If you hang it out there on the edge, one of these days it might get cut off.
It’s one of those stories that seems to pop up every month or two. Radio announcer does some kind of “tasteless” prank on the air, community is outraged, management panics, host(s) get suspended or fired, everybody profits! (not)
Kyle Sandilands along with his co-host Jackie O on 2Day FM are the latest victims of what seems to be an endless cycle of radio pranks gone bad. If you haven’t heard, the syndicated morning duo in Sydney, Australia have landed in very hot water over one of their edgier on-air bits. In the grand tradition of wacky morning show stunts, Kyle and Jackie O invite a listener come into the studio to get hooked up to a lie detector. Kyle and Jackie O aired, what will undoubtedly be their last lie detector segment, with a fourteen-year-old girl. During the course of the on-air stunt, the girl revealed that she had been raped at the age of 12. The public went wild, management had no idea how to handle it, even the Prime Minister of Australia chimed in, and as it stands now, the duo is off the air “indefinitely.” Kyle also got thrown to the wolves and found himself axed from his gig as a co-hosts on Australian Idol.
Just a few weeks ago at KLBJ in Austin, Todd and Don were removed from their morning show duties after Don Pryor used the alleged ethnic slur “wetback” repeatedly on the air. Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross found themselves in the middle of a media tidal wave a few months ago after the Radio 2 duo left messages on the answering machine of actor Andrew Sachs, in which they made “lewd” comments about his granddaughter. The Prime Minister got involved there too, calling for “appropriate action,” whatever that means. Brand was removed from the air and Ross garnered a suspension. Of course there’s Imus, with his firing for the “nappy-headed-hos” comment, Howard Stern’s endless entanglements with the FCC and Infinity, Bubba the Love Sponge’s animal cruelty arrest for broadcasting a recording of a pig being slaughtered and Limbaugh’s painkiller-gate.
Just to set the record straight, at least in the States, a radio talent can pretty much say any damn thing he wants. The only exceptions are that it has to be an opinion or factual (or risk reaping the whirlwind of slander laws) and fit in with the FCC’s rather vague obscenity laws (see George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” 1978 Supreme Court decision). The decision to “censure” or “punish” the host for uttering something unpopular or culturally anathematic, rests solely on the shoulders of his or her employers. Contractual obligations aside, a radio talent works essentially “at will” for his employer. Many contracts of high-profile (and for that matter, low profile) personalities, contain a “morals clause,” to give the employer protection and recourse if the talent, well, does what a talent does. Oh the endless logic-puzzles that strangle up my mind even contemplating a Howard Stern morality clause.
So who’s to blame for the radio pranks that spin out of control? Is it Kyle Sandilands, Howard Stern and KLBJ’s Todd and Don? No. The “blame” rests squarely on the shoulders of both the employers of controversial radio talent and the government regulating bodies that set the “standards.”
When a broadcasting employer hires a high-profile and controversial talent, they should be going into the arrangement with both eyes wide open. They are hiring the Kyle Sandilands’ and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world because they make controversy and it gets them listeners, and in kind, revenue. When CBS Radio fired Imus for the “nappy headed hos” comment, (in my humble opinion :-)) Les Moonvies showed the ultimate hypocrisy when he said, “I believe all of us have been deeply upset and revulsed by the statements that were made on our air about the young women who represented Rutgers University.” CBS and Moonvies knew exactly what they had on the air with Imus. Why would they be so shocked and appalled when listeners and special interest groups got their panties in a bunch over his on-air antics? It’s all fun and games for the broadcast employers as long as the cash keeps rolling in, but once a controversy comes along that they cant keep from cascading out of control, it’s time to get out of the kitchen and help fan the flames of righteous indignation.
In many ways I can understand bowing to the pressure of public opinion by the media companies. The media corporations hire the personalities to generate revenue and if their shenanigans start to effect the bottom line, it’s a pure business decision. Just don’t pretend the public can’t see through what often feels like media execs standing on some moral high-ground, while we watch and listen to the shifting-sands of their cash-cow “morality” every day on the radio and television. But we can’t be too quick to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the “evil corporate empire” of consolidated media, there’s another moral boogieman in the closet… the government.
Especially in the US, radio programmers and executives are endlessly playing a shell-game with increasingly opaque obscenity laws. Radio broadcasters have to deal with moving targets of “safe harbor” and convoluted definitions of “indecent, obscene and profane.” Add to this a double-standard that appears to exist between what you can “get away with” in print, television, radio and the Internet. Sexual language in many teen magazines would most certainly draw a fine for a broadcaster. Let’s not even bring up the fact that Oprah can air a daytime show on “Female Anatomy 101” without the FCC raising an eyebrow. Let’s see how far a radio morning show would get with that topic, without drawing irate phone calls and complaints to the FCC from stay-at-home mom’s who sit at home glassy-eyed watching the same material from their hypnotic Oprah god.
The haphazard distain we draw for controversial radio hosts only illuminates the hypocrisy of our own society. We laugh at the “slurs,” as long as it’s not our race. As listeners and viewers we glory in the train-wrecks of other’s lives as they are connected to lie detectors, as long as it doesn’t step over some invisible line that we can’t quite define (but somehow we know it when we see it). So don’t blame the radio hosts, blame ourselves, for the hypocrisy we foment in the corporate and governmental sectors, while encouraging their behavior with our ears and our wallets, only to turn our backs on our edgy media companions when they do “cross that line.”
My God I pine for the freewheeling days of broadcasting, when nothing was sacred. When the darkness of ethnic “slurs” and “inappropriate behavior” was the highest rated, most controversial and beloved half-hour on television. Where is Archie Bunker, now that we need him the most.
Your humble, yet opinionated RadioNX admin,
*John Ford is a Broadcast programming professional with nearly three decades of experience in local and network major market radio Programming and Consulting. Including stints as a VP of New Media Sabo Media, Network Programming and Imaging at ABC Radio Networks, Greenstone Media. Programming, Imaging and Morning/Talk positions at WIOD/Miami, WLLZ/Detroit, KZPS/Dallas, The Edge/Dallas, Zeta 4/Miami, WSHE/Miami and others. John’s also an uber-geek who holds numerous Apple Technical Certifications and enjoys breaking and fixing code and kit. Reach him at his website johnford.net.