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Disney Station Accused of Racial Discrimination

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lawsuit filed Friday accuses Walt Disney Co.’s KLOS-FM radio station in Los Angeles of violating anti-discrimination and harassment laws last year through an on-air promotion that distributed “Black Hoes”--black plastic gardening tools--to listeners and advertisers.

The suit brought by a worker at the station contends the company required employees, including African Americans, to pack and ship the promotional gifts despite staff protests that the campaign was racially offensive.

The promotion was broadcast to millions of people nationwide on the station’s syndicated “Mark & Brian” show. The morning talk show hosts have a reputation for controversial promotions and built the “Black Hoe” campaign around a double-entendre involving a slang pronunciation of the word “whore.”

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Representatives of Disney, Disney subsidiary ABC Inc. and KLOS-FM declined to comment Friday, saying they had not seen a copy of the suit.

The nature of the allegations may be particularly vexing to Disney, which depends on its reputation for wholesome family entertainment. As the company has grown into the second-largest entertainment conglomerate in the world, its far-flung assets, including television, radio and cable networks, sometimes have created content at odds with the Disney image.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, contends that KLOS Traffic Manager Judy Goodwin has suffered daily harassment and retaliation by managers and co-workers since complaining about the “racist and sexually degrading” promotion to Disney’s human resources department.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges that Disney, ABC, KLOS-FM (95.5) and several radio station executives violated anti-discrimination laws. According to the suit, KLOS-FM management conceived, planned and presented the “Black Hoe” promotion with the “conscious aim and intent of providing racially offensive, sexually charged entertainment for its primarily white male listening audience and advertising clients.”

Goodwin, who is black, says in her suit that a recent verbal dispute with one of those executives, KLOS-FM general sales manager Leonard Madrid, escalated into a physical altercation that sent her to the hospital with a fractured arm.

“I am devastated that [KLOS] would approve and broadcast such a degrading image of African American women as that projected by the ‘Black Hoe’ promotion,” Goodwin said in an interview. “In the course of my 19 years of employment with [KLOS], I never imagined that speaking out against unlawful conduct in the workplace would result in my being physically assaulted by a senior manager.”

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KLOS-FM is one of Disney’s strongest broadcast properties, generating total advertising revenue last year of an estimated $27 million, analysts say. The “Mark & Brian” morning talk show is a key program on KLOS-FM, which currently ranks among the top 20 radio stations in Los Angeles.

The suit says the promotion was first proposed at a meeting attended by no African American employees, though one promotions director objected to the slur.

KLOS ordered thousands of dark plastic gardening tools to be printed with the “Mark & Brian Show” logo accompanied by the slogan “Black Hoe,” the suit says, and the station began shipping the gadgets to advertising clients and listeners.

According to the suit, the promotion violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws because it was intentionally designed to demean and offend African American women as a racial group. The campaign also violated KLOS’ own internal broadcast standards, which prohibit advertising that “misrepresents, ridicules or attacks an individual or group on the basis of age, color, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or handicaps,” the suit says.

The suit says Goodwin and other employees lodged complaints with several members of the station’s management team, including KLOS President William Sommers, who is named as a defendant. Sommers met with Goodwin in early August 1998 and “pretended to acknowledge [their] concerns” but took no immediate action, the suit says.

It wasn’t until after Goodwin complained to the ABC human resources department, the suit says, that senior management at KLOS promised to suspend the campaign. The on-air promotion was stopped in mid-August, but the offensive materials continued to be circulated.

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The suit contends that Goodwin was taunted by white male managers who snickered as they passed the gag gifts around the office. Managers and employees shouted jokes to each other in “stereotypical, mock black accents” about how much “they loved their own personal Black Hoes,” the suit says.

As word spread about the controversy, advertising clients began asking for the gag item, the suit says. African American female interns and employees were among those required to fill those orders, the suit says.

According to the suit, Goodwin continued to report to work despite having to endure ongoing retaliation by her superiors and an increasingly hostile work environment. Goodwin has been on medical leave for the last several weeks recovering from her alleged altercation with Madrid.

KLOS, ABC and Disney have refused to offer any formal apology or expression of regret to African American employees at the station, the plaintiff’s Los Angeles attorney, James R. DeBose, contends.

Leslie Childs, a former KLOS employee, filed a racial discrimination and sexual harassment complaint against Disney and ABC on Friday with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Childs, an African American, contends she was forced to quit her marketing job at KLOS because of retaliation stemming from her objections to the “Black Hoe” promotion.

Times staff writer Denise Gellene contributed to this report.

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