Flashback to the year 1974.
It was August 8th, the day that Richard Nixon announced that the following day, he would resign as President of the United States of America. A short time after the announcement, a disc jockey on KHJ (930 AM) opened up his microphone, and on the fade ending of the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” he said,"K-H-J, and your brother Tom Dooley. That’s Hues Corporation, “Rock The Boat.” And, we've all gotta do that once in a while, you know? I believe Richard Nixon, President of the United States and his close associates should be thoroughly investigated in regard to the concept, design and execution of the political assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the attempted assassination of George Wallace, and other unprecedented and heinous crimes of high treason and murder against the people of America. In case you don’t believe what you just heard, I’ll repeat it.”
He then repeated the statement, played his “Tom Dooley” jingle, segued into The Rascal’s “People Gotta Be Free,” and walked out of the studio. The version I heard of the story told of executives all being in a meeting and missing the whole thing ... wondering why he was leaving, but the end result was the same: the station made an on-air statement during the news that the views expressed by Dooley were “not those of radio station KHJ;” within minutes Tom Dooley was longer employed by KHJ or owner RKO.
Fast forward to last week. Kimberly and Beck, the morning team on WBZA/Rochester were fired May 22nd for making negative remarks against benefits for transgender employees working for the city of Rochester. I have not heard an official transcript, but All Access.Com reported that the main focus of the firing was related to this statement from Kimberly:
"The services that will be paid for under the new coverage: gender reassignment surgery, psychological counseling, because you're probably a nut job to begin with, that's my opinion, hormone therapy, cosmetic and reconstructive surgery."
All Access also reported that Kimberly later posted on Twitter: "Freedom of Speech includes the freedom to offend others. You aren't granted a right to not be offended in this life #getoverit.”
In announcing the firings, station General Manager Sue Minn said, Their hateful comments against the transgender community do not represent our station or our company. We deeply apologize to the transgender community, the community of Rochester, and anyone else who was offended by their comments.”
Now, you may be asking why I am comparing these two totally unrelated events. Am I equating a statement made against a political figure with a blanket indictment of an entire group? Hardly. I am comparing them because they both resulted in firings, not because of free speech violations, but violations of company policy.
Interestingly, Dooley actually wanted out of his contract because he hated Los Angeles, hated KHJ and wanted to leave. He knew he would get fired for his rant on Nixon. In the end Dooley was but a forgotten footnote at KHJ, hardly a memory other than for fanatics like me. I doubt that happened on WBZA. But the change in attitude is interesting. No one claimed Dooley was entitled to “free speech” in 1974. Many today are claiming that Kimberly and Beck were denied their rights of “free speech.”
But as a longtime observer of radio -- and business -- this is most certainly not a free speech issue. Companies have a right to have their employees project an image of the company, and a code of conduct that enforces that image. Disneyland has one for appearance of employees. Others are similar. If I bash newspapers (which I would never do, by the way, I am old school and love reading newspapers), do you think I‘d work here long?
Howard Stern himself was fired numerous times in spite of high ratings due to things he said. Until he found a company that basically protected him. Companies have that right too ... to allow in-your-face on air personalities unafraid to offend.
But does anyone really have free speech when it comes to representing the company you work for? No. And no one ever really has.