
Church is joined on Sirius Patriot by Andrew Wilcow, who Glenn Greenwald once singled out, among some serious competition, as a symbol of the Right's decline. Greenwald made the choice after Wilcow called Perez Hilton a "vile sodomite." "Perez Hilton, who I am now terming a vile sodomite ...yeah, Perez, you’re a vile sodomite – doesn’t that word have a ring to it – sodomite -- and vile – vile sodomite" chanted Wilcow while subbing for Mark Levin (on a different station).
Wilcow has also expressed his disapproval of gays and lesbians by implying that Chris Dodd's prostate cancer was the result of sex with Barney Frank. Yeah.
And what's a conservative lineup without a religious right elder who's fought for the disenfranchisement of women and gays since the '70s? That slot is filled by Gary Bauer, who hosts a show with Tom Rose, former publisher and CEO of the Jerusalem Post. Also on the roster are Cam and Company from NRA News, Rusty Humphries and Mark Levin.
What does Sirius have to gain from playing to the right-wing's basest instincts with these frothing screamers who skate perilously close to the line of hate speech? Or of plucking up a shock jock who was hounded off the airwaves for yelling the n-word at a black woman? A lot -- and almost nothing to lose.
The station has been in deep financial shit for years. Like all satellite radio, Sirius had the misfortune of coming up with paid radio content right before most radio became free online, and people became fused to their iPods. Struggling under a $3.2 billion debt, the company barely avoided bankruptcy in early 2009. Later that year it gave investors another fright by losing 2 percent of its subscribers (it only had growth in subscribers before that), and in August of 2010 year its stock hit its lowest low, at $0.94.
"They're in a situation where they're hungry and desperate to increase subscribers," says Michael Keith, professor of communications and radio broadcasting at Boston College. Dr. Laura, who left 8 million listeners behind when she martyred herself on the altar of hate speech, will likely bring the station much-needed subscribers (it's likely that Howard Stern, whose $500 million dollar contract was not helping the company stay financially solvent, may not stay on, which will likely cost the station many subscribers). In a sense, Sirius seems to have replicated its Howard Stern strategy but with right-wingers, bringing in people who might be too whacked out for the public airwaves but whose preternatural ability to stir up controversy earns them attention that can translate into devoted followers.
Meanwhile, the satellite station faces no repercussions for that business strategy. Because it operates outside the public airwaves, it faces no threat of regulatory interference of its content. (As Keith points out, the Federal Trade Commission has more authority over them than the FCC.)
At the same time, its business model makes it less vulnerable to customer boycotts of the type that persuaded Dr. Laura off the air. Because it is fully diversified and has so many stations, liberal listeners can enjoy Thom Hartmann without running into songs about shooting Mexican people. Unlike a regular radio station that carries right-wing shock jocks, Sirius is unlikely to entirely turn off users who might find the content on the conservative station offensive.
And because the Sirius model depends more on subscriber fees than advertising, a boycott of the type that's left Glenn Beck dependent on scammy gold peddlers wouldn't really threaten its programming either. Many of Sirius' shows don't even have advertising. (Dr. Laura has refused to name the sponsors to her show, and it's not totally clear if she will have any.)
While Sirius Patriot doesn't have the reach of, say, Fox, the station can't help but catapult sexist, racist and homophobic ideas into the wider world. Some of Mike Church's horrific songs have been on the soundtrack of many Tea Party events. And starting Jan. 3, Dr. Laura will once again have a radio platform for her hysterical screeds. She's already dropped tantalizing hints that her very first show will be about race.