Wednesday, October 13, 2010 | Every day dozens of broadcasters go on the airwaves in Little Saigon -- which sits in parts of Garden Grove and Westminster --- and talk politics. The news programs, which rent time by the hour, have dedicated Vietnamese-language audiences and the potential to sway elections.
For more than 20 years, Long Vo has been one of the local stalwarts in this arena. His "Vietnamese in California" show has received commendations from the Republican Party of Orange County as well as Democratic lawmakers.
But on Sept. 29, his show was yanked off the air.
The reason given by the station is that Vo was taken off AM 1190 because he refused to sign the station's newly constituted pledge regarding what can and can't be said on air about politicians.
Vo, who was a political prisoner for five years in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, said he was told that the shut down was ordered by Republican state Assemblyman Van Tran, who is in a tough battle with Democrat Loretta Sanchez for her 47th District seat in the U.S. Congress.
Tran, Little Saigon's most recognizable and powerful politician, denies having anything to do with the shutdown of Vo's show. And Bob Hastings, who manages the station owned by Salem Communications, backs up Tran. Hastings said the station is requiring all show hosts, not just Vo, to sign the new pledge.
Regardless of whose version is closer to the truth, the controversy shows just how much of a street brawl the race between Tran and Sanchez has become.
Vo and others say the timing of the station's new pledge is too coincidental to not have been done on Tran's behalf. There are also those who say that the rhetoric on the 4th District race hasn't changed on the pro-Tran news broadcasts.
On Sept. 29, Vo hosted a call-in program on AM 1190 that began with him reading a story from the Voice of America on recent allegations that ethnicity had become an overriding issue in the race. Sanchez was criticized for remarks on Spanish-language TV, saying that Vietnamese were trying to take the congressional seat away from Latinos.
Vo said callers to his program criticized Republican nominee Tran but didn't slander him. Other Vietnamese language speakers who have listened to a reproduction of the broadcast verify Vo's comments.
Yet the morning after the broadcast aired, Vo said he got a call from a broker who sells time to broadcasters, such as himself, who put their news shows on commercial radio stations.
Vo said the broker, Chan Phan, told him that the heat was on and that Tran's supporters were putting pressure on him to keep the broadcasts under wraps. Unless Vo agreed to cease talking about the 47th Congressional District, he would not be allowed back on the air.
Phan did not return calls for comment. Tran knows about the situation with Vo but denies making any phone calls to the station to complain about Vo's broadcasts.
"They're barking up the wrong tree," he said. "I've been in this country and this business too long for that."
Yet soon thereafter, Vo said he was faxed an amended policy from the radio station that precluded him from "denigration of any person, whether a private citizen or public figure" over the airwaves.
Vo refused to sign the agreement and so the night of Sept. 30 his program went silent from its usual timeslot of midnight to 5 a.m.
"We have the rights to have freedom of speech," Vo said. "This is totally unfair having my radio station cut when I talk about the race while the others are not. This is very un-American."
Vo filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which declined to comment on the case.
The FCC will very likely not help Vo because it is no longer governed by the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that opposing political viewpoints get equal time on the airwaves. That doctrine was established in 1949, but later revoked by the Reagan administration.
Hastings said Tran had nothing to do with the policy change, which he says all ethnic language broadcasters will be asked to sign.
"All new lessees will sign the zero-tolerance policy," Hastings said.
The station can't monitor all the ethnic language news broadcasts it sells time to, Hastings said, so they prefer to have them avoid issues that attack politicians or private individuals.
Yet Vo and other observers say that a radio show that is friendly to Tran on the same station from 9 p.m. to midnight broadcast comments disparaging Sanchez the day after he received his zero-tolerance statement.
Tran insists he did not make any efforts to get Vo's broadcasts taken off the air.
"We've made no complaints," said Tran at an event at his campaign headquarters last weekend.
Sanchez, however, was quick to comment on the controversy and holds it up as an example of how Tran stifles dissent in the Vietnamese community.
"That's what Van relies on: that nobody watches, that nobody speaks up," Sanchez said. "We can't have that kind of thing going on in the United States."