Cash For Cockheads: The Economics of Taste In Commercial Radio
Like you, The Enthusiast has heard and read plenty so far about the appalling incident on the Kyle and Jackie O Show in which a 14-year-old girl was forced to admit on air, while attached to a lie detector, that she’d been raped at the age of 12. So far we’ve hesitated to comment.
But by now, I think we can see where the cards have fallen. Basically, this incident has spotlighted a commercial radio culture that appears to view economic notions of ‘attention’ – and the related notion of ‘the deal’ – as the sole indicators of successful broadcasting.
When a radio show is winning in the ratings and pulling in sponsorship dollars, when its presenters earn seven-figure amounts and are cross-promoted personalities with ‘presences’ in various media, the rightness or wrongness of what they do is moot. They are succeeding at generating the attention and brokering the deals that structure the commercial broadcasting industry.
It was with a sense of disbelief that the Australian media reported today that Kyle and Jackie O have been nominated for best on-air team, best station promotion and best networked program in the 2009 Australian Commercial Radio Awards. It seems outrageous that a pair of broadcasters who’ve been comprehensively shitcanned by public opinion, and who are currently languishing in the sin-bin pending an internal investigation, can be in line for their industry’s top honours.
But the ACRAs are industry-conferred awards, and they’re judged on the basis of work from March 2008 to April 2009. The awards operate according to the industry’s own logics, not publicly negotiated ideas of ‘appropriateness’, ‘ethics’ or ‘taste’.
Indeed, public debates over appropriate, ethical or tasteful broadcasting aren’t especially useful in critiquing radio industry culture, because they further drive the cycle of attention-grabbing and deal-making. At the time of writing, the top result of a Google search for “Kyle Sandilands” was the op-ed piece that a bewildered Sandilands penned for The Punch. Punch editor David Penberthy even credits the deal with Sandilands for boosting traffic to The Punch so much that rival Fairfax had to push back the launch of its competing National Times site.
At The Enthusiast, we’re finding it quite difficult to join in the public schadenfreude accompanying Kyle and Jackie O’s recent public humiliation, and to add to the strongly hateful language people are using to talk about them. Yes, this was a reprehensible episode. But it wasn’t an unexpected one.
The Kyle and Jackie O Show is quite openly a moral vacuum where people’s basic human dignity is denied, private revelations are publicly exploited for entertainment value, and everything – and everyone – has a price. Many media excoriations of Kyle and Jackie O have revealed the economic motives behind the show by deploying the language of prostitution – of converting human degradation into capital.
“In fact, so untutored is Sandilands in even elementary civility that he’s put up pictures of his wife Tamara Jaber, half-naked, groping another woman, in the hope that by selling her body he might also shift her CDs,” writes Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun.
“Austereo are sluts to a headline,” fumes Paul Cashmere at Undercover. “This is a company that cannot bend over quick enough if it means higher ratings. That is why a puppet show like Kyle Sandilands is so important to them. Kyle Sandilands is their perfect call-girl.”
Yet Kyle and Jackie O aren’t the entire problem. If they vanished off the face of the earth today, the Austereo culture that nurtured them will find other individuals through whom to express itself. And it’s a culture that only understands and responds to garnering attention and cutting deals.
Hence, the most damaging aspects of the Kyle and Jackie O debacle for Austereo are the withdrawal of key sponsors and the loss of Sandilands’s cross-promotional abilities through his other gigs. Sandilands just isn’t as valuable now that he has lost his hosting role on Australian Idol, and now that Ten, American Express, Optus and Qantas have reneged on sponsorship deals worth millions.
However, the key point here is that economics is only tangentially connected to ethics; sponsors may use rhetorics of “horror” and “disapproval”, but they are acting under the pressure of consumers’ moral outrage. “They just mirror the concerns of their customers,” said commenter Chistery at Crikey‘s Pure Poison blog. “Considering most consumers don’t tune in, it only gains traction when the stunt is considered so appalling that it becomes newsworthy. I wonder [if] many complaints to sponsors were by people who never listen to their radio show?”
Likewise, reports following Idol‘s debut last night attribute its modest ratings to the Kyle and Jackie O scandal… but the reportage still uses the attention-metric of ratings to determine ‘success’ or ‘failure’. “Sydney audiences in particular switched off the first audition episode, with ratings dropping 12.7 per cent on last year,” noted AAP.
We find it especially intriguing that relatively few other commercial radio personalities have commented on the latest scandal. Channel Ten’s The 7pm Project could have offered an insider’s perspective on the decision-making processes in live radio, since presenter Dave Hughes has long hosted Nova’s breakfast show. However, the show’s coverage on the day the scandal broke lasted a mere 25 seconds.
“What I want to know is what part of lie detector, child, sex and live radio interview didn’t ring some alarm bells along the way? Like, get responsible,” was Charlie Pickering’s analysis.
“I’ve had my moments with Kyle before; I won’t deny that,” offered Dave Hughes, “and I’ve done some dodgy things on radio, but that’s pretty dodgy.”
And that was it. Hughes has a well-known dislike of Sandilands, so it’s unlikely that he was holding back out of solidarity. Without wanting to be unnecessarily conspiratorial, we wonder whether Hughes’s own position as a multi-platform media ‘personality’ made him feel somehow implicated, and somewhat unwilling to rock the boat.
A striking exception to this reticence came last week at the Sydney launch of digital radio, when many radio personalities took the opportunity for some jocular pot-shots at Kyle and Jackie O. Even retired Golden Tonsils himself, John Laws, couldn’t resist sinking the boot in a phone interview with Vega’s breakfast team.
“I think Kyle Sandilands is a figment of his own imagination, frankly,” said Laws. “I think he’s reasonably devoid of talent. I don’t think he has an exceptional voice. In fact I’ve never met him but were I to meet him I’m sure I’d find him a very annoying person. And I think in addition to being annoying, we would be not unreasonable to think he was stupid.”
This is rich indeed, as Laws has only recently demonstrated his continued commitment to commercial radio economics. Getting wind that 3AW presenter Neil Mitchell had called him an “idiot” and criticised his “grubby ways”, Laws rang Mitchell in high dudgeon, demanding an explanation.
Mitchell’s explanation was, effectively, “Uhh, remember cash for comment?” And, despite an ABA inquiry finding that Laws’s many lucrative sponsorships were strictly hush-hush and on the QT, Laws adamantly told Mitchell that it had all been done out in the open, and threatened to sue him for defamation.
He still doesn’t get why cash for comment was wrong; it simply doesn’t occur to Laws that back-room deal-brokering, and the use of money to influence opinion, clash with the general public’s expectation that radio broadcasters will uphold certain standards of ‘decency’.
But commercial radio really isn’t interested in what the public think – unless the public are in a position to intervene in its economic logics. That’s the lesson we should take from the Kyle and Jackie O debacle; and that’s where our criticisms of commercial radio need to begin.
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