Here’s the latest fallout from the FCC crackdown: My friend Sandra Tsing Loh, a popular author and monologuist whose radio spot, The Loh Life, has been a staple on the NPR affiliate KCRW for the past six years, called last week to say she’d just been fired for saying the f-word on the air. It was an accident, but more about that in a minute.
I’ve known Sandra since we were both columnists at a now-defunct L.A. magazine called Buzz, and although she’s sometimes salty, she’s not known for raunch. Her material typically revolves around family life: the adventures of her eccentric, 80-something, Chinese dad, a retired physicist who often hitchhikes on the Malibu highway (Anjelica Huston once gave him a ride); or being a harried mom of two small girls aged two and three, with a musician husband typically on the road for weeks at a time.
Sandra, who almost never hires babysitters, is usually knee-high in Play-Doh these days, often minding her brother’s three small children as well as her own. Not the next person I would have imagined entering Howard Stern/Janet Jackson territory.
So here’s what happened. Sandra began her Feb. 29 Loh Life complaining that her husband sleeps late and doesn’t listen, “but he DOES play guitar for Bette Midler on her MASSIVE new STAGE show–there are times when he stands within five feet of her! So I guess I have to f*&&k him.” That’s how she wrote it in the manuscript, by the way. The intent was never to actually say the word on the air, but to say it while recording the piece–”it works better for the rhythm”–and have the engineer bleep it out later.
“He intended to do it,” Sandra said, “as he has done many times in the past, and he simply forgot. I don’t think it’s funny that way, actually hearing the word. It’s only funny with the bleep. Had I heard that come on the air while driving my kids to church or something, I would have been quite horrified.”
The next morning she got a call from the station’s general manager, Ruth Seymour, who said that KCRW was dropping her show. “She said, “It’s unconscionable in these times for you to leave the station without making sure that was bleeped,’” Sandra recalled. “Then she said she’s sending a memo to the station, not using my name for some reason–I don’t understand that part–but saying that the engineer is on probation.”
“And then she said, ‘Sandra, I know this comes at a hard time. I don’t know what’s going on with you. But please, Sandra, get some help!’”
Sandra and I used to have regular gripefests about the freelance writer’s life. She coined one of my favorite terms, Crappy Hackington, to describe a particular kind of freelancer we’d run into sometimes. But then one too many killed articles made her decide to “get out of the prose business,” as she called it (although lately she’s been reviewing books for The Atlantic), and this was just as well: Her radio commentaries turned her into a celebrity.
Her two essay collections, “Depth Takes a Holiday” and “A Year In Van Nuys” were southern California bestsellers, and her latest one-woman show, Sugar Plum Fairy, sold out at in Los Angeles this winter. Other stage shows have been off-Broadway Aliens In America, and I Worry, which premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last year. When I saw her speak to a packed, adoring crowd at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair a couple of years ago, I was amazed at her new comic-killing-at-Vegas persona.
Still, I wasn’t especially surprised by KCRW’s dropping her show. Ruth Seymour, who’s such a force in public radio that NPR is sometimes called National Public Ruth, is famous for the way people fall in and out of her favor. The Loh Life’s new schedule these past few months–7:35 A.M. and 9:35 A.M. Sunday mornings, instead of its previous plum drivetime slots–couldn’t have been a good sign.
“It’s like they think I’m so out of control,” Sandra added. “I’d been doing a five-part series on knitting, and I’d put in something about putting my feet up at the end of the day and having a vodka, and apparently someone called in and said, ‘What kind of mother drinks vodka? While knitting?’”
In that spot, Sandra described stopping two three-year-olds from fighting over a rubber band, “and then I CLOSED my door and RETIRED…to my vodka and my crochet…which THESE days is the Stoli with the big handle from Costco. I don’t NEED my vodka Belvedere smooth. I need it to BURN on the way down so I don’t drink too MUCH. By the end of the day, I need to stay FOCUSED on just getting HAMMERED.”
“Foolishly, I thought that the knitting commentary might lean too domestic,” Sandra told me. “So I somehow thought that the sudden zinger of the big-handled vodka in the last paragraph would lend the piece the proper spicy, unpredictable, cosmopolitan (so to speak) flair. I see now that I was wrong, Cathy, so wrong!”
The knitting series went on so long partly because when The Loh Life was moved to Sundays, it was also cut from four minutes to three. “So I’d been having more than my usual trouble of fitting subjects into the time I’m given,” Sandra said. “Another worry of course was that spending so many weeks discussing knitting would actually drive KCRW listeners to the bottle. Well, it’s a moot point now.”
I called Ruth Seymour, and she did not sound happy. “You’re not doing her any favors with this story,” she said. “No one will touch her after this. You cannot say [that word] on the air, period. We could lose our license. She’s obviously having problems.” Seymour lost patience with me when I asked if The Loh Life’s move to Sunday morning from its previous weekday drive-time spots meant she was tiring of the show anyway.
“Mornings are always better than evenings in radio!” she said. “Evenings are television time. Listen, sweetheart, do you think everybody’s still sleeping at 7:30 A.M. on Sunday? Have you ever been to a gym? And she was on twice Sunday mornings. It was a very good time for her.”
KCRW then sent me an official statement saying that their policy about actionable language “existed long before the present climate that followed from the Janet Jackson and Howard Stern events” and that the engineer wasn’t being suspended after all. Sandra confirmed this: “The engineer–who I chatted with this afternoon, very nice fellow–has received what he has called ‘a slap on the wrist,’” she told me.
For her part, Sandra faxed Seymour an apology taking full responsibility for “this disaster,” and adding that she remains “extremely grateful for the long tenure I’ve had with…your great station.” She also told me that Seymour had almost never interfered with her radio spots, except once, after Sept. 11, when she referred to Osama bin Laden as the Talitollah (As in: Taliban/Ayatollah).
“That one Ruth axed,” Sandra noted. “She said it was offensive. I thought, if you can’t use a bad word to describe people trying to kill you when can you? But it was O.K. The Talitollah thing became part of my I Worry show.
“In general, Ruth has said she really prefers news to humor,” Sandra said. “So for her to let me remain six years at KCRW just shooting off at the mouth is very generous.”
Seymour was not mollified by Sandra’s apology, telling a BBC reporter last week that she considered the accidental f-word “the equivalent of the Janet Jackson performance piece” and describing her former commentator’s work as “trivial and self-serving” to the Los Angeles Times.
For her part, Sandra wrote in a Mar. 7 L.A. Times op-ed piece that she’s become disillusioned with public radio and its “hushed-voice cultural temple-building. (I for one am sick of the Booker Prize. See you in the bar if you want to discuss that one.) It’s a seeping beigeness, a grim, endless drumbeat of ‘responsibility’ that all the groovy Argentine trance-hop music in the world can’t make up for.”
The FCC has not contacted KCRW, and seems unlikely to. “I think the chances of KCRW losing its license over something like this are virtually nil,” UCLA law professor and Constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh wrote on his blog last week. “The FCC’s summary seems to suggest that an isolated [f-word] in the usual TsingLohvian monologue (I’ve heard her many times, and like her work, which is generally not aimed at titillation or shock value) would probably not be punishable.”
So this is not a case of the big, bad, right-wing government clamping down on free speech but of a petty, sanctimonious left-winger hysterically overreacting to a simple mistake.
Sandra has been deluged with media calls about her firing and will probably be back on the radio somewhere eventually. But she’s in no hurry.
“I just feel like right now it’s time to give the whole thing a break,” she said, adding that her father, after calling to offer his condolences, wondered if “on the bright side, maybe KCRW needed a small Chinese man to do their commentaries instead?” She herself remains uninterested in writing radio pieces around assigned topics, which she’s often offered and usually turns down.
“Just to find the box I fit in is creepy and wearying,” she said. I’m glad to report she didn’t use the f-word as an adjective in front of “creepy and wearying,” although I might have had I been her at that moment.
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog “Cathy’s World.” She is an NRO contributor.