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Analysis: Firing raises questions of free speech for both the radio station and the anti-vaccine DJ

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2021 9:36:38 PM
Modified: 10/21/2021 9:36:45 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — In the ongoing national conflict over freedom of speech and expression, a recent episode at Royalton Community Radio is likely to be barely a footnote. But it illustrates an element of the free speech debate that often gets overlooked: community standards.

JAMR Marceau, a 22-year-old Sharon resident and recent graduate of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., started broadcasting on WFVR 96.5 FM in South Royalton in June, an hour a week of music and talk.

“I thought it’d be a good experience,” Marceau said in a recent interview.

Marceau, whose initials stand for Joseph Alexander Michel Roupinian, had tried to get on the air at Brandeis’ station, but he’d have had to sit in on 20 hours with another DJ before he could fly solo, and the coronavirus pandemic made that more difficult.

There was enough talk in Marceau’s Royalton radio show that Todd Tyson, manager of the all-volunteer station, moved him from Tuesday night at 9 to Tuesday morning, 11 to noon, an hour usually reserved for public affairs programming.

It wasn’t long before Tyson started to field complaints. Marceau had a lot to say about the White River Valley Supervisory Union’s anti-racism policy, which has been hammered out in meetings over the summer. Listeners and members of the station’s board saw this as a departure for the small station, which typically features music. Talk has been limited to community news, including a long-running show about local poets and another about outdoor recreation.

“I got an email from somebody after his first show,” Tyson said in an interview.

Tyson, who’s been involved in radio for decades, listened in and noted that while Marceau offered his take on the anti-racism policy, mask mandates and other issues, he made clear that the views he expressed were his own.

The station is a nonprofit and under its license is “not allowed to be seen lobbying for a candidate or a political position,” Tyson said. Marceau mostly steered clear of those pitfalls.

Even so, Tyson had a couple of talks with Marceau. He’s responsible not just for the content but the quality of the programming. Commentary on public affairs is better in conversation.

“Just one voice is not very good radio,” Tyson said.

He urged Marceau to bring in some like-minded guests to talk about the issues that interested him. That didn’t happen.

Tyson continued to get questions from the public and from the station’s board members.

It wasn’t until Marceau’s show on Aug. 24 that Tyson decided to take action. Interspersed among songs by Blink-182, Good Charlotte and Linkin Park, Marceau argued against vaccine mandates and equated them with Nazi Germany.

“We’re teetering dangerously close with these mandates and passports to that infamous hallmark of Hitler’s Germany,” Marceau said during the show, according to a recording.

(In making this argument, anti-vaccine protesters often hang their hats, as Marceau did, on the Nuremberg Code, which prevents doctors from performing involuntary experiments on patients, something 23 Nazi doctors were tried for after World War II. But vaccines are not experiments and have been required in many instances as far back as the Revolutionary War, when George Washington required his soldiers to be vaccinated against smallpox.)

That show “tipped the balance for me,” Tyson said.

“Basically, he had overstepped the line,” he added. “He was urging people to do something that’s dangerous, and he was doing it on our radio station.

“What’s going on in the country about COVID, it’s not me or the board disagreeing with his political views.”

Tyson emailed him. Marceau said he responded by asking Tyson to be more specific. When Marceau’s next show was coming up and Tyson felt he hadn’t heard a serious response to his message, he cut the show.

“In the end, it was solely my decision,” Tyson said.

Marceau, who is in the process of applying to graduate schools, didn’t seem to harbor much ill will about the end of his first foray into broadcasting.

“I feel like I at least should have been able to talk a little more with Todd about what the issues were before being terminated,” he said.

“I have no problem with Todd and the board members,” he added. “It was just very abrupt, and that kind of hurt.”

Marceau’s final show might lead a listener to ask what harm there is in letting a 22-year-old ramble about his political opinions.

The opposing question might be more persuasive: What’s the benefit?

From Tyson’s perspective, he has to think not just about a DJ’s freedom to say what he wants but about the radio station. Of the 50 or so people who have been on the air, Marceau is the third to have his show shut down. In each instance, “the public reputation of the station was being diminished,” Tyson said.

One DJ was removed for using sexually explicit language on the air. Another was chronically late, leading to dead air at the start of his show time.

Critics of the station have called its treatment of Marceau censorship, but no broadcaster can be required to send a particular set of ideas out into the world.

“To get your message out there is as easy or accessible as it’s ever been,” Tyson noted.

On social media, everyone’s a broadcaster in search of an audience, and anyone with an internet connection can start a blog or a newsletter.

“I don’t think in all-volunteer community radio we need to be leading the charge,” Tyson said. “We’re not really out there to take sides.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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