Fred March of Oakland is an opinionated man who speaks his mind.
March thinks, for example, that KGO-AM Money Talk host Bob Brinker is a financial quack and apologist for the wealthy. And last spring he wrote Brinker a pair of letters telling him so -- with copies to station management and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
"I think you are an inconscionable [sic] scam artist, using the airways that belong to the public for your enrichment," March thundered in a May missive. "The whole radio business needs to be overhauled and regulated -- and it will be!"
A month later, March launched another rocket at Brinker for offering allegedly faulty retirement-planning advice. After ripping Brinker a new one, March offered this aside: "P.S. to the FCC: I just saw again the TV ad for Neosporin, that pops up all over the air. They say 'Bacteria cause infections' and then show a microscopic image of a strange and dangerous-looking creature; not a bacterium but a harmless protozoan! Neosporin is a useful product. Why does a drug company feel (and is allowed to) that it needs to misrepresent its message?"
Fred March's correspondence -- heartfelt, angry, quirky, and ultimately misguided -- is typical of the thousands of complaints the FCC receives each year about broadcasters. In the 12 months ended this past October, the agency got 7,594 letters from citizens outraged by something they'd heard or seen. Most of these gripes represent legitimate efforts to redress perceived wrongs. They are concise, cogent, and sincere. Others are rambling, ranting overreactions to minor or imagined slights. And more than a few are the work of total wack jobs -- folks who think local DJs are ridiculing them on air; people who insist their misfortunes are the result of having crossed powerful media interests.
"Some of what we do is therapeutic," acknowledges Norman Goldstein, the stone-faced chief of the FCC Mass Media Complaints and Investigations Branch. "But, we are a service agency."
And in that spirit, every single complaint receives careful, nonjudgmental attention from Goldstein's staff of 18 lawyers and clerks. Each letter is opened, logged in, analyzed by an attorney, and judged on the merits of the beef and the supporting documentation. According to Goldstein, "less than 10 percent" of the complaints warrant any sort of investigation. The rest either fall outside the agency's purview or don't provide enough detail about the alleged infraction. Indeed, the majority of these gripes would never be filed if the public better understood the scope of the FCC's power. While the FCC can and does impose serious penalties on stations that violate its operating rules -- including the rather vague indecency regulations -- the agency has little or no control over most aspects of radio programming. One example: Somebody should have explained to certain Bay Area residents that the Endangered Species Act doesn't apply to radio formats -- the feds can't make a station keep or change its format. And without a tape, transcript, or at least an accurate report of the who, when, and where of the offending broadcast, the agency is unable to act on even legitimate allegations. As a result of this ignorance and sloppy reporting, most complainants are politely dismissed with an FCC form letter explaining why the agency won't be revoking the miscreant's license after all.
With the exception of a few letters from complainants who have requested confidentiality, all of this correspondence -- including a fair amount from the Bay Area -- winds up in public files available for inspection at the FCC's Spartan Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Those files currently contain roughly 200 complaints against the Bay Area's top 24 radio stations, dating back to October 1992. (Complaints filed before that date are stored in a suburban Washington warehouse, alongside the Ark of the Covenant and the Roswell alien bodies.) The most common gripe from local radio listeners: the perceived excesses of conservative talk hosts. The second-biggest irritant: dirty talk.
The Favorite Station of the Third Reich?
San Francisco's uncontested complaints cham-peen is all-right, all-the-time KSFO-AM, which has an impressive 54 letters to its credit.
One peeved listener urged the FCC to consider revoking KSFO's license "unless they cease and desist from this virtually Hitlerian, enflamatory [sic] rhetoric."
Berkeley truck driver Drew Clark dropped a line to complain that KSFO's all-conservative lineup denies equal access to other viewpoints and "makes me depressed daily."
Gunter Konold of Stockton advised the FCC that KSFO is "a snake pit" that proves we need "limits on irresponsible hate media." According to Konold, if "the ultraright ... cannot handle free speech in a responsible manner, it becomes a menace and liability to our society and must be controlled."
Former KSFO host Michael Spearman drew two complaints for his alleged "Gestapo politics" and "incitement to murder." The authors of those letters received complimentary copies of an FCC brushoff brochure explaining broadcasters' First Amendment rights and regulatory responsibilities.
"Hitlerian." "Gestapo." Nazi imagery is a common thread in FCC complaints against conservatives.
Yet another KSFO yakker, Spencer Hughes, prompted a letter of complaint with his crude insinuation that anti-religion liberals are trying to use child molestation by priests to destroy the Catholic Church.
"Is KSFO now advocating child molestation?" asked Anne Lavandier of Willits. "Is the station's policy that child molesters should be free [to] perpetrate their unwholesome proclivities upon defenseless children? ... Spencer Hughes should be removed from the radio. His ... are merely the outpourings of unrestrained licentiousness with no redeeming social significance."
But the man responsible for the most KSFO complaints is, of course, former KSFO morning man and Bay Area radio veteran J. Paul Emerson, who generated an impressive 42 letters during his 30 days at the station. Most of those gripes were part of an organized protest effort. While they were written in different styles on varying letterheads, all 42 cited the same Emersonian excesses and quoted identical passages from his short-lived show, including, "Alioto, get your butt ready. I guarantee you, you want stinking war, you got war you asshole."