Overlooking 35W and 94th St. in Bloomington, a billboard for KQRS radio reads ‘Our Lawyer is Always Busy.’ According to protesters who gathered outside station headquarters last week, KQRS has a battle on its hands. On December 6, more than 75 people braved single-digit temperatures to demand that the classic rock station fire popular morning DJs Tom Barnard and Terri Traen for derogatory statements they made about American Indians more than two months ago.
“This is just the thunder before the storm,” said Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian movement. “We will not rest until all our demands are met.” After a rousing song from ceremonial drummers, the enthusiastic crowd cheered as speakers denounced Citadel Broadcasting, KQRS, and Disney. “Mickey Mouse! Knock Him Out!” was a popular chant among those gathered. (Citadel owns ABC Radio, and Disney owns a majority interest in Citadel. KQRS is an ABC radio affiliate.)
The controversy stems from comments made during the September 18 KQRS morning show. Barnard and Traen were discussing a state health department finding that the teen suicide rate in Beltrami County is twice the state average. Barnard pointed out that the Red Lake Band of Chippewa reservation is in Beltrami County, to which Traen responded, “Maybe it’s genetic. Isn’t there a lot of incest up there?”
Barnard continued the conversation with trademark sarcasm by commending “the people at Mystic Lake for doing a hell of a lot to help out their fellow Native Americans,” adding that, “They don’t give them anything.”
An unidentified person from the show referred to the Mdewakanton Sioux who own the Shakopee casino as “those zillionaires at ‘Mistake Lake.’” Barnard later said, “I wish someone would fly a plane into Mystic Lake Casino.”
Almost immediately, angry phone calls and letters poured into KQRS from outraged tribal leaders.
Floyd Jourdain Jr., of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, sent a letter to the station denouncing the remarks as “irresponsible and intolerable.” He asserted that Red Lake officials are working closely with Beltrami County and the city of Bemidji to prevent teen suicides and asserted that “tasteless and inappropriate humor at the expense of those who have suffered tragedy and loss is unacceptable.”
According to Bellecourt, Red Lake has received $500,000 from other tribes to build a sexual assault and family advocacy center in Bemidji. The Shakopee Mdewakanton community has granted $1 million toward a new Boys and Girls Club, and $2 million to help jump start the Red Lake walleye fishing industry in hopes of combating poverty on the reservation.
“All together this is nearly $4 million dollars that the Shakopee tribe has granted the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians,” said Bellecourt.
On October 30, members of Red Lake, the American Indian Movement, and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors met with executives from Citadel Broadcasting and KQRS. During the meeting, KQRS station manager Marc Kalman agreed to issue an apology on-air and in writing to the Red Lake and Shakopee tribes as well as the American Indian community in the Twin Cities. Kalman also promised that the station would make efforts to hire interns from the native community and offered to run public service announcements promoting youth suicide prevention programs.
These conciliatory gestures have not been enough to satisfy many who perceive a pattern of racist remarks on KQRS spanning more than ten years. Bellecourt and other American Indian leaders recently reached out to members of other racial minorities to form the Communities of Color Leadership Council (CCLC), a new coalition designed to fight racism.
“This is the first time in my 55 years in the Twin Cities that people from the African-American, Asian, Latino, and Indian communities have come together like this,” said Bellecourt. “We are ready to engage Citadel in a fight to change their branding of racism, prejudice, and discriminatory practices disguised under the benign label of entertainment.”
Spike Moss, of the CCLC and the Minneapolis Urban League, called on KQRS to fire Barnard and Traen as a matter of decency. “We will not accept racist attacks on our communities,” said Moss. “These ignorant people do not belong on the air.”
Several speakers at the rally drew comparisons between Tom Barnard and controversial radio host Don Imus. Imus was fired by CBS last April after he referred to members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes.” Imus is back on the air as of this month after Citadel offered him a job on ABC radio.
“The hire of Don Imus by Citadel is outrageous,” said Bellecourt. “The newly merged leadership of Citadel and Disney is apparently willing to use racist stereotypes and caricatures of people just to benefit their company’s bottom line.” Bellecourt said he will urge tribal casinos advertising on KQRS to pull ads and pressure other sponsors to do the same.
Like the Imus in the Morning Show, the KQRS Morning Show is known for ethnic jokes and a general willingness, even eagerness, to offend. Over the last ten years, members of the African-American, Hmong, and Somali communities have issued formal complaints against the station for comments they deemed offensive.
Amee Xiong spoke at the December 6 rally, reminding the crowd of a 1998 incident in which Barnard and other KQRS radio personalities ridiculed a thirteen-year-old Hmong girl who was charged with killing her baby after being raped. Penalties she faced included a $10,000 fine. “That’s a lot of egg rolls,” quipped Barnard who then told a co-host playing “Tak,” a fictional character with a mock-Asian accent, to “assimilate or hit the goddamn road.”
“We’re here to say that we’re proud of our culture,” said Xiong. “We don’t have to assimilate and we’re not going anywhere.”
KQRS officials locked their doors before the rally began and police stood between protesters and the building.
Requests for comment from KQRS were referred to McFarland Cahill Communications, which issued a statement that read in part:
“In an October meeting, we came to an agreement with Native American tribal leaders about how to move forward. While KQRS has followed through on all points of the agreement it is unfortunate that a fringe group of individuals is trying to hold KQRS hostage to their unreasonable demands.”
The statement claims that since the meeting, KQRS has issued an apology, hired two native interns, run public service announcements, and extended an invitation to have tribal leaders appear on the morning show. They are currently in the process of scheduling an appearance for a tribal leader “who did not take part in the protest.”
Bellecourt promised that the CCLC will stand by their position that Barnard and Traen should be fired and will continue to monitor the content of the KQRS morning show. He hoped a KQRS official would emerge from the building to speak with the group about their demands.
During the hour long rally the only person to venture out of the building was KQRS attorney David Valentini who said, “Concessions have been made. From our perspective this is over.” Nevertheless, he accepted a list of demands from Bellecourt and shook hands with a few protesters before leaving. It seems KQRS will continue to keep their lawyer busy.
Katrina Plotz is a substitute teacher, a freelance writer and an anti-war activist. She lives in Bloomington.