The Issue Not for Burning

“The Satanic Verses” fury flew out of literary circles, whirled into a death sentence from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, erupted as riots in Muslim nations, exploded into U.S. bookstore bombings and landed locally on Los Angeles talk-radio, where one morning host has left the air and another is supposed to demolish some material Wednesday afternoon.

Talk-radio, for those of you who prefer music and news, can function as a relief tube for the angry and oppressed, allowing anonymous listeners--first name only, please--to spill passions in public without fear of being recognizable or responsible. Talk-radio is everyday testimony to the virtue of the First Amendment--and to the vituperative power of mean spirits lacking other outlets.

Talk-radio hosts are more than mere receptionists. Some, like the late Joe Pyne, one of the founding fathers of the form, turn antagonism into contumely. Others, like KABC’s Michael Jackson, use the two-way format as a sort of issues swap meet. Most of them never hesitate to have their own opinions and some of them bait callers to raise the ratings or the level of outrage.

Outrage was easy on talk-radio in the case of Salman Rushdie, “The Satanic Verses” author condemned by the Ayatollah for having blasphemed the Muslim faith. Nobody had to read the novel before forming a bias. Outrage became easier when a fomer pop music peacenik of a decade ago--Cat Stevens, now renamed Yousuf Islam--affirmed the Ayatollah’s deadly interpretation of the Koran.


Enter Tom Leykis, the evening drive-time voice of station KFI (640 AM). Leykis was whipping loyal listeners into an anti-Stevens lather a coupleof weeks ago when a man called to suggest that Cat Stevens recordings be burned, not merely banned. Leykis liked the idea and began making plans for a whopping blaze, asking listeners to bring Stevens artifacts down to the station.

Enter Geoff Edwards, the mid-morning voice of KFI; he didn’t like the idea and he smelled a form of 1930s fascism in the proposed burning. Edwards finally quit KFI rather than have the Leykis fire fanned by spot announcements during the Edwards broadcast hours.

Leykis, meanwhile, was having his own troubles. The South Coast Air Quality Management District told him any such symbolic pyre might have an environmental impact and had to have a permit. And some listeners were starting to complain that destroying the Cat Stevens recorded library was what a despot would do. So Leykis issued an invitation over the air, promising that the destruction ritual would be replaced by a great First Amendment celebration if enough movie or music stars called to participate.

By the end of last week, only Rae Dawn Chong and Steve Allen had apparently volunteered, and Leykis was complaining about not hearing anything from the outspoken likes of Robert Redford, Jane Fonda or Ed Asner. The fire, he said, was out. A steamroller would substitute at a site to be announced. No more record ashes; instead, record dust.

For a time we hoped Geoff Edwards could clear the air. For now we will not listen to Ayatollah threats, old Cat Stevens music or further promotion of a demolition spectacle. We do not deny Leykis’ right to feed the frenzies as long as no one gets hurt. We do deny wanting to help fight fanaticism with fire--or even steamrollers.