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The firing of two upstate New York radio hosts because they questioned their local government’s paying for transgender surgery and counseling for city employees is raising questions about free speech on the air.
Kimberly Ray and Barry Beck, the long-running hosts of “The Breakfast Buzz with Kimberly and Beck” on WBZA Radio (98.9 FM), were fired last week by Entercom Rochester, which deemed the pair’s remarks hateful and offensive.
The saga began when Rochester’s Democrat Mayor Lovely Warren announced a new health-care policy allowing city workers to receive a variety of services related to gender reassignment.
According to the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper, “Under the new coverage, effective Jan. 1, city employees will be eligible to receive services related to gender reassignment surgery, such as medical and psychological counseling, hormone therapy and cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries.”
Among some of the dialogue by Kimberly and Beck in response to the policy:
- “Transgender or gender nonconforming. What the hell does that mean? Like you’re not a woman or a man?”
- “The dude can look like a lady and the city is going to pay for it!” (As Aerosmith’s song “Dude Looks Like a Lady played in the background)
- “Does that mean then if women want a boob job they’ll pay for a boob job? Because that’s only right.”
- “The services that will be paid for under the new coverage – gender-reassignment surgery, psychological counseling, because you’re probably a nutjob to begin with!”
- “It’s a slippery slope. Then if some woman can go to a doctor and it’d be proven that she’s got mental issues because her rack’s not big enough then you know what? She deserves a boob job, Right, Kimberly? Or she deserves liposuction.”
- “Right, if you can prove you’re a nut, I guess.”
The radio hosts also discussed female transgender athletes, and how they should definitely not be able to compete in sports, saying: “When he steps up to the plate, doesn’t he have two bats?”
Listen to the 12-minute clip that got Kimberly and Beck fired:
Finally, a woman phoned the pair to tell them: "It's incredibly disrespectful towards transgender people. Please don't spread any misinformation especially when you're joking about it."
"Thank you, sir!" was the reply, with laughter from others.
A day after being suspended for their comments, management at WBZA booted them off the air completely.
"Entercom fired Kimberly and Beck effective immediately," said Sue Munn, vice president and general manager of Entercom Rochester.
"Their hateful comments against the transgender community do not represent our station or our company. We deeply apologize to the transgender community, the community of Rochester, and anyone else who was offended by their comments. We are proud of our past work on behalf of the local LGBT community and we remain committed to that partnership."
"What we heard on the radio could be defined as nothing more than hate speech," Scott Fearing of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley told WROC-TV. "It was bullying of the worst kind."
Radio-industry expert Scott Fybush told WROC broadcasters are in a difficult situation, trying to get ratings while at the same time not going too far.
"It's tricky, because when you're in a position like that, you have to be somewhat edgy to draw an audience, but you have to know where that line is and it's a line that's constantly moving. But if you go over it and you're too edgy, the station faces the risk of losing advertisers."
"You weigh the risks and the rewards," Fybush added. "Is it worth getting the ratings and the revenue they were bringing in against the risk of having more public backlash against you and especially against the risk of having this continue for a long time?"
"You don't have any First Amendment rights to go on the radio and say whatever you want," said Fybush. "You're working as an employee of a for-profit corporation and you're probably working under a contract that says you have to meet certain standards of what you can and can't say on the air so you don't embarrass your employer."
Assemblyman Bill Nojay, who hosts his own right-leaning talk-radio program, would have preferred Entercom starting an educational debate by inviting transgender advocates on Kimberly and Beck's show.
"We shouldn't be firing people, terminating their employment, ending their livelihood because you disagree with them," Nojay told WROC. "Let's have that open debate. That's what radio and television is for. It's chilling."
"I just think we all need to chill out a little bit. We're reaching a point in society so many people are saying so many things people disagree with," he added. "If everybody got fired for having opinions, there's not going to be a whole lot of people with opinions out there and that's a dangerous thing in a democracy."
Watch WROC's coverage of the controversy:
The controversy has sparked plenty of online discussion, including:
- "I think it's a sad day. I say this because we've bent so far sideways to be politically correct we don't stand for anything any more. Everyone is always offended by something. You feel like you can't say a damn thing. We are all entitled to our opinions, and we are allowed to agree to disagree. This sets a very bad precedent. Going forward every time some sensitive pansies feelings are hurt they are going to demand someone loses their job."
- "You want me to believe that questioning the waste of tax dollars is a viable reason for dismissal of a talk-show host? They are paid to be opinionated, they are groomed, selected and hired to be controversial. If they ain't controversial enough, they don't draw an audience, but if they are too controversial, they get fired? Have you heard Howard Stern? Have you heard Imus?"
- "Tough luck. Free speech has consequences. The First Amendment only guarantees you protection from the government. Sponsors have a reputation and people like these two hateful 'POSes' do not deserve to be on public airwaves spewing their brand of hatred. America deserves better than this and quite frankly all those hateful people that pollute our airwaves. Learn the Constitution or better yet, bad mouth a race of people on your social-media page and see how long you last at your job."
- "So sick of having gay, transgender B.S. being forced upon us! They claim they want tolerance and acceptance but their actions and bully tactics clearly demonstrate they are the most intolerant. Where the hell has the First Amendment gone? I find homosexuality very offensive, and I always exercise my right to turn the channel. You panty-wearing men need to do the same thing!"
- "Celebrate Diversity! ... Unless you're different."