There is a lot of hoopla over FCC cracking down on indecency over the airwaves, Clear Channel dumping Howard Stern, firing Bubba the Love Sponge, and related matters of live TV delays in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nipple flash.
But veteran radio observer Sean Ross takes a wider view of the situation:
- while broadcasters have now been compelled to address sexually explicit content—and are likely to overcompensate in that area—it is only one symptom of how the relationship between broadcasters and their community went badly awry in recent years.
After nearly two decades in which broadcasters had determined that any on-air controversy that didn’t compel your firing (and some that did) would only increase your legend, the “roadkill barbecue” backlash was the first time that GMs really had to consider that not all publicity might be good and not all public outrage might be survivable. Then Sept. 11 happened and suddenly broadcasters were needed to console their communities, not provoke them. But even that cataclysm only briefly kept broadcasters from upping the ante. The “sex in church” stunt that led to the firing of Opie & Anthony was just one of three radio stunts that week that led to somebody’s arrest.
…. firing Bubba three years later, taking Howard Stern off of Clear Channel stations, forcing air-talent to pay part of any FCC fines, or announcing a policy of “zero tolerance” might assuage Congress or the FCC (don’t bet on it, though). But it doesn’t make up for nearly two decades in which managers taught their talent that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Beyond that, neither “zero tolerance” nor the FCC’s sudden attention to three year old indecency complaints gets at the truly disturbing development of the last decade: the adversarial relationship between a station and its community that so many stations and air talents decided to foster. Stunts were no longer effective unless somebody threw up or the morning sidekick was arrested for carrying a chainsaw in public. April Fools Day could come and go, and it was still OK to tell listeners that Britney Spears was dead, or in your station parking lot.
The seeming determination by broadcasters that it was okay to wreak havoc in the community was, at least for the author, as perverse as any song lyric, any bit involving X-rated cartoon characters, or any brief unveiling of Janet Jackson.
….Indecency, of course, is a Congressional hot button in a way that irresponsibility is not. Had Clear Channel not decided to bring the Howard Stern caller who used a racial epithet to Congress’ attention, chances are that it would have provoked no legislator, unlike all those stripper guests of Howard. And losing the public’s goodwill doesn’t; frighten broadcasters like the possibility of losing a license. So, going forward, the night jock that inadvertently lets the “F-word” on the air will be in much greater career jeopardy than the morning team that decides to tell kids that there is no Santa.
….Broadcasters also have the opportunity to look at how they’re perceived by the community, come up with a broader strategy for how they want their station to relate to the audience, and then foster that philosophy among their talent. That’s not just “zero tolerance,” which makes the air talent an enemy, not a partner. Developing a wider ranging approach to what’s appropriate is, admittedly, a tall order and one that may only be possible over time.
And it is this lack of empathy with a community that is the worst result of mass corporate media ownership, a la Clear Channel – I hope this larger problem figures in the scrutiny the media is now under. Irresponsibility is much worse than indecency.