February 2005

Of public and advertiser pressures on stations.

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 feedback.

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 campaigns.

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 of options.

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.

Pressures from advertisers.

Which takes us to the more troublesome ground of adverts withdrawn because of organized campaigns for advertisers to boycott shows.
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 outbursts.
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 ethical standards.

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 some organizations.

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 your comments.

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