As the many plaques adorning Vilas Hall remind students on a daily basis, American radio waves are largely rooted here in Madison. During World War II, radio news found its first home on this isthmus and the auditory medium has grown up with the University of Wisconsin ever since.
But talk radio managed to achieve a historic low here last week when local shock jock John Sylvester used his show as a pulpit to call outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell an “Uncle Tom” and the Cabinet member’s apparent successor, Condoleezza Rice, an “Aunt Jemima.”
Following a wave of national media attention, Sylvester has apologized to the African American community for rehashing such hideous symbols of slavery and inequality. However, he continues to refuse to offer such an apology to Rice, whom he just yesterday accused of being “a black trophy” of the Bush administration.
Regardless of whether Rice and Powell serve as token minorities, the presentation of racial epithets as a means of offering political criticism is wholly inappropriate. We of course recognize Sylvester’s First Amendment right to speak his mind, but his comments, although not illegal, were surely tasteless and morally reprehensible. While this surely isn’t the first time a radio deejay has offered prejudice-latent rhetoric on air, it is important that such actions are met with even just a fraction of the pure intolerance Sylvester has shown.
When Mark Belling used a racial epithet on air in Milwaukee recently, he was suspended for a period of time. When Washington, D.C.’s “Greaseman” did the same several years ago, he was fired outright. And when Rush Limbaugh made a racially charged comment on ESPN last year, he was forced to resign.
Belling may have gotten off lightly, but this is no excuse for Sylvester to be treated with the same kid gloves. In a city like Madison that prides itself on progressive acceptance, there is no place for his hate-filled racism on the public-radio airwaves. The management of WTDY would do well to fire Sylvester and send a potent message to a country now watching the situation closely: the people of Madison will not tolerate racism and hatred in any form.