Well, I lost a thumb on the Fourth of July / I ran into my mother and she started to cry / She looked at the label on that M-80 and she wiped the tears from her eyes / She said the Chinese we are not to trust / They send us Asian brides and opium dust / They're communists, son, oh can't you see the truth? / They're 5-foot-2 with hair like Bruce Lee / They got squinty little eyes and they can barely see / And without your thumb, son, you might not be able to pee...
--lyrics from Corby Davidson's song "Independence Day Hates the Chinese Man," as heard on the KTCK 1310-AM "The Ticket"
Producers, on-air talent, and faceless others shuffle back and forth on the 13th floor of the sleek Maple Avenue office building. You would expect the employees of this successful radio station, KTCK 1310-AM "The Ticket," to bustle, but things are particularly busy this afternoon. At least that's the meager excuse offered by Bruce Gilbert, director of programming for The Ticket and its AM sister station, Big 570, as he mumbles "be right back" and ducks out of his office. In an instant, his white shirt and neatly ironed slacks disappear down a hallway littered with homogeneous cubicles.
While you entertain yourself with his stapler (who knew collating could be so much fun and pass the time?), you wonder whether Gilbert will ever come back. Sure, his job is hectic--in case you forget this, he reminds you with incessant cell phone calls and breathless speech. But since you're there to grill him--and he knows it--you're pretty sure he's in no hurry.
Gilbert has the unenviable task of discussing one show in particular: The Hardline, co-hosted by Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams, with comic stylings by Corby Davidson. Monday through Friday, the trio amuses drive-time listeners with a unique, brazen style. The jokes are brash, the attitude leaves no one beyond reproach, the shtick is unmerciful, and the retorts are glib.
None of which are bad things, because they execute all this with inimitable humor--most of the time. But you're not here to discuss most of the time. What you're here to talk about is the fact that The Hardline is frequently, for lack of a better term, racy. The group's chatter is often racially charged, using incensing language and subject matter, funny as it might be. "Hoops in tha hood," "street cred," "gansta hoopstas," and "the black man" are casually used terms on The Hardline. During segments such as "Black Chicks P1 Roundtable," The Hardline doesn't shy from discussing racial topics that more cautious stations would consider taboo.
"I'm concerned about some of the things we do, because it's not in our best interest to be running people off in droves," Gilbert says after returning from points unknown. "What I think makes [what The Hardline does] better is that it's all a joke. Humor is subjective, but if we do nothing, our ratings will be nothing."
No danger in that happening--the most up-to-date ratings (aka "trends") show that, in the 3 p.m-to-7 p.m. time slot, The Hardline is No. 1 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with all people age 25 to 54.
Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: These guys are funny. Frankly, it would be dishonest and hypocritical to chastise the show from some pious high ground. First, because who among us who's tuned in hasn't doubled over in hysterics at one time or another? Second, because who among us, period, hasn't told a joke with racial undertones before, whether in jest or all seriousness?
But just because it's funny, simply because they don't discriminate in whom they, well, discriminate against, does that make it right? If it's "all in good fun," does that make it OK? That's the big issue here.
"I'm really immature for my age; we all are," declares Davidson, 30, who contends the group has no delusions about being social satirists from, say, Mark Twain's mold. No, they insist, this is what it is. "It's fun and immature. We like to make jokes--about everyone. We make fun of ourselves more than anybody."
I like Mexico, he likes Mexico / Najera, Najera, Najera, Najera / I like burritos, he likes burritos / Najera, Najera, Najera, Najera / He bags all the sexy senoritas / Najera, Najera, Najera, Najera / He swam the Rio Grande up to Norman / Najera, Najera, Najera, Najera / Feel the power of Najera / Taste the flavor of Najera / See the passion of Najera / Hear the wisdom of Najera / Touch the monkey of Najera...
--lyrics from Corby Davidson's song "Najera" (about Dallas Mavs draft pick Eduardo Najera), as heard on The Ticket
Davidson is right, of course, but that doesn't mean The Hardline isn't in extremely sensitive territory. Sure, race-related comedy is not new to the airwaves--Howard Stern indoctrinated us all into inflammatory shock radio long before The Ticket. But it is unique in sports-talk radio, even in the country's largest, most diverse markets.
On WFAN in New York or on WIP in Philly, you wouldn't hear a "help me, man" drop in a stereotypically Hispanic voice--a gimmick heard throughout the day on The Ticket. If you did, it would likely be accompanied by walking papers for the host.
"We have our [Don] Imus in the Morning show, and that gives you the off-color stuff, but that's not a sports show; that's totally separate from what we do as a whole," said WFAN producer Eddie Scozzare. "For the most part, we just try to stick to sports. In terms of having the focus being off-color or off-sports, that's not something we do. [Race-related] material is not a direction or content that management would be comfortable with or even want us to pursue."
Maybe most people in Dallas don't notice anymore. Maybe they've become desensitized because The Hardline has been running this race successfully for more than six years. To be fair, The Hardline isn't the only Ticket show touching on such touchy subjects--a recent weekend Gordon Keith Show wondered about why black people are afraid of dogs--it's merely the most consistent. And well received, at least according to the ratings. Quite obviously, by the numbers, they're doing something right, or at the very least, they've found a profitable niche.
"There's a segment of the population out there that is greatly entertained by all this," says Gilbert hurriedly. "I think I'd be lying if I said the ratings have nothing to do with it. It certainly shows that if you do well, you have more of a leash."
For their part, each member of The Hardline steadfastly denies ever consciously putting together a skit in an effort to boost numbers or cultivate listeners. Most of the time, they say, the "speed of the game," the rapid pace at which things change while on air, wouldn't allow that kind of choreography anyway. Still, it would be naîve to think they aren't aware of their stranglehold on the local ratings and what sometimes boorish, often callous remarks mean relative to that. (It's said, for example, that Stern's detractors listen more avidly than his proponents.)
"In the end, it's all about [the ratings], isn't it?" Williams, 40, says with disarming politeness. "Why do they put [Who Wants to Be a] Millionaire on four nights a week? Why did they put Dennis Miller in the booth [for the upcoming season of Monday Night Football]? Because we're in the entertainment business, and if you don't have ratings, you don't have a job.
"Yes, I've winced at some of the stuff that we've done. Sure, I've said things and then five minutes later I thought, 'I can't believe I just said that.' But someone is always going to take a contrary view to what you say. I can't tell you how many times I've been out on the road, and someone has said 'I used to hate you guys but then I realized, one, you're not picking on, quote, us, and two, you're making fun of everybody.'"
"Rightly or wrongly, there's something inherently funny about everybody," Rhyner adds. "We make fun of ourselves more than anybody. You've got to have thick skin."
The 49-year-old leans back in a black chair, crosses his legs, and before continuing, poises his hands in that contemplative, fingertip-touching position beloved by Mr. Burns. "You know," he glares, "this [topic] has never come up."
Really? Never? Not with anyone?
What about people you work with?
"No," Rhyner says straight-faced, "never said anything to me."
Pocahontas was an Indian, liked gravy by the ton / The white man said, they slept in her bed and got giblets stuck in their tongue / Pocahontas was an Indian, she liked white men by the score / Legend said she was on the pill and her nickname was fat injun whore...
Thanksgiving loves the white man, and the white man loves it back / We eat and watch football and head to the bathroom and take our afternoon nap / Thanksgiving loves the white man, and the white man loves it back / We eat and watch football and head to the bathroom and take our afternoon crap...
--lyrics from Corby Davidson's song "Thanksgiving Loves the White Man," as heard on The Ticket
Carter is the afternoon drive-time host for KKMR 93.3-FM "Merge Radio," The Ticket's sister station, which shares an office with the jock-talkers. Carter, 27, is a tall man with a distinctive voice. He is also a person of mixed race--half white, half black.
Although he describes his current relationship with The Hardline as "cool," offering, even, that they're friends, it wasn't always that way. When Carter--if you're wondering whether that's his first or last name, don't. It's just Carter, thank you very much--began working at Merge, he was initially put off by their shtick and told them so.
"As far as my perspective goes," Carter says, "when I first walked into the station, it wasn't so much, it wasn't an air of racial tension, because it's not about that at all. The Ticket is about guy radio; it's about guy talk. When I first came in, it was about proving myself, know what I mean? Anytime you're introduced into a group, that happens.
"But I could completely see people getting offended. I've been offended before. When they do step out of line, they do piss me off as well. But that's in anything you say or do with people who are in your own family. I've said things to Rhyner about that."
Carter declined to reveal the content of the conversation, saying only that the Hardline fellows were congenial and apologetic.
After that momentary bout with selective memory loss--give him a break, he is nearly 50--Rhyner did recall his co-worker's distaste for certain material and confirmed he had a talk with Carter, although he wouldn't volunteer the particulars of the discussion, either.
Still, their co-workers may be cool with them, but there are others who aren't always pleased with the station's line of racial humor.
"They're trying to be funny, they're experimenting with humor, and sports talk radio is their laboratory," says one listener, a minority, who works in the media and asked not to be identified for that reason. "Sometimes it will be a work of genius, sometimes it will blow up in their faces. But no matter how they disguise it, what they're saying does offend some people. Some of what they're saying is mean-spirited. They may think it's funny, and maybe they regret it later, but it certainly bothers some people."
Easter, won't you please, sir, tell me what's the big deal / The black men are dancin' and the women are prancin', a cookin' up the afternoon meal / Grandma by the hand, you can drop that fryin' pan, and throw her into that big ol' Ford / We're a headin' to the steeple, there's a lot of black people, shoutin' hallelujah praise the lord / Hallelujah praise the Lord...
--lyrics from Corby Davidson's song "Easter Loves the Black Man," as heard on The Ticket
So what's the deal? Are these good ol' boys merely having a good ol' time poking fun at ethnic foibles? Are their off-the-cuff remarks as innocent as they'd have you believe?
Or are they socially remiss in their judgment? Are they passing off a form or racism under the guise of sports radio?
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Again, there's no obvious answer here, although Rhyner says people have plenty of options, like turning the dial. But that's a cop-out, something that only addresses the question of what to do if you're offended. It doesn't address the bigger picture: Do they cross the line? It also doesn't answer the question: Does their comedy, which sometimes teeters dangerously between the insensitive--perhaps even the malicious--and the hilarious, cross the line?
"I think PC [political correctness] went overboard," Williams says. "When it came into vogue in our country, it was at a time when changes needed to be made. But now, I think people are fed up with it. You can't say anything without offending someone.
"When it comes down to it, we're just trying to make people laugh. That's all. I want to entertain people and make them laugh. I don't want to offend people. Our mission is certainly not to offend, but with the type of show we do, we make a choice. What we do, it's not brain surgery. We made a choice to go in this direction. We know what people like."
He's right. And he's wrong. Funny how that works.