October 2003

Talk Radio - the province of bigots and the crude?

Talk Radio - the province of bigots and the crude?

Within the last month, one US talk host has been fired following racially charged comments made on air in Rochester, two others in Boston have been suspended for a similar lapse, and the daddy of them all, Rush Limbaugh, lost his part-time TV sports slot for his racially charged comments.
In the same period the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has levied its maximum fines on industry giants Clear Channel and Viacom for indecency offences
The response from the hosts, so far anyway, has been an apology followed by subsequent comments that threw doubt on its sincerity in Rochester, apologies that may yet preserve the hosts jobs in Boston, and "I was right" from El Rushbo.

Had the latter still been a small-time host, we suspect that he would never have become a big-time one, but of more concern is the nature of a medium where the loud mouths dominate to the exclusion of the reasonable.

As far as the corporations are concerned, they seem to be lying low for the moment and, we suspect, may opt to pay these particular fines rather than arouse more hostility by fighting them through the appeals process.

So a number of questions arise including that of whether talk radio is necessarily the province of bigots and the crude, whether this is the case for commercial radio where the bottom line is more important than any element of fairness, and whether anything should be done about the situation?

The nature of talk radio.

To the question of whether talk radio need be bigoted and crude, we would unhesitatingly answer that talk radio can be interesting, informative, educative, controversial, and engaging without being crude or bigoted.

At the same time, there does seem to be a link between the dictates of the market and the nature of the broadcasting.

Where public service broadcasters have a remit defined in part, to use the BBC terms, to educate and inform as well as entertain, there seems to be a fairly universal pattern of a different nature of the broadcasts.

Rush Limbaugh - in our view a bigot if ever there was one, would not fare well in such an environment - and wouldn't get paid nearly as much either. This we would put down to different motivations than apply in the commercial sector, and as linked to the remit rather than profit.

So is there a relationship between the commercial imperatives of talk radio when it is there to make money - and thus tending to target a limited demographic - and the broadcast of crudity and bigotry?

In general, in the English-speaking world at least, it would seem that there is. There the broadcasters target specific demographics and the hosts play to the prejudices of the audience or attract an audience sharing their own prejudices.
In either case, regulation cam ameliorate the degree to which prejudices are broadcast unchallenged and we would note that prior to the abolition of the "fairness doctrine" in the US, the current form of talk radio there did not exist, suggesting that regulation can also play a part.

Changing the balance through regulation.

It is clear to us that regulation in terms of prohibitions on the broadcast of obscenities, racial slurs and religious bigotry can significantly affect the nature of the material that is broadcast.

In countries where these matters are taken seriously and there is a real change of losing a licence, broadcasters calculate the limits much more carefully than in those areas where renewal is effectively automatic and sanctions are limited.

We don't necessarily see regulation that edges its way into censorship as being an ideal solution but, in the same way that freedom of speech does not include the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, neither we would argue is it unreasonable for a society to insist that there are limits on the broadcast on airwaves leased from the public of rabble-rousing propaganda, bigotries and falsehoods.

We would be against barring views from the air but at the same time have no qualms about a system that insists upon a foundation of factual information for broadcasts and significant correction of factual errors when unjustifiable opinions (in other words, prejudices, rather than reasonably-held opinions) are aired.

In our view it would be quite reasonable where a complainant can substantiate the complaint in terms of factual errors that were previously broadcast, the host concerned should have to air a factual statement of correction sufficient times to ensure that most of those who heard the original will hear the correction (we would suggest at least four times in every show for a week would be about right - and it would soon geld those hosts who are careless about their facts!).

To those who would object, we simply ask whether, for example, broadcasters who denied the realities of the Holocaust or attacked a minority group in a manner likely to lead to physical attacks, should be allowed to continue their broadcasts -and we would emphasize broadcasts, which of their nature use leased public resources -- without sanction?

This approach, however, is never going to be effectively applied where the principles of the "marketplace" are held to supercede those of fairness and accuracy. In such cases the only regulation is financial.

Changing the balance through fear of financial loss.

Where the market economy rules and there are legions of lawyers and lobbyists to aid the vested interests of those who hold broadcasting licences, we fear that only some kind of organized economic sanctions can be effective.

These are already widespread - look, for example, at the removal from the airwaves of the Dixie Chicks after they made comments attacking US President George W. Bush, the loss because of its reporting of the middle east of around USD 1 million a year in funding by Boston public station WBUR-FM after pressure from a group that we think can fairly be described as part of the pro-Israel lobby, and indeed we suspect (although Entercom deny a direct link) between the withdrawal of advertising from WEEI-AM and the suspension of its hosts.

We regard such actions as a cause for more concern than formal regulation, which at least related to published rules that can be debated openly, since they can often be related to strongly-held beliefs that ought be subject to challenge rather than to matters of fairness and accuracy, but cannot deny their effectiveness.

That being so, the question arises as to how far, if at all, such public actions and boycotts should be encouraged and in the end we rather feel they should not be, even when we have agreed with the outcome.

When it is a matter of public protests that lead to debate of an issue, we have no problems but when it is a withdrawal of advertising or sponsorship, we think we are moving along a very dangerous road.

For that reason, although we have no time for the comments of John Dennis and Gerry Callahan about Metco gorillas, we are concerned that Entercom's decision to suspend them came only after Blue Cross had cancelled advertising and protests continued.

We would much rather have had open published regulation that forced the hosts to tackle the issues on air repeatedly - if it turned off the audience, that would reduce the value in one sense but still be a chastening - and costly - experience for them and the broadcaster concerned and a serious deterrent to any others tempted to make similar comments.

As it is, it seems to us, following the dictates of the market in this kind of case is a negative for reason, for a fair society, and for the hosts themselves. Far better had there been an openly set regulatory limit that they knew in advance could mean loss of jobs and equally far fairer to set guidelines for the broadcaster who would know how far they could go without risking licence revocation.

In the end such matters in our view are matters for democratic debate and decision making not for the marketplace where values are on a different plane.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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