It's a sound argument for radio stations: diversity

May 12, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ROBERT Kaufman has made a life out of speaking uncomfortable truths in public, and now he's facing one of his own: Those who operate WEAA-FM radio don't want his voice on their airwaves. What's more, they wish he'd stop calling it a racial issue.

But he won't. WEAA is on the campus of historically black Morgan State University; Kaufman is white. WEAA's nighttime programming is heavily two-way talk; Kaufman's spent a lifetime talking, largely about issues of race and class and economic unfairness. WEAA's talk shows hosts are all African-American; Kaufman thinks that, somewhere in the vast amount of talk programming that airs, on a station publicly funded, there should be room for at least one hour per week for a voice like his.

"I've fought racial discrimination for 50 years," Kaufman, 67, was saying yesterday, "and I know what it feels like when it happens to me. I know what WEAA's thinking. They consider me uppity and pushy. It's what white racists used to say about blacks, that I don't know my place. Their attitude is, 'Who's this white boy coming in and trying to act black?' It's the exact reverse of what whites used to say years ago."

For its part, WEAA has told Kaufman he offers "nothing new" to its two-way talk format, that its airwaves are filled with conversation about various urban dilemmas from drugs and crime to teen pregnancy and exorbitant city insurance rates. Also, it points out, it does have a white on-air person - though he's host of a jazz program, not a two-way talk show.

Kaufman says it's more than talk-show topics - it's point of view, a sense that any station offering listeners a strict diet of broadcasters from the same ethnic background winds up talking into an echo chamber, and isolating itself politically and culturally in the process.

The argument can be made - legitimately - about white-owned talk radio stations in town, which offer their listeners an exclusive diet of white broadcasters. Their defense is: We're a private, commercial operation, and we respond to the pressures of the marketplace.

Kaufman's response? He imagined WEAA would have a more enlightened, magnanimous, culturally embracing attitude, particularly for someone with his history of taking brave and often unpopular positions over the past half-century.

In fact, he thinks that whole history is worth talking about on the radio - not just his story, in which he helped integrate Baltimore schools and theaters and restaurants, in which he was repeatedly jailed in struggles for racial integration, in which he worked on voting campaigns and helped found the Congress of Racial Equality here, in which he's worked with such civil rights lions as Parren Mitchell, Bayard Rustin, Lillie Mae Jackson and Malcolm X - but, in a larger sense, to talk about a time when people cooperated across racial lines, and what's happened to such cooperation today.

It's possible, of course, that WEAA management simply doesn't think Kaufman would be very good behind a microphone. Kaufman's response? Because he's seeking an unpaid, volunteer gig, it'd be a small risk to try him on the air a few times.

Yesterday, WEAA General Manager Preston Blakely said, "There's nothing to [Kaufman's charge]. Cultural diversity is very important to us. We've had him on the air a couple of times as a guest, and we just felt he didn't bring anything new to the table."

Asked about the "ghetto-ization" of Baltimore radio - across the dial, stations tending to a series of voices that are all-black or all-white, Blakely said, "I don't know if it's right or wrong, it's just the way it is. It has nothing to do with race or religion."

He said WEAA has 15 volunteer talk-show hosts. All are black.

In a formal complaint Kaufman filed with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, station officials denied any consideration of race. Six weeks ago, the commission dismissed Kaufman's complaint.

Kaufman has since asked the American Civil Liberties Union for help, and, last week, he asked a gathering of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance for its assistance.

At 67, Kaufman acknowledges he's sensing his own mortality. "Nobody lives forever," he said yesterday. "At this point in my life, there are experiences and knowledge I need to share."

Of course, nobody has a "right" to a talk show. We don't get our own platform simply because we want one, or need one, even if we do have something to say. Kaufman's argument goes beyond that. It's about ethnic isolation, of whatever background. And it's an argument almost every station in town ought to think about.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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