The music swelled, sounding the familiar first notes of the vintage charity hit “We Are the World.” Then the lyrics kicked in — a torrent of bad taste, ethnic slurs and cruel insults about the killer south Asia tsunami.
The “parody,” aired during morning drive time on New York radio’s WQHT-FM, lasted three short minutes. Nearly three long weeks later, the self-proclaimed “premier hip-hop station in America” is still reeling: one of its morning co-hosts was fired, the show’s producer was dumped, and five other employees remain suspended.
The “USA for Indonesia” song offended not only tens of thousands of listeners but advertisers like McDonald’s.
“It’s a mess,” said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. “It’s taken on a life of its own. Clearly, this has touched a nerve.”
Asian-American and Muslim groups were among those infuriated by the song, which mocked victims of the tsunami. (Estimates of the overall death toll from 11 tsunami-hit nations ranged Monday from about 152,000 to 178,000.)
The controversy was a slow starter, with word of the song spreading on Jan. 21. Executives at both the station, which calls itself Hot 97, and parent company Emmis Radio did not immediately return phone calls for comment, and it seemed the protest disappeared over the weekend.
But the anger didn’t dissipate; it grew. By the middle of the following week, the station suspended its entire morning show staff, announcing their salaries would go to tsunami relief.
The move failed to appease the protesters.
The station amped up its response: morning show producer Rick Del Gado, who once worked with shock jocks Opie and Anthony, was dismissed along with show co-host Todd Lynn. Emmis Radio donated $1 million to tsunami relief. The suspensions were extended to two weeks; they end Wednesday.
‘Indefensible’“What happened is morally and socially indefensible,” said an apology issued by Rick Cummings, president of Emmis Radio.
Still, that was not enough for some. Several New York City Council members called for a donation of $10 million or a week’s worth of corporate revenue.
“This should serve as a lesson to people who profit from hate that it’s going to cost you, and it’s going to cost you dearly,” said City Council member Letitia James.
And then came word that an Asian member of the morning show, Minya Oho, known to listeners as Miss Info, was considering a lawsuit against the station for an alleged “hostile work environment” that predated its tasteless parody.
“I don’t want to litigate the case in any article,” said lawyer Kenneth Thompson, a former federal prosecutor. “I just want to tell you it went beyond the tsunami skit.”
Emmis lawyer Gary Kaseff said the company was unaware of any specific complaints by Oho about her two years at the station. Oho, who complained about the tsunami bit on the air, was not suspended but has yet to return to the airwaves.
“We would absolutely like her back with Hot 97,” said Kaseff. “We have been contacted by her lawyer, but he has not made any specific demands at all.”
For more than a decade, Hot 97 has reigned as one of New York’s leading radio stations, particularly appealing to the teen audience with its rap-and-R&B format. Like many shows in the New York market, its on-air talent dances along the line drawn by the Federal Communications Commission.
When they cross the line, the results can get ugly. In 2001, two different morning hosts were suspended after an on-air mocking of the plane crash death of R&B singer Aaliyah.
But the blame doesn’t rest entirely with the morning crew, said one industry watcher.
“It’s very much like ‘Mission Impossible,”’ said Michael Harrison, founder of the trade publication Talkers magazine. “They send you out on a mission. And if it implodes, they will disavow any knowledge of you or the mission.”