There is an audience out there that is hungry for the ribald and the offensive. It is an audience that will not go away and cannot be boycotted. Does labeling those listeners and the shock jocks they adore and emulate as racial dunces or ''un-American,'' and making the shock jocks unemployable (for daring to say what they think), advance the dialogue about racism or sexism? I don't think so.
Ours is supposed to be a nation that prides itself on free speech - let a thousand tongues wag, we say, and the truth will be uncovered. But the censors and activists who are so readily offended by idiocy on radio have discovered still another truth: that the First Amendment does not apply to radio shock jocks. And so they want the advertisers and networks to ban the I-Man and toss him off the air. They don't want to hear from Imus, and they don't want anybody else to hear him, either. If the censors and pressure groups succeed, what will become of our culture of free speech, especially with such gabbers as Al Sharpton curiously demanding action from the Federal Communications Commission?
There ought to be no sympathy in any quarter for any shock jock's racial prejudice, but there has to be room for apologies that are offered in earnest. Moreover, there ought to be space on radio for dialogue and for racial impoliteness, too. When a radio shock jock makes a quip that offends, that's no surprise. There is no captive, fragile audience or hostile environment such as the workplace or schoolhouse to worry about - just the robust radio world, full of gabbers, some of whom want to be taken seriously, some of whom try frantically to use words simply to entertain - and who screw up - and others who use satire and devil's-advocacy to push us to think. Besides, what's to distinguish Don Imus from the haters on black talk radio who regularly praise and play Louis Farrakhan tapes?
If we prize freedom, we should let the radio talkers talk. I say that if you don't like what you're hearing, turn the dial. If you want to call in and talk back to the jockass, do so. But we can't talk back on the radio if the censorship crowd gets its way.
* The writer is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the NAACP.