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Up Close with Debbie Wolf, Founder of People Against Censorship

In the wake of on-air controversies involving Imus, JV & Elvis, Opie & Anthony and other radio hosts, a new organization, People Against Censorship (PAC), has sprouted up in hopes of protecting free speech rights in America. While the initial focus has been on supporting radio programs that have come under fire in the current witch hunt by the PC police, the group hopes to expand and be a voice of support for anyone that comes under fire for expressing their individual thoughts. The fledgling PAC also hopes to be the type of group that can influence corporations, albeit with different goals, in the same way that Al Sharpton and other special interest groups have been able to do in getting Imus and JV & Elvis fired. At the head of PAC is Debbie Wolf, a photographer, former lawyer and very concerned radio listener. She has taken the charge of being the face for PAC, which already boasts well over 12,000 members in its short existence. FMQB caught up with her for a conversation about free speech, the formation of PAC and what they hope to accomplish in the future.

What was the genesis behind
Free speech is always an issue thatís on peopleís minds, especially if you listen to Talk radio, which is always under fire; and somebody is always saying something that gets them into trouble. There are very few middle-of-the-road programs out there.  Theyíre always reaching an extreme. So I think people who really listen to Talk radio are very protective of speech and things like that.  When the Imus stuff started, it just hit home 110%. I wouldnít call myself an Imus listener, but when this happened to him it struck a chord for me and a lot of other people.  The day that he was fired was the day we said weíve got to formalize and make a real group.  Before then, we had been getting involved, and going out and speaking and protesting and having some demonstrations, but it was the day that they decided to fire him that a few of us decided to form a group and get out there and make a statement.

That was pretty quick.
Yeah, itís been just over a month now.  The first couple of weeks we really werenít focused on being an organization. We were more focused on just trying to get out there.  The way we felt, Al Sharpton had gotten up there and accomplished something so quickly with so little effort and without really even having people behind him.  All he had to do was get up there and make an announcement, and companies got scared and made decisions based on that.  We looked at that and thought someone has to get out there to show the companies that there are other people who donít feel the same way and that what Sharpton represents is a small percentage of people that are not even your listeners.  These are not the people you should be making decisions based on.  We want to hear this speech; we want it out there.  Even if we donít always agree, we want to hear it, we want other people to be allowed to hear it -- so we wanted to get our voices out there.
     The first three weeks we were focused on just getting heard and getting out in front of CBS, especially with JV & Elvis when they started to come under fire. On the day JV & Elvis got officially fired, we had about 150 members. We had a Web site for information but we never made an issue that people should join.  That day we decided we needed members to be able to say we have this number of people behind us. We jumped to well over 1,000 within twenty-four-hours.  That was about ten days ago.  Now we have somewhere around 12,400 members.

Itís amazing that people are signing up so quickly.
It really is, and it says a lot about how people feel about this topic. Opie & Anthonyís suspension from XM has definitely brought a lot of people out of the woodwork.  They have a really strong and dedicated fan base, but the 12,000 people is not just Opie & Anthony fans.  Every Opie & Anthony fan may have done their part to reach out to everyone in the broader community that they know, but those people signed on because they care about the issue.  Itís a really diverse mix of people who listen to all kinds of radio and care about speech and this particular issue.

Beyond the website, what other methods are you utilizing to drive awareness?
We do a lot of protest and demonstrations and, I guess, a rally.  I hate the word ďrally.Ē  There isnít a word that captures what we do when we go out to raise awareness.  Thatís been the focus of the last couple weeks Ė getting more people on our side and to understand what weíre talking about. When Imus made a statement about ďnappy headed hoes,Ē it polarized a lot people who just said, ďThatís not very nice.Ē  All the media focused on was those words, but they didnít have sight of what firing someone over saying that means.  Itís very easy to say, ďI donít support you saying that; I donít like those words.Ē  But you really have to be thinking and understanding what it means to fire someone.  That it means chilling free speech.  That it means people canít talk freely. It means you canít even educate against that type of behavior if youíre not hearing it.  If someone seems to be a blatant racist, and you hear it on the radio, you can get out and educate, speak back and do things to counter it.  Youíre aware thereís a problem.  If you fire everybody that says something you donít like, you no longer hear it so you canít respond to it.

With the people signing up on your website, are you finding that they really care about this, or are there just a lot of curiosity seekers?
No, they really, really care.  Iíve been going through my email and developing a list of volunteers of people who have come out and said, ďIíll contribute anyway I can.  What can I do?Ē  We donít have a way to donate yet because weíre actually formalizing our formation papers right now, and we wanted to get that settled.  The number of people who are begging us, ďHow can I give you money?  How can I help?  How can my business assist you?Ē Itís been overwhelming, and I canít keep up with the requests that are coming in. Yes, people want to be physically involved as much as they can. 

One of the reasons why Sharpton was so effective was the advertisers caved in quickly.  With what youíre doing, how can you counter that and help out so advertisers donít give in so quickly?
That is absolutely our main goal. Al Sharpton made a comment when he and I had a conversation on Show Biz Tonight that he thinks I am trying to silence him.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, we would go to bat for Al Sharpton if his rights were threatened.  Weíre consistent and weíre behind what we say.  What Iím trying to do is take his power away by telling advertisers not to listen to him; telling companies like CBS not to listen to him.  The way you do that is by doing things like what is happening now with Opie & Anthony where thousands and thousands of subscribers are actively canceling their XM subscriptions.  Thatís so much more powerful than saying youíre boycotting Staples. Itís very hard to physically show Staples how many people have not bought notebooks this week. This was a demonstration of how committed our members are, and advertisers need to see that we are committed to not patronizing businesses that are going to be harmful to free speech.   Weíre creating a list of people who are champions of free speech, and are going to be promoting that on the website.  And, weíre creating a list of people who are opponents of free speech or champions of censorship, and weíre asking our members not to patronize them. Weíre starting at ground zero and it may take a little time for advertisers to be interested in our point of view.

Or even to just listen to your viewpoint and acknowledge that there are people who donít mind edgy or racy content that doesnít fit into a PC world.
Weíre actually taking the advertiser thing one step further, thanks to a company that hasÖ I donít want to use the word ďballsĒ but that is exactly the appropriate word.  Nashville Coffee, on their own, a small little company stepped up and said, ďWeíre going to stand up and weíre going to support Opie & Anthony, no matter what.Ē  As soon as they saw that People Against Censorship was formed, they made an immediate donation and asked to join the membership.  We have responded to that in a way thatís been incredibly positive.  In four days they had at least 250 orders and 1,000 letters that they could attribute directly to Opie & Anthony fans and People Against Censorship members.  That was just four days.  Iím sure there were a lot of people who just placed orders and didnít say why they were placing orders as well.  Thatís really powerful stuff to show other advertisers that if you support us, if you take a stand supporting speech, we will support you. It doesnít take much for one person or one company to start the ball rolling and start a trend. A lot of companies are afraid to stand out alone.  But when you see other people doing it in a way that looks positive and looks supportive, and not like youíre supporting racism but that youíre supporting a social goal thatís a tremendously important one, they come out of the woodwork. And now weíre starting to create an official recognition program, and we think thatís going to be incredibly successful. 

And thatís a point that people might be missing.  This isnít about racist jokes, but this is about people having the ability to say what they want, when they want, and let the public be the arbiters of the comments, not special interest groups.
If you want the good speech, if you want open debate, if you want provocative speech, you have to accept the stuff thatís awful too.  You have to accept the stuff that you donít like.  Nobody needs to protect somebody saying, ďWomen are great!Ē  You need to protect bad speech in order for the good to flourish and have a dialogue about it.  But to say that you shouldnít be allowed to have that conversation when somebody says something stupid, it gives you an opportunity to speak up against it.  It empowers your position, especially when they look foolish.  When they sound intelligent, itís a harder battle for you.  But when someoneís out there sounding like an idiot, it makes it easier to make your own point against them. 

Letís discuss the O&A situation, because what happened to them could be perceived as worse than the Imus situation. They were on satellite radio, a pay service, and on a channel promoted as being uncensored and designated as an XL channel that could be blocked by subscribers. And the content in question was blown out of context because it was a comment about rough sex and the word rape was never used.
What I described it as in one of the interviews I did was youíve got a guy who is talking about a woman who is so far above him, he canít even image ever having access to her.  And heís saying: ďOh, man, what I would do to her!Ē  Thatís essentially what heís saying.  Itís locker room talk.  It goes on in the locker rooms across America.  On one of the interviews that I did, I think it was Erica from CNN Headline News, responded to that saying, ďJust because some thing is in the locker room, doesnít mean it should be on the radio.Ē  My answer is, ďWhy the hell not?  Why canít radio reflect what people across America are saying?Ē  Thatís the whole point of some shows.  Not every show should be about that. Your network news shouldnít be about talking like youíre in a locker room, but thatís doesnít mean there isnít room for a show that talks like everyday people talk.

Or a show that discusses the darker side of life and peopleís thoughts. It exists, so why hide from it?
Absolutely. If it exists, you should want to be able to see it, so that you can react appropriately to it.  But, there was no talk of rape.  Youíre absolutely right.  It was a conversation about rough sex.  Whether thatís a good thing or bad thing, whether some people think that you should be able to have that conversation or not, itís not for them to judge for the rest of the universe. Like you said, youíre talking about a paid service that people have thought out and said that I want to hear that.  I know what it is and I want it in my home.  It can be blocked. Every time I hear someone on the news talking about rape, it angers me because it wasnít.  Every time I hear someone saying Opie & Anthony advocated violence towards women, I want to pull my hair out.  These people are not listening to the show.  They donít hear whatís actually being said. 

No.  They hear the 60-second sound bite taken out of context, and thatís it.
This may go further than some people are comfortable with, but even if rape was discussed, who said rape is a subject thatís off the table?  Whose decision is it to say rape can never be discussed?  And the fact that XM promotes the channel as uncut and uncensored and warns of explicit language and it is your responsibility to impose listening restrictions.  They say, irreverent, uncensored, so bad, so good, indecent, profane, vulgar, offensive or otherwise inappropriate material thatís not suitable for all audiencesÖ powerful words has attracted a huge market of people who are tired of saying I donít want the government deciding what I can and canít hear.  And then they go ahead and then they say, what was the discussed on Opie & Anthonyís show was deplorable.  To me, that is hypocritical with a capital every letter of the word.  Itís so offensive to me that I have a hard time deciding whether I want to reconnect my XM service on June 16 if Opie & Anthony are put back on the air.
     I absolutely can tell you this, regardless of the fact that Iím a huge fan of the show and I want to hear it the minute itís back on, if XM doesnít give some sort of assurances that they will be uncensored when put back on the air, I wonít be reconnecting my radio.  As big a fan I am of the show, there are certain principles that go above and beyond that.  If XM is going to be the kind of a company that doesnít stand behind their word and doesnít stand behind their product, I donít want to patronize it.

Has XM responded to your letter?
They havenít answered, so we donít really know what their exact thinking is.  Theyíre not telling us.  I donít know whether theyíre being dishonest or not about some other things, but Iím very hard pressed to believe that XM is being honest about the subscription cancellations.  First of all, my subscriptions are all still working, even though I cancelled. For XMís personnel to say that no more listeners than usual are canceling, how can that be possible?  Iíve gotten reports just from my website that 5,000 people have cancelled their subscriptions, most of them with four to five accounts to their name.  Right there is 20,000 subscriptions. There are more than a few subscriptions being cancelled here. Weíre all tremendous supporters of satellite radio.  Everyone who loves free speech loves satellite radio until about two weeks ago.  So it wonít take much to get support back, but just be consistent.  Go ahead and admit that in a post-Imus world, that you over-reacted and misjudged the public.  Thereís nothing wrong with saying, ďWe are listening; we hear you and we now see that this isnít what you wanted and weíre responding.Ē

Even though it is early in the game for your organization, how has support been from a celebrity level?
It still doesnít make sense to me why more artists havenít come on board.  This is something I canít stress enough to musicians out there.  Musicians, comics and filmmakers in particular should be grabbing onto this card with both hands and pushing it with all their might because they are in jeopardy too. So anytime someone is not jumping on board, I have to ask why.  If itís because youíre scared, donít be.  We have 12,000 members and you coming on board will only help that grow tremendously. If itís about not wanting to get involved, then you deserve it when you get kicked off stage.  You deserve it when somebody stands up outside your comedy show and says donít let this guy in your club anymore.  You deserve it as a musician when somebody goes to the channel and says donít play that artist anymore. There are no more excuses for not getting involved.  We welcome everyoneís involvement.  And like I said, our members are loyal.  When Bill Burr comes out and says I enjoy People Against Censorship, our members now want to run to his shows to say thank you.

What are your goals and where do you see this going in the future?
If we really accomplish our goals, then we wonít need to exist, but we all know better than that.  Our goal is to maintain a committed large group of people who will be watchdogs, and who will speak up when someone comes along and says, ďWe donít want that speechĒ or ďYou canít say that.Ē  The ultimate goal is that companies like CBS and XM, and sponsors like Staples and Trojan stop being afraid of threats.  They should listen to their consumers and audience, thatís who they should listen to.  Weíre not telling them theyíre obligated to put on a show they donít want to put on.  Iím not saying that anyone across America has an obligation to hire an Imus.  But if youíre going to hire a show because itís edgy or because itís rightwing or because itís leftwing, donít turn your back on that show when someone speaks out against it.  Thatís my ultimate goal is to have these companies not be so afraid.

** QB Content by Michael Parrish ** 


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