Things have suddenly gotten a little bit backward in the professional life of KABC-AM’s Larry Elder.
The station’s controversial afternoon drivetime (3-7 p.m.) weekday personality and a black conservative, Elder has for the past 18 months been targeted by fellow blacks who populate a special-interest group with a singular agenda: to get Larry Elder fired from the radio station.
Meanwhile, a group with whom Elder has long disagreed philosophically, the American Civil Liberties Union, has vowed to back the host in his fight to keep his job.
“Interesting,” Elder said on the telephone this week. “I guess I’m flattered.”
The irony is that Elder’s goal is to be allowed to speak his mind on the radio, a right threatened by an African-American organization that calls itself the Talking Drum Community Forum. The Los Angeles-based group has spent the past 18 months organizing a boycott of Elder’s show and has pressured many advertisers to drop their sponsorship.
From all appearances, it’s working. Several sponsors have reportedly pulled out of Elder’s show in the face of an intense letter-writing campaign, costing the station a small mint in lost revenue. Talking Drum also distributes flyers and runs telephone messages quoting Elder out of context to augment its campaign.
The Talking Drum’s beef with Elder likely stems from the outspoken host’s unconventional views about race and responsibility. He believes, for example, that racism is not nearly as widespread a problem as the black community would have us believe and is used primarily as a crutch and a cop-out.
Elder has likewise been jarringly candid about the particulars of the O.J. Simpson case and trials, blasting those who reduce the issue to race and challenging the sanity of anyone who denies his guilt for murder. And he has opposed initiatives backing affirmative action.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said this week that Elder’s rights to free speech are clearly being violated.
“To organize a boycott is really to curtail speech, and curbing speech is always wrong,” Ripston said. “We would surely intercede and do what we could if called upon to do so. … We support him in this fight. I mean, if people object to Larry Elder, they should just turn the dial or go discuss it on the air with him.”
Elder has discussed the Talking Drum campaign on the air and invited its members on the radio to appear and debate but has received no response to his overtures from the mysterious organization. The group did not return several calls seeking comment for this story.
Not garden-variety shock jock
For all the verbal brawling Elder is stirring up, he doesn’t fit the profile of a prototypical shock jock who enjoys hearing himself scream. While Elder was born and raised in South Central L.A. and refers to himself as “the Sage of South Central,” he also is a lawyer, a 1977 graduate of the U. of Michigan School of Law and an Ivy Leaguer who received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Brown U. in 1974.
Elder also is particularly passionate about his beliefs. It happens that his opinions have not exactly endeared Elder to either black leaders or other African-Americans, many of whom see him as a white apologist and Uncle Tom.
“I’ll tell you why the group has singled me out,” Elder said this week. “It’s because I have the audacity to think that – be still my heart – O.J. Simpson murdered two people, because I’m opposed to race-based affirmative action and because I don’t think that racism is the most intractable, serious problem facing America today. The truth hurts, I’m afraid.”
But given that the Talking Drum org doesn’t share his passions or opinions, the host has been forced to justify his continued employment in the face of a serious KABC financial hit.
Luckily for Elder, he happens to be one of the station’s highest-rated personalities, making it more difficult to dispose of him for stirring up trouble. Since being inserted into afternoons a year ago, he has rapidly closed the gap in the time period with KFI-AM’s popular talk team of John & Ken.
What was once a 2.1-point lead for John & Ken over Elder was narrowed to .4 in the Arbitron survey for summer ’96.
Maureen Lesourd, prexy and GM at KABC as well as its Disney-owned sisters KMPC-AM and KLOS-FM, said in an interview that both she and the station remain in Elder’s corner, despite the departure of some advertisers.
At the same time, however, stirring up the wrath of the black community is clearly something that concerns the obsessively image-conscious Disney. So it’s perhaps understandable that Lesourd remains cautious.
“If I believe that a talent does not fit the standards and image I want to convey from my radio station, they will not be on the radio,” Lesourd said.
And that applies to Elder … how?
“There have been situations around the country where a personality perhaps didn’t fit the standards of a company, crossed the line, maybe said something extremely derogatory about a person or a group,” Lesourd said. “That host doesn’t stay on the air. … I mean, there is free speech, but you don’t go into a crowded room and yell ‘Fire!’ either.”
On the other hand, KABC has been shown of late to be something less than entirely loyal.
The station unloaded longtime G.M. George Green earlier this year as soon as the ink was dry on Disney’s acquisition of ABC, and axed morning personality Roger Barkley in October to team Ken Minyard with Peter Tilden. Even the beloved Michael Jackson, who celebrated 30 years at KABC this week, was himself nearly pink-slipped in the face of unstable ratings.
So Elder might be justified in feeling a tad squeamish these days. Except for Lesourd’s vote of confidence.
“Larry has not crossed any lines under my watch,” said Lesourd, who has been in her current position since spring. “Larry certainly fits our standards. Her has the support of management here.”
Elder, for his part, insisted that he feels “extremely supported” by the KABC brass and vows that, despite the boycott’s apparent impact on the station’s bottom line, “I’m not going anywhere.”