The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

10 May 2008

KGO Radio Imposes Topic Ban On Bernie Ward Talk

810 K - G - NO

Says Nyet To Bernie Talk, But Floodgates Finally Burst Open

Though it might seem difficult to overshadow the attention given to former KGO libtalker Bernie Ward's child porn case, the way his station handled the issue on- air is giving the former priest a run for his money.

In fact, at this point, most of the Bay Area buzz has shifted to Citadel - ABC Radio's poor handling of the matter, where KGO hosts have reportedly been muzzled for months. Considering the huge publicity the story generated across the region and even the entire nation, it must have been difficult to keep a lid on it.

Much of the finger- pointing has been directed at KGO General Manager Mickey Luckoff, a controversial figure and staunch Ward supporter. Even after the kiddie porn charges were filed against the evening talker, Luckoff is said to have pushed to rehire him.

Here, the San Francisco Chronicle's Culture Blog details the awkward situation:

While some of this backstage twist may sound like inside baseball stuff to many, KGO's listeners finally were able to fill its prodigious airwaves Thursday with their thoughts about the Ward situation.

The highly-rated Owens told his audience Thursday that he has been hearing from listeners that they'd like to talk about Ward, pro and con, and wondered how KGO could call itself a news-talk station and not talk about a prominent local story. So on Thursday, Owens devoted the first hour of his program for a listener venting of all things Ward.

Owens began by reading the emancipatory email from Jack Swanson, the station's operations director. "I thank you for your understanding over the past few months in avoiding this topic," read Swanson's email. "There is no longer any reason to restrict discussion on the matter and you are free to use your usual good judgement in discussing this topic as you would any other."

In a brief intro at the top of the show, Owens talked about how he bristled at the station's request for silence, saying he tried to fight it but eventually backed off. The irony, he told his listeners, is that it wasn't something he'd have probably discussed on the air. Frankly, "it's because of Bernie." He mentioned his "acrimonious" relationship with Ward over the years, which he called "one-sided" (from Ward's point of view, Owens said.) "I have no feelings" towards Ward, Owens told his listeners, so "I just didn't bring it up." Then he opened the talk-radio floodgates.

Sure enough, once those floodgates burst open, KGO's hosts were under a microscope as listeners measured their positions on the subject. Weekender / fill-in host Karel, who phones in his program from Los Angeles, took heat for seeming to defend Ward and pushing the insane theory that Bernie's downfall was a Republican plot.

Even milquetoast middayer Gil Gross was criticized for "soft-pedaling" the Ward situation, with one listener saying he was too quick to accept Bernie's excuses.

With a sharply- reduced sentence now awaiting Ward, some radio insiders believe Luckoff will again attempt to rehire him if given the opportunity down the road. Considering this revelation, however, that might be difficult:

But in a separate written plea agreement, Ward admitted for sentencing purposes that he distributed a total of between 15 and 150 images of child pornography via e-mail.

The case was prosecuted by lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department's child exploitation and obscenity section in Washington, D.C.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Alice Fisher said in a written statement that the 15 to 150 images Ward admitted sending "involved prepubescent children engaged in sexually explicit conduct, some with sadistic, masochistic or violent conduct."

Given that, any future for Ward at KGO will depend on the level of moral corruption present in the building at the time of his release from prison.

As for the station's move to muzzle hosts on the subject, it was a serious mistake. By avoiding the topic for months, KGO gave the appearance that it had something to hide and undermined listener credibility.

Then, when the dam burst and its talkers finally dived in, the station seemed to overdo the subject. One observer described it as "all Bernie, all the time". The result: a lose- lose situation for KGO and its audience.

FOR New England regional talk radio updates, see our other site.

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Ward Image: SF Chronicle


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