ENGLEWOOD — Anti-Semitic remarks called in to a radio talk show and the host’s handling of them caused such an uproar in the Jewish community that the station management says it will no longer allow any calls in reference to religion.
Jewish listeners objected to calls made in to WENG 1530’s Morning Magazine, a daily show hosted by Rich Spedaliere. The program features interviews with local nonprofits, new businesses, political pundits and national personalities, according to the station’s website. Interaction with listeners plays a vital role, the website says.
On Sept. 16 and 17, the broadcast included anti-Semitic statements that went unchallenged by the host, according to Marty Haberer, associate executive director of the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee.
Statements included Holocaust denial and references to supposed passages in the Talmud and Torah that the caller said promoted illegal, immoral acts against Gentile children.
The caller presented those statements as facts, the federation said in a letter to its board members.
Haberer said instead of challenging the statements, the host allowed them to go unchallenged. And that, he said, was irresponsible use of public air waves that constituted misinforming the public.
“I hold the host responsible for managing his show,” Haberer said. “He failed to do that. If anything, he clearly does not discourage those kind of remarks. He hides behind free speech but we all know there are no absolutes. It’s not legal to make such hate statements.”
Jewish community members flooded the station with calls and e-mails.
WENG General Manager Kenneth Birdsong told the Sun that the station is a vehicle for free speech but that it does not condone the opinions of callers, and says so frequently during its talk shows.
“The Jewish Federation has blown it out of proportion to the point that it’s ridiculous,” Birdsong said. “There’s really nothing to it. We’re being unjustly accused and that’s not right. Everything I’ve read, the e-mails I’ve gotten say we’re the ones at fault and we’re not. We had a caller that went on a little rant and said things that were not condoned by the station.”
The radio station removed the offensive portions of the broadcasts from its web archives, but not before the Anti Defamation League listened to them, according to Haberer.
The Jewish Federation asked for a meeting with radio station management and was initially ignored, Haberer said.
Then Birdsong sent a letter to the federation dated Sept. 27 apologizing for the offensive comments and promising to make every attempt to see that it doesn’t happen again.
“We are very against censorship, however by not allowing any calls in reference to religion we eliminate a form of censorship,” Birdsong wrote. “This radio station has never been and will never be anti-Semitic and as a matter of fact we have a Jewish program director.”
The federation was happy to receive the apology, Haberer said.
Talk show host Spedaliere was angry with the station management’s decision.
During his Tuesday show that was still in the archives as of Wednesday afternoon, Spedaliere expressed anger at the Jewish Federation, whom he accused of hate mongering, and the radio station management, whom he accused of compromising listeners’ First Amendment rights.
Spedaliere referred to the meeting that the Jewish Federation had requested.
“The Jewish Federation is going to get a meeting with me but it’s not going to be the meeting they’re looking for,” he said. “It’s going to be with an attorney. They’re just trying to stir the pot. Unfortunately they stirred it the wrong way.”
Spedaliere then pointed out his ties with Jews and other nations, including, he said, an aunt who is Jewish, a daughter who is currently seeing someone from Israel and a brother-in-law from India.
“The Jewish Federation continues to pound WENG,” Spedaliere said in his broadcast. “It’s their hate mail.”
Spedalier said that 90 percent of the e-mails sent to the station said “I value First Amendment Rights, however...”
“There is no however,” Spedaliere said. “You can’t have partial censorship. All you people who mailed in and said ‘I believe in the First Amendment but...’ you have zero credibility with me. Zero.”
Haberer responded to Spedaliere’s anger.
“Suddenly it’s hate-mongering when people object to what he’s saying,” Haberer said. “It’s clearly not an even playing field with this guy. It seems that maybe he’s in a little conflict with the station at this point.”
Any sort of content or speech regulation by the government immediately raises First Amendment concerns, said Eric Bash, associate bureau chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau in Washington, D.C.
“There are no rules against hate speech per se,” Bash said. “We’d only get involved if the speech that is hateful is also indecent and or obscene.”
If the FCC investigates a complaint and finds it valid, it can fine the broadcaster. In cases involving obscenity, indecency or profanity where the broadcaster is the violator, fines can range from $300,000 to $3 million for a continuing violation, Bash said.