Sunday, July 01, 2007

PCSC Case 2: Are Radio Personalities held to a higher standard...

The question before the court this session is: In the current media environment, are radio personalities being held to a different and tougher standard than their peers in print and on television?

To answer that question, we must examine both if radio personalities are held to a different standard than their peers in the other mass media and then determine if they are in fact being held to a tougher standard.

And the tempest that began this whole discussion is naturally the firing of Don Imus and his producer for their remarks about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team (comments that were in part lifted from a Spike Lee movie). The Imus incident had an equivalent immediate effect on the reporting of radio incidents that the Janet Jackson incident had on television… the operative word that is immediate. But the thing to remember is it was public outcry and not a regulatory offense that led to the dismissal of Don Imus. He did not break the law, and no FCC fines were levied in the case, despite the best efforts of people like Al Sharpton.

There are other incidents in the recent past, from a New York City shock jock stating he was looking to have inappropriate sexual contact with the daughter of a rival to someone castrating a pig on the air to even a pair of shock jocks playing an audio portion of the Nick Berg murder with music, jokes and laughter that have caused a stir.

The reason it seems like radio hosts are now being held to a higher standard is now a precedent has been set with the firing of Don Imus… and with the memories of that incident fresh in the minds of other interest groups, they have seen an opportunity to push their own agenda, and because of that, the networks that carry potentially offensive material are a little wary of courting controversy. The three recent widely known incidents (Imus, JV and Elvis and Opie and Anthony) have something else in common besides being offensive to a certain vocal segment of the population… all three programs were on the CBS radio network (Portions of Opie and Anthony’s XM show were being rebroadcast on CBS since April 2006), which means that the Imus situation was squarely pointed at one broadcaster, a broadcaster whose contact information is still fresh on the mind of those with a particular agenda.

Radio personalities, by and large, are allowed to express themselves in a much freer manner than their counterparts in print or on television because they aren’t as reliant on gatekeepers for the distribution of their content. Print journalists are constrained by editors and publishers who are often given the opportunity to have their sentiments and words softened or altered before they are publicly consumed, as well as some time to reconsider the way in which something is phrased. And in the world of television news and punditry, there are similar barriers to such free expression, because the use of scripts and teleprompters as well as a set list of reliable guests who present the information that is expected of them. And in many cases, such guest also employ a set of talking points which they consistently use across programs and networks. There are a lot of safety nets for the people appearing on these shows to avoid the wrong kind of controversy (by approaching the line, and not crossing it through clever editing and framing of issues). And on entertainment shows, it is usually the guests which court the controversy (one example that comes to mind is Sarah Silverman’s appearance on Conan O’Brien in July 2001 where she told a joke about getting out of jury duty by writing “I love Chinks” on her application), and not the hosts.

Therefore, it is general quite difficult to get through the filters and say something truly controversial. However, there is one venue on television where it is far easier to get into trouble, and that is any show that involves open debate of topics (as Bill Maher would likely be the first to admit), is also the most likely place to generate controversy because it is in that kind of setting where an off-the-cuff remark can turn into something much bigger.

Contrast that with the system radio hosts have. Radio personalities often don’t have the same kinds of intermediaries their peers in the other media do. In fact, for the most part, they have the freedom to explore topics at their own pace, and have ample time to fill on a daily basis (from two to five hours), and as such, there are fewer restrictions on what they can or cannot say, because frankly trying apply the same limits on those kinds of relatively freeform shows would require much tighter controls over the entire process which would lose much of its power and appeal. Controversial Civil Rights Lawyer and radio host Ron Kuby has stated, “Once you get beyond the FCC, a host is left to the discretion of a program director, station manager, bosses they’ve never seen, advertisers and a fickle public. What might be fine today results in a boycott tomorrow.”

And they are called shock jocks for a reason. They are encouraged to push the boundaries of good taste and court controversy on a daily basis. In fact, it is that very factor that Imus is using to dispute his firing, as there was a clause in his contract which stated that is exactly the kind of behavior that was expected of him. And in the arena of political punditry, the figures involved say the same sorts of things that draw fire for shock jocks, but because of the kind of reporting, very few groups and individuals try to bring the same kind of lobbying power to having their shows punished for their transgressions.

For the amount of latitude most of these figures have, a little controversy is a small price to pay, and given the sheer amount of work each of these radio personalities produces versus their counterparts on television and in print, the fact that there isn’t MORE controversy generated from their programs is surprising. I mean, if any one of us had to talk extemporaneously for ten to twenty-five hours a week to thousands or millions of listeners, we would probably say something within our first few days which would generate controversy.

Therefore while radio personalities are indeed held to a different standard, it is far from being a tougher one. So no, I do not think that radio personalities are being held to a higher standard than their counterparts in the other media. In fact, if anything, television for the purposes of entertainment seems to be the whipping boy for the entire media industry. I only have to mention such incidents as ABC’s reluctance to show Saving Private Ryan uncut on Memorial Day 2004, an event they had done twice before without major controversy, or Without a Trace’s recent run-in about a teen orgy scene, or even the period where the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family were going full bore against the networks over fleeting swearing during live events. Because the truth is, television personalities could never dream of getting away with some of the things their peers in radio do.

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