Ever since the National Radio Hall of Fame announced the list of nominees for its 2008 induction, chairman Bruce DuMont has been on the hot seat. The 16 candidates for four spots were revealed in April and there was plenty of indignation about who’d been left out and which current nominees should have been recognized long ago. The Reader’s Michael Miner, for example, wondered how Studs Terkel could have been overlooked. Other media mavens wanted to know why Steve Dahl and Howard Stern were just now being considered (neither of them made it this year, either). That’s the kind of heat DuMont expectedit goes with the territory.
But this month, with the ten-week public Internet voting period nearly over, he got wind of a more troubling protest. A statement arrived from the gay advocacy group Truth Wins Out, along with several hundred e-mails, demanding that the list be purged of a nominee no one had mentioned up to that point: Focus on the Family, the radio ministry of right-wing pundit James Dobson.
This is not a controversy DuMont needs. He’s been struggling for years to reopen the Museum of Broadcast Communications, which he founded in 1987 and ran from 1992 to 2003 at the Chicago Cultural Center. The museum’s new home at State and Kinzie has been stalled out in mid-rehab since May 2006. DuMont, who blames the state for withholding $6 million he says it promised him, continues his fund-raising efforts, and the $500-a-plate hall of fame induction dinner, scheduled for November 8 this year, is one of them. So he watched with concern as TWO rallied opposition to Dobson in the gay community and Dobson, who can reach 2.5 million supporters with a single e-mail blast, fought back.
The contest closed July 15 with more than 70,000 votes cast. When they were tallied, Focus on the Family had won the nationally syndicated broadcasters category, beating out Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Bob Costas, and Howard Stern. DuMont announced that the public had made its choice and the hall of fame would stand by it.
But it wasn’t over for the anti-Dobson forces. They’ve mounted a new campaign to get the museum to disqualify Focus on the Family before the induction.
Each year since 1992, the National Radio Hall of Fame has honored a few luminariespeople and programs, the living and the dead. The list of honorees stretches from Orson Welles to Car Talk. And Dobson’s hardly the first conservative to make it: past inductees include Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. So DuMont says he was surprised at the fierce reaction. But TWO founder Wayne Besen states that while his group could have lived with a win by, say, Schlessinger, Dobson’s agendawhich includes curing homosexuality and lobbying against same-sex marriage (which he predicts will “bring the destruction of this nation and many others”)makes Focus on the Family’s election intolerable.
“Dobson is a bigot who distorts scientific research and has poisoned the air in America,” says Besen, who’s been on Dobson watch for ten years and outed the head of Dobson’s “freedom from homosexuality” initiative, Exodus International (formerly Love Won Out), by catching him on camera in a gay bar. “This is not a right-left thing. This is about right and wrong,” Besen says. “Considering how airwaves have been abused to create hatred, how can you not have some sort of standard?”
DuMont says Dobson meets the requirement for induction. “Our only criterion is the number of years in the business10 for national, 20 for regional. He’s been broadcasting more than 15 years on more than 3,000 stations. He’s qualified. There is no criterion for political philosophy. Never has been, never will be.”
The public vote that elected Dobson was something new. Past winners were selected by experts or members of the museum. But this year, Dumont says, they wanted to open it up. Recommendations (also from the public) were accepted all year, and a steering committee appointed by DuMont met in April to select the nominees from a list of 200 or so names. DuMont says that part of the process was confidential, but the names were promptly announced. He wonders why he didn’t hear objections earlier, and why Dobson’s opponents didn’t simply vote him out. “If you really wanted to stop Dr. Dobson and send a signal by voting for someone else, there was ample opportunity between May 1 and July 15.”
But Besen claims he didn’t hear about Dobson’s candidacy until two weeks before the voting ended. “I was at the Saint Louis Pride when I got the e-mail on my phone,” he says. “With hardly any time left, we scrambled, we did what we could.” Now he sees the induction as an opportunity to “tell the world who James Dobson really isan extremist who doesn’t believe in separation of church and state” and who “has built his empire on the backs of gays and lesbians.” If the hall of fame goes ahead with the induction, Besen warns, “we’ll have a big protest outside their dinner.” He says he’s coming to Chicago in late August or September to plan the demonstration with local leaders.
And it looks like the locals will be there. “Just because Dobson’s got ratings doesn’t mean he’s worthy,” argues Andy Thayer, cofounder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network. “This is a man who has ranged himself against the civil rights of a whole group of Americans. If it comes to the actual induction, we are going to be protesting.”
Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois says his group will meet with TWO and determine what its role will be. “I think it’s unfortunate that someone like James Dobson, who demonizes, distorts, and lies, is inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame,” Garcia says. “He’s not a broadcast entertainer, he’s not a journalist. I understand an open process, but the hall of fame should be for people who excel.” Garcia says he finds this especially disturbing because he has “great respect” for the museum. “I think they contribute to Chicago and the country,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that they’re caught in this controversy.”
Meanwhile, Focus on the Family issued a press release that says its victory (“the first religious program to receive such an honor”) shows that “Dr. Dobson’s influence is as strong as ever in the hearts of his fans, as well as in the culture.”
According to DuMont, things had been looking up before this tempest descended. He has a plan for proceeding on the building, despite the lack of state money, by leasing the first floor to commercial tenants and turning the fourth into a special-events space. He says a written commitment from a donor is imminent, after which he’ll only need to raise an additional $4 million to finish the $23 million project.
“We are nearing the goal line,” he says. “But this controversy doesn’t help. We need to put it in context. The people who nominated are not the MBC board. And the voting was done by the public.” As for the protesters: “Do they want me to undo the votes? Their principal objection is to what Dr. Dobson says. We don’t un-nominate people because of their political persuasion.”