January 31, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 25
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Trial starts for Conn. radio race discrimination case

John Christoffersen

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Ratings soared when WZMX-FM Hot 93.7 switched from “dancing oldies” to an edgier hip-hop format. But behind the on-air banter, racial tensions were rising among the stars at the Farmington radio station.

Wendell “JD” Houston, the show’s black host, says a figure depicting the lynching of a black man was left dangling from his microphone and racist posters were hung at the station. He says the station hired him in 2000 under pressure to diversify, but denied him promotional appearances and favored his white co-host when the pair clashed.

“The defendants wanted an ‘Uncle Tom,’ a black person who would remain behind the radio microphone and be heard but not seen,” Houston’s attorneys wrote in a federal racial discrimination lawsuit that went to trial last week in Hartford.

CBS Radio, which owns the station, says Houston has no direct evidence of discrimination and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities dismissed a complaint he filed in 2002.

Houston was let go in 2003 after he was accused of cursing at his co-host, sexually harassing another colleague and constantly fighting with his supervisors and others at the station, the station says. They say he sent a note to the woman who accused him of sexual harassment titled “vengeance upon adversaries” that quoted the Bible.

“He just couldn’t get along with other people in the station and that’s why his contract wasn’t renewed,” said Mark Batten, attorney for CBS.

The station says Houston never complained about a poster that was signed by a rapper who used a racial epithet that he did not intend in a derogatory way. They say Houston interpreted a promotional key chain from a movie as a reference to a lynching.

Houston says the station hired him under pressure from critics because of its “abysmal” record of hiring blacks for on-air jobs. He says he was reprimanded for cursing at co-host Nancy Barrow when she gave misinformation on the air about a Janet Jackson concert, but she was not reprimanded when she repeatedly cursed at a supervisor who canceled her vacation.

Barrow declined comment.

White female announcers used fake black accents to mislead listeners, Houston says. Houston says he was paid far less than other morning show hosts at predominantly white affiliate stations even though he had among the best market share.

Houston says many of his guests were black, prompting a manager to say he could no longer have guests in the station on the weekend for safety reasons. When he obtained an exclusive interview with O.J. Simpson, instead of being praised, Houston says he was told his interviews had to be approved in advance in the future.

“Infinity Broadcasting wanted to dominate the minority listening market, especially the black listening market, without letting in local black talent, without letting in black celebrities, without making any connection with the black community, without presenting other than a white face in public, though the voices should appear black,” his attorneys wrote, referring to the company’s subsidiary.

Houston, who was 49 when he was hired, also alleges age discrimination, saying younger employees were given assignments for personal appearances to substitute for him.

Houston says the company retaliated by not renewing his contract in 2003 a month after he filed his lawsuit.

CBS says Houston’s $120,000 salary made him the highest paid on-air personality at the station.

“In the end, Houston sees race at work because he believes all white people are racist,” attorneys for the station wrote.

(Associated Press)

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