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Talk Show a Far Cry From ‘Happiest Place On Earth’

Few corporations in the world strive to project as sunny a public image as Walt Disney Co.

It promotes Disneyland as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” christened its two luxury cruise ships the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder and opened its 2002 annual report with a letter from Chairman Michael Eisner reassuring investors that the company is still all about “family, fun and fantasy.”

But one catchphrase you probably won’t hear Disney repeating is the slogan widely applied to its San Francisco talk radio station, KSFO-AM, by critics in the local broadcasting community. They call it “Sieg Heil on your dial.”

The phrase alludes to KSFO’s relentlessly right-wing lineup, which includes Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel stalwart Sean Hannity, Laura Schlessinger and that shooting star of reactionary radio, Michael Savage.

Of this group, Savage lately has drawn the most attention. His book “The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Language and Culture” is a bestseller. Saturday his new weekly television program replaced the canceled “Phil Donahue Show” on MSNBC, a cable news channel that he derided in his book as “More Snotty Nonsense By Creeps” -- but that was before it plied him with greenbacks.

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ABC Radio spokeswoman Julie Hoover describes Savage as “just a conservative talk show host like many others, mainly confining himself to talking about politics.” Savage himself might resent such a dignified description of what he does for a living, which is not discuss politics so much as emit a near-hysterical outpouring of paranoid bombast for several hours a day.

Along with Schlessinger and some of the other ranters on KSFO, Savage exemplifies the philistinizing of American public discourse. He routinely derides developing countries as “the turd world.” He calls hate-crime legislation “a payoff to the homosexual lobby” and says this about gay activism: “The gay and lesbian mafia wants our children. If it can win their souls and their minds, it knows their bodies will follow.”

Savage’s style is getting more scrutiny in the national media, including a revealing profile in The Times last week by my colleague Rone Tempest.

But his sponsorship by the proprietors of the Happiest Place on Earth has registered less widely, even if in San Francisco media circles the alliance has long been considered perplexing. “It always amazed me because I would not think Disney would want this on its record,” says Alex Bennett, a liberal talk-radio host who coined the “Sieg Heil” crack.

Disney says that KSFO represents only a narrow slice of the broad offerings on its radio network. “ABC Radio has earned its reputation as a world-class leader in programming precisely because of the diversity of voices we offer on the airwaves,” says John Hare, president of ABC Radio.

In addition to Savage -- who is syndicated by a third party, Hare notes -- he cites the liberal talk-radio hosts Tom Joyner and Doug Banks, the conservative Hannity, and the “Satellite Sisters,” a troupe of five sisters who engage in a global conversational hookup. (There’s room for an aside here from Savage himself, who titled Chapter Two of his book “Diversity Is Perversity.”)

Hoover adds that it’s unjust to subject Disney to a political litmus test just because of its name. “It’s very unfair to hold Disney up to some special standard that says everything has to be right for the Disney brand.”

But it’s Disney that preens about representing a special standard in entertainment. In his 1998 autobiography, “Work in Progress,” Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner said he understood when he took over the company in 1985 that “the name ‘Disney’ promised a certain kind of experience: wholesome family fun appropriate for kids of any age, a high level of excellence in its products, and a predictable set of values.”

It’s not unusual for American corporations to pretend to be something they’re not; does anyone really believe that McDonald’s really loves to see us smile? But that’s advertising.

Disney’s pretense is of a higher order. As Eisner implied, the company from the start based its core businesses on the projection of wholesomeness, cleanliness and childlike innocence, while safeguarding its image with the ferocity of a beast out of “The Jungle Book” (the original Kipling, not the Disney song-and-dance version).

And in times past the company clearly knew what to do about material inconsistent with its image. In 1996, the company fired Bob Grant, a talk-show host on its WABC radio station in New York, for promoting white supremacist groups and calling blacks “subhumans” on the air. The firing came after media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting placed an ad in local papers asking: “Is Bigotry a Disney Family Value?” (The group says it is considering a similar campaign about Michael Savage.)

The next year, Disney studio and music chief Joe Roth pulled an obscenity-laden rock music album off retail shelves only hours after its release, judging its lyrics “inappropriate for a product released under any label of our company.” Roth soon departed, along with his righteous indignation.

Since then, Disney seems to have become more tolerant, especially of acts that, however noisome, enhance the bottom line. The classic example is its treatment of Mark & Brian, the KLOS-FM deejay team who distributed “black hoes,” which were gag plastic garden tools, to listeners in 1998.

Some people failed to appreciate the humor in this double-entendre. After the company doled out more than $3 million to settle discrimination lawsuits related to the episode, Disney President Robert Iger assured civil rights leaders that he would clean up the airwaves at Disney-owned stations and institute sensitivity and diversity training for employees. In 2001, the company -- its executives now evidently fortified with enhanced “sensitivity” -- extended the deejays’ contracts and gave them a raise.

That brings us to Michael Savage. The former herbalist was already a talk-radio fixture on KGO when Disney acquired that station as part of its 1995 merger with Capital Cities/ABC. The company snapped up KSFO, which was a failing top-40 station, when it came on the market a few months later. Disney placed the stations under joint local management, which decided to distinguish KSFO by positioning it as the right-wing choice, and moved Savage over.

Amusing as it is to consider how well its reactionary, exclusionary and xenophobic programming might go over in a community known as stereotypically liberal, inclusive and diverse, the change lifted KSFO from the sloughs of ratings hell into the top five.

Despite the pledge in Eisner’s book that “there are boundaries of taste, civility, and appropriateness that we apply in turning down opportunities, no matter how much profit we may be sacrificing,” Disney’s indulgence of ever-cruder material seems to track the slide in its financial fortunes. From 1997 through 2002, the company’s profit has declined from $1.9 billion to $1.24 billion; its shares have fallen from a split-adjusted peak of $40 in mid-1998 to about $15 today.

But one wonders whether Disney’s bosses may wake up one day to discover that they have sold its soul for a mess of pottage.

The latest Arbitron ratings show that KSFO, which a year ago was the third-biggest radio station in the San Francisco market, has now slipped to sixth. The station’s 4.0 rating in January was its lowest since it ranked second in the period immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (a high-water mark for talk radio nationwide). It now trails a classical music station, which must be quite a feat even in the highly cultured Bay Area.

Along the way, Disney has been reduced to a media brand indistinguishable from any other. Fox has its “Joe Millionaire”; Disney’s ABC-TV has “Are You Hot?” There was a time when one expected behavior from Fox that one wouldn’t from Disney. Not anymore.

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Michael Hiltzik can be reached at golden.state@latimes.com.


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