When the first car zoomed by only about a foot to our left as we pedaled uphill from Rose City Radio on Southwest Bancroft Street to the Willamette Greenway bike path, Jammin' 95.5 on-air personality PK said solemnly, "I think I'm beginning to understand."
The radio host had just gotten his first taste of why a segment on the Thursday, July 13, program of his nationally syndicated morning show, the PlayHouse, has drawn hundreds of concerned (and occasionally threatening) emails and voicemails from bike activists and groups as far away as Australia. As first reported by Jonathan Maus on BikePortland.org the next day, PK allegedly said over the air, "If you're a cyclist, you should know that I exist, that I don't care about you, that I don't care about your life." Then he and his crew continued to voice anger toward cyclists, later applauding the news of a biker being hit by a car (see Murmurs, WW, July 19, 2006).
City Commissioner Sam Adams released an official statement on July 19 decrying PK's words, claiming they "could negatively impact the safety of Portland," a town that, although it was named "Best Overall Cycling City" by Bicycling magazine in March, saw five cyclists killed in traffic between June and August 2005 and tensions between bikers and drivers soar.
The station has refused to make public a recording of that fateful broadcast, as it does with all other episodes of the PlayHouse, and although Maus' BikePortland.org posts acknowledge that station general manager Tim McNamara apologized for the incident, PK himself had certainly made no retraction. After personally being heckled on Southeast 20th Avenue by a motorist echoing one of PK's remarks, "You're not a car," I figured the best way to get the radio host to change his tune was to get a bike between his legs (an idea first put forth by Maus).
I was surprised when PK agreed to go for a ride. I was even more surprised when, after a couple of miles into his first bike ride since he was 17 years old (I lent him my roomate's white-and-red '80s-era Centurion), it became clear to me that the host, well-known for his offensive material—often at the expense of women, the overweight or the handicapped—was a nice guy.
We stopped under a tree next to the river, and PK told me he and his six-person host team love working at the locally owned 95.5. "We're free to be ourselves," he said, toying with the light-blue bike helmet I also lent him for the ride. Yet this calm, well-spoken man in his late 20s seemed very different from the loud, acidic voice I'd heard on the radio (the PlayHouse earned three WW Rogue of the Week nominations in 2003). He admits, "Sometimes I get so heated up in the moment that I don't articulate as well as I should."
That was the case Thursday, July 13. PK says he never directly encouraged hatred or violence and merely made a poor joke. But he admits the joke went too far: "It was one of those times where you look back and go, yeah, I was an idiot there," he says. "To the people that were affected by it, I absolutely apologize."
I believed PK's apology was sincere, but in order to make him really sorry, I led him downtown, where road tensions are highest. As we turned onto Southwest Ash Street, the radio host said, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little afraid." PK's face would have betrayed any boasts of composure, anyway, as we rode through heavy midday traffic on Southwest Broadway, dodging opening car doors and delivery trucks in the bike lane. At one point, PK stood frozen at a green light until it changed. He later told me he was worried that someone making a right turn wouldn't see him.
"That was a workout," an out-of-breath PK huffed as we rolled back into the radio station parking lot two hours later. "No wonder I would get the death threats. You guys got balls," he told me. "In my car, I never looked at those intersections as the least bit dangerous, and you guys just zip through them completely fearless." I told him that for experienced cyclists like me (and freelance photographer Chris Ryan, who rode with us) the ride was actually pretty tame.
When we began the journey, PK asked if we should ride on the street or the sidewalk. He also said his on-air comments were directed at "bicyclists who think they're cars." But by the end of the ride, PK had shifted gears, saying he gets angry with cyclists for the same reason cyclists get angry at cars: "For not... being careful, not slowing down and being cautious."
Although these comments could be taken as lip service from a professional fast-talker trying to keep his job, ultimately, I think PK is being genuine. And even if he was just making nice for the media, the fact that he went on a photographed urban bike ride, one which he admitted on the air the next day was "a lot of fun" and brought him to "the middle of the road" on the issue, might help settle down any fans his words whipped into a frenzy and undo some of the damage done by his broadcast—which BikePortland.org's Maus claims is the goal of many in the cyclist community.
What's more, after our ride we also talked about how PK spends $100 a week on gas to commute to work from Portland's western suburbs. It had crossed his mind to try to ride, he said, but busy Southwest Barbur Boulevard worried him. Next week, I'm going to meet him at his house at 1 am and bike with him to the station for work (yes, I'm completely serious). As an influential drive-time personality, PK could act as an example for many people who have never tried bike commuting. If his tirade against cyclists ultimately turns him into one, I think it will be one of the best possible outcomes of his reckless and deplorable broadcast.