Rhode Island DJs claim censorship after using banned phrase

RHODE ISLAND — The end of the spring semester may mean the end of an appeals attempt for two former Roger Williams University student disc jockeys who were fired in April after an on-air discussion about controversial shock jock Don Imus.

On April 24, Jon Porter and Dana Peloso, former hosts of Morning Again on WQRI-FM 88.3, repeated on air more than 30 times “nappy-headed hoes,” the phrase that led to Imus’ firing, days after the staff unanimously voted to ban the phrase during a mandatory meeting that Porter and Peloso did not attend.

Porter said he and his co-host were trying to get John King, the vice president for student affairs who they allege disapproved of their earlier Imus coverage, to discuss his viewpoint on the air.

“We challenged King to defend his position,” Porter said. “We never used [the phrase] in a derogatory manner. Now we were discussing campus news and John King’s problem with the phrase being used on-air.”

Porter said he and Peloso were suspended indefinitely after the show and fired the next day for using the phrase. They sent a news release to several state media outlets, explaining the termination and claiming censorship by the station and university administration.

King, an administrator at the private university, said he did not appear on the talk show because of scheduling conflicts. He added that he had nothing to do with the termination and did not know about the incident until after the students had been fired.

“[The program director] did what any good manager does: He asked his staff for their reaction to his idea for a ban on the Imus phrase, he got their support and he enforced that policy,” King said. “We believe he is a great example of the importance of allowing students to learn life’s lessons on their own.”

Mike Martelli, the station’s student program director, said he fired the student DJs because they blatantly violated station policies, missed several mandatory staff meetings and openly defied his order not to repeat Imus’ words on-air.

“I didn’t think there was a need to say the phrase anymore,” Martelli said.

Martelli said Porter and Peloso were looking for controversy.

“It was crystal clear that they were doing this for attention,” Martelli said. “They were trying to squeeze [the phrase] in as many times as they could.”

But Porter said he and Peloso did not know the phrase had been banned. He said that although they did not attend the all-staff meeting, he and Peloso met with Martelli a few days later to go over what they missed. He said Martelli never mentioned the ban in that meeting.

Martelli said he did explain the ban and the rationale behind it during his meeting with Porter and Peloso. No third party attended the meeting, and no minutes exist to clear up the discrepancy in their stories.

Before the semester ended, Porter said he and Peloso appealed the termination to the station’s general manager and faculty adviser because it was not in line with the station handbook.

The WQRI handbook states: “If a DJ is heard by any member of the [executive] board saying any [banned] words on air, the DJ will be suspended for one full week.”

But Martelli said the handbook had been amended to give the station manager more leeway to punish unruly DJs, but the change was not written down.

“I had to make a decision of what was appropriate for the station,” Martelli said. “We’ve spent too much time trying to build up the reputation of the station. I feel that I was warranted in saying that they could no longer be members of WQRI.”

The station’s executive board, the general manager and the faculty adviser found that WQRI had followed its policies and denied Porter and Peloso’s appeal.

Porter, who graduated in May, said he could have filed another appeal, but the semester ended before he had the chance. He said he hopes Peloso will continue fighting the decision next semester when he returns to campus for the fall term.

Peloso was not available for comment.

By Jenny Redden, SPLC staff writer