CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Conservative Bias at WRKF?

Joel Kaplan

July 3, 2013

Charles Bethley, 47, a chemist and community activist in Baton Rouge, is quite upset with public radio station WRKF.

It's not so much that the station, according to him, exhibits strong conservative talk show behavior. It's that the station won't entertain alternative points of view and has made it difficult for him to voice his opinion.

On June 6, Mr. Bethley said he called into The Jim Engster Show and producer Kevin Gallagher placed him on hold for 20 minutes. When he called back on a different line to find out what the problem was, Mr. Bethley said Mr. Gallagher told him it was the host's choice to pick up the calls.

Four days later Mr. Bethley called in again. This time, he said, Mr. Gallagher asked him what his question was. Mr. Bethley said he was never before asked to give his question in advance and refused. The call was not put through.

Mr. Bethley said he believes he is being discriminated against because he is a liberal African American.

"This is Louisiana; this is the Deep South, and when I tell you, these conservative talk show elements are a part of this station, I don't say that cheek in tongue or to be provocative. I say that because I've experienced it," Mr. Bethley said. "I know when people are playing games. I'm on hold for 20 minutes. I've had that problem before. I just ignore it.

"Unfortunately I don't think this is an isolated event; it's happened to me twice. (Mr. Gallagher) told me, and you can confirm this, 'You can only call in twice per week.' I said, 'OK, where did this come from?' He said, 'The management.' I said, 'Well who is management? Did it come from the station manager?' 'It just came from management. And he said, 'Do you want to ask a question or do you want to talk to management? I said I wanted to ask a question and he got upset.

'Now, something's got to be done about this behavior. When I called in about questioning people, the station manager said, 'That's our policy.' I said, 'That's un-American. You're not a commercial radio station; you're a public radio station.' As long as I'm not making threatening or profane remarks, you have no right to censor what I ask or prescreen my questions. So that's what you're dealing with down here."

Mr. Gallagher declined to return phone calls for comment, but David Gordon, WRKF station manager since 2006, said he would speak on his behalf. Mr. Gordon said that he has spoken to Mr. Bethley about three or four times and that his major request was that WRKF run the Smiley & West show. That show, produced by Smiley Radio Properties, Inc. in partnership with Public Radio International , features prominent African Americans Tavis Smiley and Cornell West.

"I did my due diligence into that, and it's not a show that is going to fly very well here in Baton Rouge," Mr. Gordon said. "We live in a very very conservative part of the country. I checked this out with African Americans who I know, and had them listen to several examples of the show and give me their honest feedback, and they just said no, this is not something I'd be interested in listening to. It's just too confrontational, in your face, kind of thing. The issue has already been decided before the discussion starts type of approach, and we decided that's not what Baton Rouge needs.

"However, at the same time we were having those conversations that the station had come to the conclusion independently that we could do a better job to have programming on the air to address minority issues, and one of the things that came out of those discussions was the addition of Tell Me More with Michel Martin, which started in January of this year. We've got a show on specifically addressing those issues on five days a week. It's not Smiley & West, and he was not happy about that, but there's nothing I can do about that."

In terms of the complaints that Mr. Bethley registered about the way he was treated when he called in, Mr. Gordon acknowledged that neither WRKF nor The Jim Engster Show has formal written guidelines about how to treat people who call in frequently.

The Jim Engster Show is the only call-in show that WRKF has, and Mr. Engster has total control over how the show is run, Mr. Gordon said. The first incident involving Mr. Bethley actually occurred when there was a guest host. It is up to Mr. Gallagher to screen those calls.

Asked about whether there are limits on people calling into shows on any guidelines, Mr. Gordon said this:

"Well no, I don't think so. Jim pretty much lets people come on and say what they want to say. When this complaint was lodged, it was when a guest host was on. The host has a pretty heavy flow of the show and how it's going to go. If they want more information than Jim normally does (from the producer), it's up to them how they want to do it and hold the conversation, and that's just standard talk show procedure."

Asked specifically about the two-call limit per week, Mr. Gordon said:

"Have I heard anything about that? We may have talked about that, and Jim, the way he puts limits on the number of times someone can call, that may be what he does. And that's not unreasonable I think. I've certainly heard of limits being placed on the number of calls people can make to a show in a given time period before."

But Mr. Bethley said that having him say what his question is before going on the air and being told that there is a two call a week limit is something that has only arisen in the past month.

In terms of Mr. Bethley's complaint, it is well within the right of WRKF to determine what shows to run and what shows it feels are appropriate for its audience.

However, it is inappropriate for the station to formulate guidelines for its talk show on an ad hoc basis because it might not like the comments some of its listeners make or the frequency of those comments.

Because neither Mr. Gallagher nor Mr. Engster returned phone calls (Mr. Gordon said they were free to respond but he "wasn't surprised that they hadn't"), it is impossible to ascertain how and why these new guidelines came about.

What's clear is that none of these guidelines are stated on its website and it appears that Mr. Bethley has a legitimate complaint over the way he has been treated by the show's producer.

If The Jim Engster Show wants to limit calls to no more than twice per week or prescreen its commenters then I suggest it promulgate such guidelines, post them prominently on its website and announce them on air, and make sure that it treats all its callers the same way.

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