Like many radio morning teams, WRNO announcers Walton and Johnson are no strangers to accusations of bad taste. Most listeners who don't enjoy their jokes and exaggerated dialects simply turn the dial. But New Orleans couple Sahna Mae Sassoon and Abram Himelstein say that things got carried away following the World Trade Center attack, moving them to file an official complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last Friday after hearing the duo on rock station WRNO 99.5 FM the previous morning.
In her opinion, says Sassoon, the morning jocks were inciting people to loot from local shop owners, just two days following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: "We heard the morning DJ on WRNO call for Americans listening to go into the camera and video shops on Canal Street, ask the shopkeepers for their papers, and if they are unable to produce them quickly, to put the shopkeepers on a bus and shout into the street, 'Hey, free cameras!'"
WRNO General Manager Tom Kennedy asserts that he never heard anything that promoted looting. Walton and Johnson, he contends, were merely utilizing satire to make a point. "Billy Ed, who is a character used by Steve Johnson, this morning said something about going down to Canal Street and checking the visas of every shop owner who appears to have some sort of Arabic origin," said Kennedy on Thursday. "[Billy Ed] is a satiric character who always represents the extreme right-wing -- if you will, 'redneck' -- point of view."
Sassoon replies that she's not unfamiliar with literary devices. "I'm an English teacher," she says. "I teach satire. ... If that's satire, it's badly done."
And if there is a distinct character named Billy Ed, she says, his voice is indiscernible from voices of hosts Walton and Johnson. Plus, the show's format resembled a call-in news show whose callers were spouting anti-Arab sentiments. These sentiments were then echoed -- not mocked -- by the hosts.
Walton and Johnson's comments have also found a cool reception on Canal Street. In New York Camera, one employee who asked not to be identified said Thursday that he had already heard about the remarks. "A friend of mine told us," he says. "I was disappointed, because I like that station a lot."
The situation is especially ironic, he added, because none of the camera stores on Canal Street are owned by Arabs. "There used to be one around the corner, but it closed," he says. In fact, New York Camera is owned by a Jewish American who lives in New York, and most of the other shop owners along the street are also Jewish. "You may see a few Arabs, but they're employees, not owners. And we're all Americans who pay taxes."
In a store next door, Cash and Gold, an employee points at the mezuzah -- the small, diagonally mounted prayer scroll -- on their door frame. "See -- Jewish," he says, before sitting down on a piece of hard luggage next to a co-worker.
"I think that the American people just hate Arabs," says the co-worker, Joe Tavormina. "Nine out of 10 don't even know why." To his way of thinking, such vitriol should have some sort of basis. "At least have a reason why you hate people," he suggests.
- Walton and Johnson's comments have found a cool reception on Canal Street. 'I was disappointed,' says one store employee, 'because I like that station a lot.'