Long-time immigrant rights activist Jorge-Mario Cabrera is used to being called to task for his views. But when radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou recently gave out his cellphone number on the air in a campaign against the California Dream Act, he found himself unprepared for the barrage of hate-filled phone calls that followed.
“Hi, this message is for Mr. Cabrera,” one caller said in a voice mail transcribed by Cabrera. “Listen, you pile of garbage…You need to pack your [expletive] up and go back to wherever it is you came from. Nobody wants you here. You are invading the legal people that are in this country and ruining this country. I hope you choke in your own vomit.”
In the days after the KFI-AM (640) radio hosts read Cabrera’s cellphone and office numbers on the air and told listeners opposed to state tuition assistance for illegal immigrants to call him, Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, got more than 400 calls, many of them filled with hateful language and calls for violence.
“It’s never been as cutting, as humiliating as these calls were,” Cabrera said. “These calls were intent to diminish me as a person.”
The incident struck a chord among leaders of civil and immigrant rights groups across the state, many of whom saw it as the latest example in a long history of the popular radio show inciting anger and vitriol.
“It was the last straw,” said Alex Nogales, president and chief executive of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “These guys have been at it day in and day out. It’s the same ugly rhetoric.”
The National Hispanic Media Coalition led what some believe was a successful campaign to get television host Lou Dobbs off the air at CNN for similar reasons. Dobbs resigned days after the coalition’s president met with the head of the news network, but the network has denied that the meeting led to the resignation.
Now the coalition has joined with several major Latino and immigrant rights groups, including the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the National Immigration Law Center, in calling on the radio station to remove the show’s hosts or face a boycott of its sponsors.
Robin Bertolucci, KFI’s programming director, declined to discuss the incident but said she planned to meet soon with the group’s representatives.
“We’re looking forward to talking to them,” she said. “I think that’s the best place for us to discuss it.”
The ‘John and Ken’ show is one of the most popular programs on one of the most popular radio stations in the region, and listeners seem to relish the hosts’ anger and sense of outrage. While Illegal immigration has long been a particular focus of the show, it’s only one of several favorite targets — the hosts have railed against taxes, labor unions and other pet causes for years with equally incendiary rhetoric.
The duo regularly uses cutting language to talk about legislators and often ask listeners to call the public phone lines of politicians who disagree with them.
Cabrera’s numbers were read on air Sept. 1 during a campaign to defeat what the hosts call the “Illegal Alien California Dream Act,” a reference to recently approved legislation that would extend state financial aid to college students who are in the U.S. illegally. Gov. Jerry Brown must still sign the bill before it becomes law.
John and Ken urged listeners to call Cabrera, saying he was planning a celebration “on the theft of tax money for illegal aliens.” The phone calls started coming and, weeks later, still haven’t completely stopped, Cabrera said. One man has called 32 times. Some calls were benign, like one woman who spoke in Spanish and said Cabrera’s organization should work to benefit people who are in the country legally. Others were not:
“I hope somebody shoots you”; “fat pig…"; “We don’t want your people here. You are dirty, you don’t have any social skills…I hope you fall off the earth”; “I hope you’re hit by a car walking across the street”; “Listen you pile of garbage, I hope you get … cancer tomorrow and start to die.”
Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who has reviewed some of the messages said that although the radio hosts didn’t use such language themselves, they should be held accountable.
“They gave out the telephone number knowing that hateful and violent calls or threatening calls would be made to this individual,” he said. “I don’t think it’s acceptable for radio hosts or television personalities to walk away from the violence that they incite.”
Last week, the leaders of a dozen groups sent a letter to the station’s market manager, program director and to Clear Channel Communications, which owns the station, asking for a meeting and demanding the John and Ken program be removed from the air.
“For years John and Ken have terrorized Los Angeles’ Latino, Asian American and African American communities, creating an atmosphere of hate and intolerance and legitimizing violence and discrimination,” the letter said. “There is every reason to believe it is John and Ken’s intent to incite these verbal assaults and threats.”
This month, the Korean American Community Lawyers Assn. also wrote to the station to complain about racist comments against Asians made by host Bill Handel during the “Handel on the Law” show, including one segment in which he said “Korean people hate Filipinos [except] when you’re spending money there and they love you when you’re cooking up your dog.”
Brad Lee, the association’s president, said Handel walked out of a meeting where the matter was discussed.
For his part, Cabrera said he was prepared to meet with the station’s management sometime in the next several days to discuss the incident but that the demand that the hosts be taken off the air would not change.
“We are not against anyone being against our philosophy,” he said. “But when they get to the level of acting like thugs with a microphone, then that’s the problem.”