Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) — the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the mass media and advocating for balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans — convinced Los Angeles radio station KFI-AM to suspend longtime talk show host Tim Conway, Jr. and his producer Sheron Bellio for a week without pay.
Both concocted a skit where Bellio impersonated a Japanese American using a stereotyped accent, making cliched martial arts sounds and uttering random Japanese phrases.
In reality, that woman, Yuko Sakamoto — wife of sports radio personality Vic “The Brick” Jacobs — speaks with no accent whatsoever.
On the May 3 broadcast, at the top of the 8 o’clock hour, Conway said they had Yoko [sic] Sakamoto on the line. Bellio shouted 11 variations of “Hiya!” “Heeyah” “Heeyo!” and other martial arts noises throughout the 4½ minute skit, uttering haikus, banging a gong, saying “Moshi moshi” and “Brought to you by Subaru.” The entire bit went on for over 8 minutes, including Conway and his sidekicks talking about it and again after a commercial break.
A longtime fan of the show contacted MANAA and eventually filed a complaint with the FCC. He emailed Conway expressing his disgust. Conway responded: “Appreciate your email. It wasn’t an attack on Asian Americans, it was an impersonation of Vic the Brick Jacobs, who is known for his Zen sayings, haikus and his wife’s name happens to be Yuko – it would’ve been the same impersonation if her name was Jane Wells.
“The bit was that Vic’s wife sounds exactly like him, not that she is Asian – that is how he talks, how he has for 30 years.”
“When I got on the phone with Program Director Robin Bertolucci and Assistant Program Director Neil Saavedra on May 17,” recalls MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki, “I told them I’ve been doing this for 29 years and as far as L.A. radio goes, that’s one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.
“I understood the rationalization for the skit. But I knew the accent was exaggerated and perpetuated the notion that no matter how long Asian Americans are in this country, we’re still thought of as foreigners. I asked that they suspend without pay anyone affiliated with the skit, that they apologize on air and receive sensitivity training. The two executives agreed to all of it pending approval from their boss Kevin LeGrett, which he later gave.”
To his credit, Saavedra suggested the station could do a two-hour Sunday special with MANAA focusing on the issue of anti-Asian violence and the stereotypes that spur them (it will air this Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m.). Two new PSAs (public service announcements) began running last Friday morning on the subject of anti-Asian hate crimes. Bertolucci also volunteered to work with MANAA on producing future PSAs.
She was also open to considering hiring Asian American disc jockeys, as the last one Aoki remembered hearing on the station, Clara Young, dated back to the mid-1990s.
“When I tracked down Ms. Sakamoto, I was shocked to learn that she had met Sheron Bellio on many occasions, meaning Bellio knew Sakamoto spoke with no accent yet imitated her with one anyway and threw in any stereotyped Japanese things she could think of. Yuko told me she listened to the parody but had to stop because it offended her as well as her husband. She was born in Tokyo but has been raised in Southern California since she was 2½ months old, becoming a naturalized citizen at the age of 8.
“She always feared Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, because she’d get picked on by her classmates. Even as an adult, she was egged, so she never goes out on that day.
“After a few phone conversations, I wrote Robin and Neil an email explaining what a sincere apology should include: An explanation of what the radio talents did, acknowledging they knew the real Yuko Sakamoto spoke with no accent, yet they imitated her with one anyway.”
Aoki wrote to Bertolucci and Saavedra: “They didn’t even bother getting Yuko’s name right. It’s not Yoko Sakamoto. The TC Jr. Show needs to couch this in the context of what is going on today with hate crimes against Asian Americans. For generations, media depictions of Asian Americans have led many to think of our community in stereotyped ways and whenever there’s conflict between the U.S. and Asian countries, Asian Americans take the blame for it (e.g., the bombing of Pearl Harbor leading to 120,000 Japanese Americans being put in concentration camps for 3-4 years, hate crimes against Japanese Americans in the late ’80s/early ’90s when Japan’s economy was doing well with car imports, COVID-19 coming out of China leading to anger and violence against anyone who looks Asian).”
The scripted apologies aired Friday night around 8:09 p.m.
Bellio started: “On May 3 during our show, I did an impression in which I perpetuated stereotypes of Asian Americans, only adding to an already difficult time for many. I want to sincerely apologize for my actions that have offended and hurt listeners and anyone in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. I am deeply sorry that my failed attempt at humor was insensitive and I feel horrible about that. My words tonight will never convey the shame that I’m feeling because of my actions and I just — I really want to apologize.”
Conway continued: “Now, we believe it’s important to take this time to recognize the issue of hate crimes against Asians that have significantly increased over the last few months. In fact, these crimes have doubled in the last month. And over the last year and a half, Asian Americans across this country including in our very own Southland communities, have endured despicable and sickening acts of hate and violence, fearing for their safety and the safety of their families.
“Both Sheron and I will be off next week — yep, suspended! Now, we wholeheartedly agreed with that decision and again, we are both incredibly sorry. We will look forward to returning to the show on Tuesday, June 1, with a fresh perspective. So next week, Wayne Resnick and Mark Thompson will be holding down the fort.”
They then played the upbeat Taylor Swift hit “Shake It Off.”
The apology, which lasts for almost a minute and a half, can be found at the 9:23 mark of the third hour at this link: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/conway-on-demand-20635767/
“We were disappointed that they didn’t mention to their audience what they’d done, so those who weren’t listening when the bit originally aired had no idea why Tim and Sheron are getting suspended,” Aoki said. “However, MANAA hopes we’ve educated people in the radio industry about the dangers of on-air stereotyping and they will think twice before doing something like that again.”
In his letter to Bertolucci and Saavedra before the apology, Aoki wrote: “Do what I call ‘the substitution test.’ Plug in the black or Jewish equivalent of what they did and see how that looks. If Vic were married to a black woman who was as intelligent as Yuko and spoke with no accent, it would be like having Sheron imitating her in ‘ghetto-speak’ … No one on KFI would ever have thought that could air without them getting fired, let alone suspended.”
Aoki continued: “Yuko said Vic was surprised at the parody and would’ve expected an apology. I asked how sincere her husband is about all the haiku and Zen sayings he spouts, or is it just part of his act? She said it’s 100% him. After college, he lived all around the world for five years and studied haiku and the history of the samurai, etc. and really respects different cultures. He’s taught her things about the Japanese culture that she didn’t know.”
“In any case,” Aoki now says, “MANAA looks forward to working with KFI on projects that will help create a better understanding of and support for the Asian American community.”
This is not the first time MANAA has asked a KFI disc jockey to apologize for comments made on the air. In 1996, MANAA and representatives from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (now Asian Americans Advancing Justice), National Hispanic Media Coalition and Nosotros held a meeting with station management and morning man Bill Handel after he said of Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, “I’m tired of seeing slanted-eyed figure skaters winning all the time” and “When I look at a box of Wheaties, I don’t wanna see eyes that’re like all slanted and Oriental and almond-shaped. I want American eyes looking at me!”
During a Wednesday meeting, Aoki told Handel he was going to call him on Friday at noon to see if he was going to make an on-air apology. If not, at 12:01, MANAA’s supporters would begin going after his advertisers. At 9 a.m., three hours before the deadline, Handel made the apology — the first of his career. To see it, go to the 1:48 mark in “History of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA),” narrated by Casey Kasem. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUQHlhn3KUM&t=696s)
Last March, MANAA got Jay Leno to apologize for making a series of jokes about Koreans and Chinese eating dogs and Chinese restaurants serving dogs and cats while host of “The Tonight Show” and in 2019 while a guest judge on “America’s Got Talent.” The apology came after MANAA asked the producers of his upcoming game show “You Bet Your Life” to fire him as host or the group would go after their advertisers.