There's still no word on the status of a popular Billings radio show.
As YPR's Brie Ripley reports, the silence is deafening.
Last Tuesday, about 4-dozen protesters marched through downtown Billings in response to the firing of Paul Mushaben, the co-host of a popular morning show on a Billings-based country music station.
Mushaben and Mark Wilson, known to their listeners as The Breakfast Flakes, started broadcasting a morning show on KCTR in 1988. That’s when Kathy Clause, the protest organizer, first tuned in.
"He starts our day out great, and you know, he says the things that it's like, 'Oh yea! He's right!' Even if you don't want to hear the truth, he tells the truth," said Clause.
Clause organized the first protest within 24-hours by creating a Facebook group over 900 people have since joined.
And this is why:
On Tuesday, February 21st, Mushaben authored a post on the Breakfast Flakes’ blog, which is part of KCTR’s website.
Titled “Indian Basketball,” Mushaben suggested that high school basketball tournaments in Montana be segregated between Native and non-Native schools due to what he described as “unruly” and “disrespectful” crowd behavior.
The blog post was deleted from KCTR’s website later that day and the station took to their Facebook account to publish a statement expressing that management wasn’t aware of Mushaben’s comments prior to publication, that they didn’t approve of what was written, and an apology would be issued.
On the morning of Wednesday Mar. 1, Mushaben was back on the air.
Thursday evening, KCTR management updated co-host Mark Wilson’s blog post titled “Fire the DJ,” published on Wednesday, which took issue with people calling for Mushaben’s termination in comments made online.
At the top of the amended post, management explained Mushaben was suspended indefinitely, pending further internal review and that his blog post in no way reflects the values or beliefs of KCTR or its employees -- going as far as to issue an apology to their listeners, advertisers, and the Native American community.
YPR’s repeated attempts to reach KCTR owners, TownSquare Media, and The Breakfast Flakes were met with no response.
So instead, we spoke to another prominent Billings-based morning radio show host who has toed the line of what’s acceptable to say on air and online.
“I’ve gotten in trouble many times for things I’ve said. I haven’t apologized many times, but I’ve clarified many times, and apologized a few,” said Jason Harris, co-host of The Big J Show.
With more than 14 years of commercial radio experience under his belt, Harris often puts himself in the management's shoes, thinking about both The Big J Show’s advertisers and the community standards.
For supporters of The Breakfast Flakes, Mushaben’s indefinite suspension is an issue of muzzling the truth, and a violation of The Flakes’ first amendment rights to free speech.
But Harris doesn’t it see it that way.
“That is the biggest problem here -- that people don't seem to understand there's a difference between freedom of speech and freedom of consequence,” said Harris.
There are limitations to free speech in every forum.
For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Schneck .v. United States that you cannot yell “fire” in the middle of a crowded movie theater.
And for radio talent and personalities, there’s a recognition of power in airwaves and online presence.
“Most broadcasters are required to attest to the FCC and federal regulators that they have some understanding of their obligations to the larger community. That’s part of having a license,” said NPR’s Media Correspondent, David Folkenflik.
Folkenflik says there’s a difference between everybody having a voice on social media versus companies having a license, and therefore, a responsibility to their coverage area.
“Radio channels operate in a community even if they’re often not owned by folks that are based anywhere near there. So people in that community, particularly as their own activities are being characterized and described feel a stake in how they are portrayed,” said Folkenflik.
Extended interview with NPR's Media Correspondent David Folkenflik
In this case, it’s high school basketball. Athletes have already demonstrated solidarity on the court, like last week, when competitors linked arms prior to tipping off a divisional tournament in Great Falls.
"We're seeing our youth step up to the plate more so than adults," said Mike Chavez, a former Heart Butte and University of Montana basketball player, who wrote an opinion piece for The Billings Gazette about Mushaben's comments.
"The youth are against this mentality and attitude that you can say anything and get away with it without repercussions," said Chavez.
Chavez says that he's seeing a lot of anger and racism coming out on social media surrounding this is issue. But Chavez says despite that, he's remaining positive.
"The future of Montana is uniting on the court," said Chavez. "The future is bright."
To Dr. Walter Fleming, Department Head of Native American studies at MSU, what's most troubling about what Mushaben wrote isn't the fact that it raised the specter of segregation – it’s the fact that vague references to behavior of a particular group perpetuate prejudice.
"All of this has been that crowds are disrespectful or rude," said Fleming.
"But he's not providing a context for that so we can measure whether or not that's true. So consequently, it’s a burden that Indian crowds then carry. The legacy of this, it's thrown back on the students themselves."
While Mushaben and Wilson’s supporters go without their morning Breakfast Flakes, this week, the top Montana high school basketball teams are competing in tournaments at venues across the state.
Tournament champions, and their breakfast of choice, are to be determined.