Fired DJ returns to the airwaves

Comeback: Talk show host Doug `Greaseman' Tracht will be heard on Baltimore radio for the first time since making insensitive remarks in 1999.

March 23, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Doug Tracht, the radio shock jock known as "the Greaseman" who was forced off the air after making racially inflammatory comments, will make his Baltimore comeback Monday.

"To me, he's the most talented guy I have ever heard on the radio," said Baltimore sports talk show host Nestor Aparicio, whose station, WNST (1570 AM), will air Tracht's program weekday mornings from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. "He's been off the air for two years. I think he's learned his lessons; he's made his apologies. He deserves a second chance."

Tracht, whose show is already broadcast in Washington, Portland, Ore., and Binghamton, N.Y, said: "It's like breathing again. It's wonderful."

His show first emerged earlier this month, a simulcast from his studios in Rockville.

Tracht has a gossamer voice, an imaginary cupboard filled with signature catch-phrases and skits, and a three-decades broadcasting career that included a stint overseeing Washington's highest-rated radio program. He relied upon an edgy mixture of these voices and characters to create what he called "theater of the mind."

But his career imploded while working for WARW-FM in Washington. In February 1999, Tracht played a snippet of a song by Lauryn Hill, a black Grammy-winning hip-hop singer. He then said dismissively, "No wonder people drag them behind trucks."

He spoke those words less than 48 hours after a Texas man was convicted of murder for chaining James Byrd Jr., a black man, to a truck and dragging him to his death. Civil rights activists, black radio talk show hosts and scores of angered callers successfully pushed for Tracht's dismissal.

It wasn't his first such racist remark. In 1986, on a different radio station, Tracht offered his reaction to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday: "Kill four more, and we can take a whole week off."

After the comment about Hill, Tracht was stripped of his show and his lucrative livelihood, and slipped out of the spotlight. Despite Tracht's repeated apologies, an abortive agreement to do a radio show based in the Virgin Islands a year ago collapsed as public pressure built there against him.

An unexpected backer helped propel a comeback this winter. In December, Tracht ran into Jimmie Townsend, the owner of an auto parts store who had paid for commercials on Tracht's shows a decade earlier.

Townsend, a fan of Tracht's work, was also a frequent donor to initiatives of the United Negro College Fund and the NAACP. He struck up a conversation with Tracht about what it would take to get him back on the air. Townsend then brokered conversations between Tracht and various civil rights officials. And he decided to become a partner with him financially as well, setting up a joint production company.

"He's a comic," said Townsend. "It's not him as a person. It's a character he gets into." Townsend said he feels confident that Tracht will not stray again into such offensive material.

In separate interviews, two NAACP officials said they also had become convinced that Tracht deserved a second chance. "He has an opportunity to redeem himself," said the Rev. Morris Shearin, president of the Washington branch of the civil rights organization.

While lunching over rockfish this winter, Tracht revealed a new religious devotion, as well as his participation in a racially mixed congregation, Shearin said.

"First and foremost, I am a minister of the gospel," Shearin said. "As it relates to forgiveness, there is nothing I can hold against him."

Hilary Shelton, who heads the NAACP's political affairs office in Washington, said he met with Tracht at the behest of Townsend, a longtime friend.

"He's someone who has a long and rich history of enterprise in the African-American community," Shelton said of Townsend, who is white. "His involvement in a project like this speaks volumes to me about the future intent of this program."

For his own part, Tracht said this yesterday about the remarks that shut down his career: "Asked, been answered. Over and done with. It's behind me now. There's only laughter and good times ahead."

Townsend said negotiations are almost complete with a station in Ocean City to carry the program there. And a possible national syndication deal with a sports broadcast is in the works, he said.

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