Utah Station Pulls Plug on Radio Rabbi

Hurricane Katrina

By E.B. Solomont

Published September 16, 2005, issue of September 16, 2005.
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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is claiming that a radio station in Utah abruptly canceled his national talk show after he invited Hurricane Katrina evacuees to settle in the state and to attend a Salt Lake City speaking engagement of his slated for this week.

Boteach, best known for his book “Kosher Sex,” claims that higher ups at KUTR-AM 820 — a station owned by a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — were unhappy over his invitation to the evacuees because many of them are poor and black. “I guess the station decided promoting racial integration isn’t what they’re about,” the New Jersey-based Boteach told the Forward.

Station representatives deny the accusation. They say Boteach’s show wasn’t the right fit for their station.

The flap comes amid reports that New Orleans’ poor, black residents were hardest hit by the hurricane, while the city’s more affluent residents escaped. It also reflects the growing debate over whether evacuees can or should be absorbed in other cities if they wish to resettle permanently. In Salt Lake City, home to American’s largest population of Mormons, issues of racial tolerance and integration can be particularly sensitive, given early church teachings that spoke of black people as inferior and a ban on blacks serving in the Mormon priesthood that wasn’t lifted until 1978.

The latest controversy started September 9, during the broadcast of Boteach’s daily show, when the rabbi took a call from a black man who alleged that a Utah army training site had imposed a racist curfew on evacuees staying there. Boteach assured the caller that citizens of Utah would welcome evacuees of any color to resettle there and also invited evacuees to attend a speaking engagement in Salt Lake City previously scheduled for September 14.

At an August 31 press conference, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman called the state a “willing recipient” of evacuees. And, in an interview with the Forward, Derek Jensen, a spokesman at Camp Williams, the national guard training site — about which Boteach’s caller complained — said the camp has housed nearly 600 Katrina evacuees. The rules in question were never intended to be interpreted as racist, but were put in place “for the safety of our guests,” Jensen said.

Boteach supplied the Forward with a copy of an email in which he was praised by Rod Arquette, vice president of news and programming for the Salt Lake Radio Group, including KUTR-AM 820. The group is owned by Bonneville International Corporation, a subsidiary of the a holding company owned by the church. Church officials referred all questions to a Bonneville spokesperson.

In the e-mail, Arquette praised the rabbi to a colleague, saying, “Shmuley is an important talent for the radio station and we hope to make this a win/win for both Shmuley and KUTR-AM 820.” Boteach said the e-mail referred to recent talks to renew his show’s contract with the station.

But last weekend, according to Boteach, he received an e-mail and phone message from Arquette ordering the rabbi to cancel his trip. In the phone message, which Boteach shared with the Forward, Arquette said: “You will not be coming to Utah.” Later, he was informed that the station would no longer air his show.

But Boteach decided to visit Utah anyway. He said his show received a record number of callers offering assistance to Katrina evacuees during the September 9 broadcast, and noted in an interview with the Forward that the Mormon “rank and file” were not racist: “I will not superimpose racial bigotry of Bonneville onto the Mormon laity who responded on my show.”

Some of Boteach’s supporters mobilized on his behalf to coordinate the September 14 event. They were expecting 100 evacuees, at least 200 Salt Lake City residents and the city’s mayor to attend the event.

“They pulled the plug so that [the event on] Wednesday would not happen,” said the lead volunteer organizing the event, Annie Ballard, a 26-year-old mother of two and a convert to Mormonism. “What other message could that possibly send?”

Two local rabbis told the Forward that they were not sure if they would attend the event.

Carol Einhorn, head of Jewish Family Service in Salt Lake City, told the Forward that the Jewish community was helping to resettle a Jewish woman and her black husband.

“The Jewish community,” Einhorn added, “has made a commitment to resettle people — permanently if they need that.”

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