SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–Listen to The Tom Leykis Show on any given day and you will hear advice for men on: How to get “more tail for less money” (buy drinks, not dinner); the benefits of dating women who were sexually abused as children (they are more promiscuous); and why men should never date single moms (time with children reduces time in the bedroom).
If you’ve never heard of Tom Leykis, perhaps you are not a young, white male who lives in oneof the 50-plus markets where his call-in show is syndicated, including San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Vancouver and Dallas. Leykis has the largest afternoon male audience in Los Angeles, where his show is based, and ranks third in his target audience of 18 to 44, according to Arbitron ratings.
“There’s a difference . . . between the kind of woman you would bang and the kind of woman you would marry,” Leykis says on a Web site promo for Westwood One, the company that produces his show. “So the result of all of this is that you have a nice girl who marries you but then you need to have the hookers on the side.”
In the tradition of shock jock Howard Stern, Leykis is making millions by reducing women and men to cartoonish, sex-obsessed versions of themselves. In Leykis’ world, men pursue women for sex while women seek to control men and spend their money.
Media Mergers Add to the Problem
Critics say Leykis tops Stern because he offers a more mean-spirited and misogynistic view of women for entertainment’s sake. They add that his popularity is part of a larger trend where the quest for ratings is paramount and standards for language on the airwaves become blurred, or worse, obsolete.
In a letter of protest to the Federal Communications Commission sent in December, more than a dozen prominent watchdog groups and critics, such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the National Organization for Women and Noam Chomsky, criticized the agency for considering rolling back rules that prohibit media companies from creating monopolies.
“We now live in a world dominated by profit-driven media conglomerates more interested in delivering viewers to advertisers than in serving the needs of the public,” the letter said. “Dissenting political viewpoints are routinely marginalized in national mainstream media, and the interests and perspectives of women, people of color, labor, and lesbians, gays and bisexuals are consistently underrepresented.”
Robert McChesney, author of “Rich Media, Poor Democracy” and a research professor at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, sees The Tom Leykis Show as part of this trend.
“What’s happening in the media environment is there is more of a tendency toward coarseness and toward programming that is demeaning to women and to humanity,” McChesney says. “You see it on radio talk shows and also on television reality shows. It’s about who can be more crude and more shocking.”
Leykis Sued for Harassment
Karen Carpenter knows this first hand. Carpenter sued Leykis and Westwood One in 1998 for harassment after Leykis ridiculed Carpenter on the air. In the voice of an old woman, Leykis read a protest letter she had written him and called her a “moron” and a “cretin.”
“Sit on this, you old prune,” Leykis said on the air, to the sound of a vibrator. He added that he was sexually aroused.
During the broadcast, several callers joined in the verbal attack. One caller announced Carpenter’s home and fax numbers in Juneau, Alaska. Westwood One blocked some of the digits of the phone number, but not the fax. What followed was a deluge of harassing letters. Carpenter said she suffered anxiety attacks and received counseling and medication as a result of the episode.
Last February, an Alaska jury ruled in Leykis’ favor, saying he was protected under the First Amendment. The jury fined Westwood One $150,000 in damages for destroying the master tape of the 1998 broadcast. In court testimony, Leykis said that the show was mistaken in not blocking the fax number. Both sides are now appealing to the Alaska Supreme Court.
“Any show that exposes private citizens to such vitriolic attacks should be punished,” says Ray Brown, Carpenter’s attorney. “It’s a sad commentary on listeners and Tom Leykis is capitalizing on that trend.”
Stepping Up the ‘Rudeness Factor’ to Build Ratings
Westwood One and Leykis did not respond to repeated requests for interviews for this article. However, Leykis has said, in an October interview with Bob Baker, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, that when he was offered the afternoon time slot in 1997, he had to create a style similar to Howard Stern to grab the young, male audience.
“We had to evolve the show in this new direction,” Leykis told Baker, “which was grinding loud music, grinding production, and we stepped up the rudeness factor.”
Author McChesney agues that these type of imperatives have ushered in a new era in which the race for ratings fuels the content of each broadcast.
“People are switching the dial quickly, so producers don’t have time to develop an audience,” McChesney says. “The commercial pressure and competition pushes towards vulgarity and then you build a taste for it. Then someone else will come along and try to top that.”
Ann Simonton, founder of Media Watch, a nonprofit group that lobbies against violence and sexism in media, says that one of the biggest problems with the show is that it airs in the late afternoon in most cities, when children are apt to be listening. Simonton is now trying to get the Internet company EarthLink, Inc. to stop sponsoring the show. She says she has received more than 400 pieces of hate mail from Leykis fans.
“People need to know how gross this stuff is” she says.
Last July, Media Watch ran a successful campaign to remove Dallas-based talk radio host Mikey Esparza from the air. After a 7-year-old Philadelphia girl escaped from kidnappers by chewing though duct tape last summer, Esparza said, “That’s why I don’t use duct tape. That’s why I use nylon rope.” Esparza was eventually fired.
Has Leykis reached his limits? Seattle listeners thought so in 2001 when, defying standards of conduct in journalism, Leykis revealed the name of a woman who had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. Now, Leykis has reportedly signed a movie deal.
“There are limits, and advertisers freak out,” McChesney says, “but Leykis hasn’t reached his limit.”
Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief of Women’s Enews.
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