| Of public and
advertiser pressures on stations.
Over the past month, the outcry over the tsunami song parody that
led to firings at Emmis's Hot 97 in New York turned our thoughts
to the issue of the pressures the public - and advertisers - can
put on a radio station over a particular issue and how far this
is to be welcomed.
We still haven't come to firm conclusions but are concerned that
a comparatively small but vociferous group can exert an influence
beyond that which it is entitled to exert unless there is some spine
in the boards of media companies. Is there? Well, look at the comments
made this month by Clear Channel's legal officer about the settlement
of its lawsuit with Howard Stern! (See RNW
Feb 25 )!
Certainly where listeners re-tune or switch off there can be no
denying that this is their right but the effects of this are diminished
currently by the delay in getting ratings and we suspect this will
remain the case however sophisticated a metering system is used
to replace current diary-based systems although well automated systems
should be able to give daily rating if there is the demand for it.
We doubt that the radio companies would want to go for daily ratings
though and cannot see any major benefits for them in going along
this path. Thus the views of the ultimate arbiter of offence caused
- the wider public reaction - will always be seen through a mist:
So what of the other influences?
Listener pressures through
Where there is a significant amount of feedback
from a lot of individuals, the first question that needs to
be answered is how far this comes through an e-mail campaign
thus skewing the numbers to those who are well versed in organizing
such campaigns, the equivalent of the organized petition:
Old fashioned letter writing in the days before the word processor
took enough extra effort to ensure that those making a comment
were fairly serious about the matter.
What it showed then, of course, was how miniscule was the
proportion of people who could be bothered to take action
and even now the same seems to be true of even the well-organized
Taking the prime example of recent years, the Super Bowl nipple,
there may have been what seemed to be universal condemnation
but even if no allowance is made for the organized campaign
behind the majority of protests sent to the Federal Communications
Commission, the total was hardly a stunning demonstration
of mass disapproval in percentage terms.
Logic would dictate therefore a fairly limited range of conclusions
about the "outrage" within a very limited range
1: Most people either don't care at all or, even if they do,
don't find the issue important enough to do anything.
2: If the programme remains popular, its attractions are such
that most of those listening feel these outweigh any negatives.
In the case of events like the Super Bowl the subsequent fall
in audiences and success of shows including females in underwear
would seem to indicate that the audience far from being outraged,
largely preferred what it used to get.
3: Any other action taken has at best limited legitimacy -
in other words though you may be able to argue a good case
against the values of those who listen to or watch a broadcast
( and that applies just as much to those who like to hear
"dirty talk" as some would describe it as to those
who continue to listen to the bigoted comment from many talk
hosts) , it is almost impossible to deny that such action
is that of a minority opposing the majority.
We would conclude, therefore, that were a campaign be successful
enough to take a show down in the ratings, it indicates so
widespread a reaction as to fully justify withdrawal of advertising
support on straight commercial grounds but if the show remains
where it was in audience terms there should be concern about
removal of adverts.
Which takes us to the more troublesome ground of adverts withdrawn
because of organized campaigns for advertisers to boycott
Any such withdrawal is effectively a call for censorship because
a minority disapproves of something and even when we agree
with the views of objectors we remain concerned that the issue
of what is to be on airwaves leased from the public could
come down to the influence of a small number of determined
people on those with corporate power.
Being quite blunt about it, advertisers are looking for ears
they can use to gain a financial return from selling something
and in general there are no morals applied. We don't object
to a company making clear a statement of its principles and
then limiting its selection of advertising in relation to
this but we regard it as the height of hypocrisy when what
s a craven reaction to pressure is dressed up as principle.
If you want reasoned non-partisan comment with keen attention
to what is true, you certainly wouldn't be listening to most
US syndicated talk hosts.
In the case of pressures from advertisers there would seem
to be even more reason for concern about the nature of the
pressure applied, particularly in view of the groups likely
to apply pressures: One example we would cite here, resisted
at the time and without influence as far as we know, was the
campaign against Boston public station WBUR-FM
and US National Public Radio (NPR) to change
their reporting of Israel (See RNW
Oct 27, 2001).
That campaign is expected to have cost the station at least
a million dollars, probably twice that, and we commented as
the sums grew that a "
system which favours the
most fanatical and well-financed and organized lobbies, is
likely to cause significant long-term damage [to US interests]
We see no reason to change that judgment and, much as we shared
the abhorrence of the tsunami song parody, also feel that
concern needs to be expressed over the reaction to this in
comparison to other tasteless, bigoted, prejudiced or misogynist
Emmis, like most US radio companies in the examples we have
noted over the years, did not react according to ethical standards
it had set out and defined but to the degree of public protest
and consequent withdrawal of support by advertisers.
The advertisers must presumably have known the nature of the
output of the stations concerned and thus they also acted
for commercial not ethical reasons.
Sub-Mob rule or considered
The concern with the above is that reaction can come therefore
to be ultimately what we would term sub-mob rule, the reaction
to a mob-style reaction by a small group. We have seen disturbing
mob situations in the UK where a campaign by a tabloid led to
a mob attacking a paediatrician because the [ignorant in this
case] mob confused the terms paediatrician with paedophile and
indeed situations in the US where Sikhs came under suspicion or
were attacked because they wore turbans and thus thought by some
to be linked with Osama bin Laden.
It should be of concern that the fortunes of a station could come
to be determined by the actions of a campaign by small but determined
group picking on an example that does deserve condemnation, manipulating
the facts to get wider support of the level of commitment often
displayed by those signing a petition (general agreement but no
time to look at the specifics), parlaying this to the advertisers
in such a way that they feel it commercially sensible to avoid
the station, and thus gaining a most undemocratic voice.
At one time we might have felt that the institutions and traditions
of the US were such as to render this fear if not risible at least
not a particularly serious one. Currently enough examples are
coming out of the manipulation of media for political reasons
and of the determined nature of some groups to get their way for
the fear to be anything but risible.
We don't think there is much that can be done about it but at
least would feel that it warrants thought by broadcasters, and
indeed by other companies, about setting out statements of ethical
standards so that there is a clear basis on which they should
be judged when such incidents occur.
It's not so different after all to the issue of indecency standards
-- force the relevant people to set down clearly what they feel
is the basis on which decisions should be made and accept that
they then have to take part in public debate to justify or modify
their rules or statements.
Once that is done there is the equivalent of a rule of law and
democracy rests a little sounder: Duck it and you have the antithesis
of democracy - inconsistent standards that can easily be manipulated
to the short term benefit of a few but ultimate longer term disadvantage
of the society as a whole.
We'd prefer the first even if it did let some stations off the
hook a little over things we're personally opposed to and would
anticipate some enjoyment in reading the ethical statements of
We'd appreciate it even more were it mandatory for all public
companies, broadcasters, and shows to publish online a short annual
review of how far they have met their published standards over
the previous year with the facility for comment thereafter. NPR
after all does much of this already in greater depth
through its ombudsman.
What you think? Please E-mail