November 2007

Getting booted, coming back, staying on air!

Getting booted, coming back, staying on air!

When we first started to think about this comment it was pretty clear that Don Imus was likely to be back on air at some time but we were expecting various others who had pushed too far to remain in other employment including and DJ Star (Troi Torain) who to our surprise has been hired for a return to the New York airwaves (See RNW Nov 29 ) and Doug "Greaseman" Tracht, who remains without any significant outlet according to the Washington Post in a report that listed a number pf people who had and hadn't succeeded in making a comeback after various offences.

The first factor is obvious - as in most if not all parts of the world, there's a different law for the rich or powerful to that for the rest and that there'd be plenty of potential interest in Imus's show, estimated as worth anything between USD 15 million and USD 20 million plus a year to WFAN-AM, his former station, which syndicated it to some 60 other stations.

The same was true for Opie and Anthony and Howard Stern and they up on satellite radio, the former - who arer also back on terrestrial - having been fired following a number of tasteless stunts and the latter having attracted indecency fines.

Stern brings us to the second factor, the kind of "offence", that is unforgivable. In his case it was a matter of those fines, American sensibilities, it seems, being more attuned to preventing embarrassment from a mention of natural bodily functions than matters of bullying or racist and misogynistic comments (Torain on a number of occasions) or crude and tasteless ones (Tract's "they wonder why we drag them behind trucks" comments about a song's quality with the reference being to the 1988 murder of James Byrd, who was dragged behind a pickup truck by two white supremacists).

There are, of course, plenty more examples of talk hosts who are prone to all or some of the above but who have escaped with suspensions and moved on to other things - as for instance Craig Carton formerly with Ray Rossi in the "Jersey Guys" who is now part of the WFAN team that replaced Imus.

And of course there's the ultimate unforgivable - upsetting the advertisers, the reason Emmis was supposed to have dropped Torain before Clear Channel picked him up.

It's all a business decision.

It's hard from the above not to conclude that in the US at least it's a matter of business: Be as obnoxious as you like and you're OK so long as you make money for the owners but cost them money -through fines or losing advertisers because of a protest - and you're out.

The rules as to what is a good business decision, however, vary according to many factors including the market, the influence of any group that may be upset and the size of the advertiser and broadcaster involved.

For a small advertiser in a particular location - say a GM dealership in Detroit - a station that has high ratings amongst the potential customer base may well be attractive even if it carries bigoted remarks that upset a significant minority of the area's population, never mind a minority that is sizeable elsewhere.

For GM, however, placing adverts with such a station is much more problematical since protests over that one station could lead to loss of business nationwide if a boycott drive ensues.

The same principle applies to station owners. The owner of a single station or a cluster in Detroit with maybe a few other stations in Michigan can make a decision based on local circumstances but a big corporation cannot.

CBS, for example, were it the owner just of WFAN would have faced a major loss had it dumped Imus's show but as the owner of a major TV network the balance shifted dramatically for it risks its business and reputation all over the country over the issue and WFAN, never mind the Imus show, is not a major factor for corporate decision making as a whole.

Who can you afford to offend?

From the above we conclude its mainly a matter of who you offend and how powerful and committed are the groups behind them.

You can, for example, get away with saying things about Arabs or Moslems that might raise some protests but that if translated into similar comments about Israel or Jews would lead to a major firestorm of protest.

Similarly you can get away more with comments about Asian Americans and Hispanics than you can with similar comments about African-Americans.

And behind that all is the dollar: Upsetting groups in demand by advertisers will do you far more damage than upsetting demographics they don't care about too much.

So Rush Limbaugh can sleep soundly - he is as near invulnerable as is possible when it comes to making biased and bigoted comments but were he starting up in a small market the things he does now might well have ensured he got no further.

And what do you do if there has been a major row?

Here things are also very much determined by market considerations since if Limbaugh were to apologize abjectly for getting something wrong concerning a Democrat he might well do himself more harm than trying his usual tactic of attacking the person again..

Imus can't try this and we think he would be best advised to bring up the issues that led to his firing and apologize gracefully then move on to other topics.

As for Torain, we can't see him changing his ways although he might temper his comments and, as he's going to work for a small company, get away with a fair amount.

What he gets away with, however, would not go down well with the Imus audience and that brings us to the final point.

It all comes back ultimately to the audience and obviously there are a lot of Americans out there who seem to find it entertaining to listen to abuse and the maligning of people or institutions, however little that may be justified. They aren't enough on their own, however if other groups with commitment and influence push the broadcaster and advertisers hard.

The host therefore has to work out a balance between keeping the audience, who may expect the kind of show that led to the trouble and the advertisers who will want ratings success but also want to feel confident they won't be the target of a well organized opposition group.


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