Sunday, January 14, 2007

Picking Spocko's brain

Late last week, I telephoned Spocko, the proprietor of Spocko's Brain, the Bay Area blog that has been monitoring the hateful excesses of local right-wing talk jocks at KSFO -- and brought down the wrath of Disney upon his head in the process. We talked for over an hour.

What follows is mostly a verbatim transcript of the interview, though portions were edited out to protect his identity, his legal defense, and his cohorts at the blog.

How did you get started tracking these characters?

Well actually, it wasn't even Morgan. To go all the way back to what this first started on, it was just listening to Brian Sussman. He's the guy who was the evening guy for two hours, and he's a former KPX weatherman.

And you know, I listened to him at first, and it was just like, 'Oh, this has gotta be a schtick.' You know, it's like, you can't really believe that. He calls himself a theocon and a neocon.

I went to see Mark Danner, a journalist based in Berkeley, and he was talking about the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. I was just flabbergasted, because they were talking about how many people had died from torture in Abu Ghraib. Twenty-three people died there.

And all you hear about on "hot talk" radio, and on Rush and those people, is: "Oh, Abu Ghraib, it's great there! They wear underwear on their heads! What's the big deal?"

They describe it as a frat prank.

And nobody could call up and say, "Hey, Rush, how many people died from being tortured in there?"

So I wrote to Sussman, because he was going on about this. You know, I figured, it's gotta be schtick. And I quoted Mark Danner's stuff, and I said, 'You know, I know you won't read my letter on the air, because it has no facts, no swear words you can bleep -- sorry about that, I'll try and help churn up your audience with some other letter based on your next fake outrage.' And by churn, that's the inside-radio thing where they go, 'Heeeeyy, we hate puppies, call us up and tell us what you think about that.'

So he wrote back, a letter dated June 17, 2005. I'll read it. It says: "Re: 'Why won't you admit that Americans torture people?' No beating around the "Bush" on this one! Torture of those who would like to kill us is OK by me. I've said it on the radio and I will make sure I say it again loud and clear for misguided people like you. Signed, Suss."

Now, I just need to point out that there are lots of people who are being tortured who are not out to kill us.

But that was the thing -- OK, so he's being serious about this. And then I thought, 'Well, whattya gonna do?' And I listened to Mike Stark of Calling All Wingnuts argue with [Sean] Hannity, and I was like -- you know, I have relatives or friends like that who are willing to do that kind of verbal sparring. And I realized that even if he wins, he's still provided entertainment, and the second he hangs up, they've got another three hours to mock him and spin whatever.

So I thought about, well, how do you deal with that? I thought, the only thing, is that in many ways free speech is a big thing in this. I asked Mark Danner about that as well, and he says, 'You should consider talk radio to be like men sitting around a campfire grunting.' I told him I thought it was insidious.

So I thought, OK, so the only way that we could possibly modify their behavior -- because the management didn't care; you know, they support it. The guy who is the program manager for the station, Jack Swanson, is married to Melanie Morgan.

The guy who started the station format [at KSFO], Mickey Lukoff, is also the KGO -- but he was an early backer of Michael Savage. I think someone higher up forced him to get rid of Savage. There's a whole story about Savage talking about little girls from a Marin County school had come over and Savage said they were coming downtown to work with the public because they liked the idea, the excitement of being raped. And so people in Marin were really upset about it, and they were going to have a meeting with them. But Savage and Lukoff didn't show up. They were supposed to go up and meet with the people, and didn't do it.

This came up in a question from the reporter from the Chronicle, that they said that 'they had offered you, they extended to you the invitation to come on to discuss with you and you decined. Why did you do that?' I said, 'Well, you know, I could go on and talk about how the whole industry is just entertainment. But really, I like to quote Jon Stewart to Tucker Carlson: "No! No! I won't be your monkey!"'

I just said that in talk radio, the playing field is always tilted, and they always have the advantage. At that point, I was not going to go on air and not have two twenty-minute segments and that's it. And so I started writing the advertisers. And I did research on fair use, and on legal guides on blogging through the EFF. I did research on the FCC, on what's indecency, what's obscenity, what's inciting violence, what's what they call "fighting words," what's incitement to violence, in order to find out if any of this met those criteria. And in some cases, I thought it did, but maybe not.

You know, I thought that perhaps Brian Sussman talking about cutting off somebody's penis during the hours of 6 o'clock was indecent. But the FCC may not.

So I started taking some of the audio clips and sort of putting them together in a letter. And the first thing that happened was in December of 2005 or thereabouts, [Sussman] went on, and his idea of the 'War on Christmas' was to attack the advertisers. There was a company where somebody came into an office or a store, and if somebody didn't say 'Merry Christmas,' that he was going to 'out' them on the radio program. And I'm like, 'What? What do you mean?'

So at that point, the advertisers -- I realized, hey, wait a minute, these are also advertisers on his show. So I wrote them, and I said, 'This might be something you are interested in, that the very same company that you're advertising on is doing this, and they're also saying these kinds of things. The first advertiser that pulled their ads was Borders Books, and this was in December 2005. And a couple others pulled their ads -- some of them wrote me and some of them didn't. But suddenly the ads were promo ads for the station and public service announcements. And so I thought, well, maybe they actually are pulling their ads based on these notes I'm sending them.

And I get kind of discouraged about this whole thing. I'm like, we do this and they lose advertiser after advertiser -- we have some confirmation, others we don't -- and at this point I sometimes listened to Sussman, and he never actually mentioned us or me by name, but you would get this kind of, "I don't like Star Trek. Do you like Star Trek?" And I'm like, whatever. And he would say that "they're trying to sabotage my career!" And that "they were threatening our advertisers!"

We were just getting discouraged, and it was like, 'What's the whole point of this? We're beating our heads against the wall.' Then it was that I really don't want to keep doing this. And at a certain point, I think it was in June or July, that we heard that -- Bank of America had already pulled earlier -- but MasterCard did as well, and that was a big thing.

And I had already been getting kind of threats on my blog from anonymous people. It would be like, 'They're coming for you, Spocko!' And then I got an e-mail from the sales manager, Michael Black -- I always told the advertisers, 'Look, listen to the program yourself. If you don't believe me, listen yourself. You don't have to take my word for it. It's not hard, it's available on the Internet. And here is the person. If this isn't for you, contact the sales manager.' And his information was on the Website.

So I got this e-mail from Michael Black saying he wanted to meet with me. Well, at that point, they thought, or continue to think, that I either worked for a competitor or within the station or something. And I didn't. They thought, oooh, this would be their opportunity to 'out' me.

I think I did a post on this at the time -- you know the movie Network?

Yeah, of course.

That scene with Howard Beale [Peter Finch] and Ned Beatty, in the boardroom: "YOU HAVE MESSED WITH A FORCE OF NATURE AND YOU WILL ATONE!!!" It was like Mickey was gonna bring me in and read me the riot act. They offered, 'Maybe you could debate Sussman.' -- Yeah, like I'm gonna be able to go on with a professional bully like this. So I said no, and I respectfully declined.

So then I think there was much more in the way of threats, anonymous threats -- 'They're gonna get ya' and stuff. And I think for Sussman it got a lot more personal.

And then Joe Conason wrote a story on it in Salon that used links of my audio that linked directly to my blog. And that was great.

The other thing was, though, that nobody really noticed until Melanie Morgan went on TV. I had actually written the L.A. Times about Melanie Morgan calling for -- she said that the L.A. Times was doctoring photos, because of the total absence of Mexican flags in [its coverage of] the L.A. protests: 'All they had was American flags! They doctored their photos!'

I have friends who are photographers and photojournalists and I was pretty sure it was pretty much a firing offense to doctor photos before publication. So I thought they should know about this, and I wrote the L.A. Times. And they responded and said, you know, send us the whole thing so we can be sure to get it in context. And they wrote a letter to the people at Melanie Morgan's show.

They never responded, they never apologized. The L.A. Times asked for an on-air correction. I listened the next day, but I never heard it -- they might have done one, but I can't verify it. There wasn't anything posted to the Website.

At that point, I guess Melanie Morgan had appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews, and she had talked about Bill Keller and what he had done was treason.

She was basically repeating something she had said on-air at KSFO and had gained some notoriety for saying, right?

It was then I realized it was all about being on TV -- they ignored Sussman, but he was just too small of potatoes. So I started listening to her show.

And I started realizing that Lee Rogers is actually the one with the most violent rhetoric of all of them. He's the one that talked about lighting an alleged arsonist on fire, stomping a protestor to death, shooting this guy who had been arrested 200 times, shooting him in the head, attaching electrodes. And he's very serious on some of them.

And I was just recording once a week or so, and I was getting all this stuff, and these guys are on the air every day of the week spewing stuff just like it.

So it became clear that these guys had much more resources and were not going to do anything about this -- even if they lose advertisers, it wasn't enough. And then I pulled back, and I decided I needed to be smarter and more organized. So I began assembling som very specific information about advertisers, and when they advertise, and what time they advertise, and who is the decison-maker there. And at that point, it was on November 15, I began sending notes to advertisers. That's the letter you see posted on Daily Kos.

It was served on the 22nd of December [the Friday before Christmas]. So, you know, who's gonna be around, who's gonna do this kind of stuff? I'm glad that I caught it, because the terms and conditions of [the ISP] stated that you've got 24 hours. Now, the cease and desist said it's gotta be off before January 1st.

I complied. I did exactly what they asked in the time frame that they asked. Within six hours I had taken down every single audio file that related to KSFO. Now, there might have been other audio files up there, but they were had nothing to do with this. I am confident that every single one was not up any more.

And then it stayed up, and all my text was still up and working. And then they took it down.

I've been alerting the management at ABC Radio and higher up at Disney on a lot of this stuff. And even wrote the CFO. And I said basically, you're not in charge of the brand, but these people are just kind of trashing your brand. Do you know about this?

When people think about ABC, this is that level of, you know, 'We're aware of it or we're not aware of it.' And around this time, the Mahatma Rice company -- Riviana Foods -- they wrote me and said, 'We didn't know about this. We just thought that KSFO was a Disney affiliate and we thought it was family friendly and innocuous. And we saw the numbers and that seemed good.'

And that's when I realized that ABC and Disney was using their image, their brand image, to sell this station.

What's interesting is that the Christian Right has been using this family-friendly thing to hit advertisers over the head with for years. And so they were kind of responding to me thinking that I was somebody from the Christian Right or something like that, and they were trying to say how family friendly the station was, but that was because they were told that it was.

It was January 2nd when the blog went down, it was just dead. Now, I had taken the precaution of knowing that it was happening and I replicated the entire content of my blog.

Is all the content back up now?

Not all of it. I'm still working back through and getting everything restored.

And now you're waiting to see if they actually sue you. It must take a personal toll.

I don't really want to be the story. I don't want to be the focus of this. It's a convenient narrative because it's the David-vs.-Goliath stuff. And I know how the wingnutosphere will works. I've watched how they do this stuff. And I've been watching how they've been combating this, and as far as I know it's gonna be Michelle Malkin's winged monkeys going out to find this person.

And they'll release your home address and that sort of thing.

And then it's Chad Castagana sending white powder in the mail.

I do not have huge resources. I'm just an independent communications professional, that's all I've been saying. I have worked with some big groups before doing some of the same kind of stuff, and so people might think that they're behind it. But nobody else is. There are no radio stations, nothing like that.

That's as far as I ever want to be identified. But if it does come out, that's how I expect that they'll play it, and they're going to think that I'm backed by them and that sort of thing, but I'm not.

That's gonna be the next step. And when people say, 'We've got your back,' that's the thing that I'm hoping that people can help. Because when that happens, and it will, I want to use that as an opportunity to point out, 'Look what they did, and why they did it.' What do they get out of this? And who are they that they do this?

This is the Karl Rove model of publicity. This is the deep-shit smear campaign that they want to play, and this is how they do it.

People call me brave. I'm not brave. A reporter in Baghdad facing bullets is brave. All I'm trying to do is let people know what's going on in a way that is as effective as I can be.

What can people do to help?

People ask how they can help, and I just say, stick around. I think whatever's coming down the pike, I may need a lot of help with.

I haven't quite figured out what's the best thing. When I've been talking to people, I'm saying that I'm not only going to make them accountable, but I want people to look at how they're doing it. And call them on it when they're doing it.

People always talk about how you stand up to bullies and they reveal themselves as cowards. But it's hard to stand up to bullies. We've all been kids, and we've all been bullied. And you can get your nose bloodied.

But when you do stand up to them, and other people stand up to them, support them. Do what you can so that this kind of violent rhetoric is seen for what it is.

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