Broadcasters Finally Address Indecency, But Larger Issues Remain

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Of all the things Bubba the Love Sponge did to upset people in 2001, the one that most disturbed me hardly rated a mention after his surprise firing last month, particularly given the events of the tumultuous week that followed. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the WXTB (98 Rock) Tampa, Fla., morning host mistakenly accused a local doctor of making anti-American statements. His comments led to a deluge of hate calls to the doctor’s office. In that environment, they could have triggered something a lot worse.

But endangering another human being didn’t cause anything like the trouble that Bubba’s earlier “Roadkill Barbecue” slaughtering of a live boar generated. And it turned out not to bother the FCC either, at least not compared to a bit from that same year about sex involving cartoon characters that triggered record fines three years later, preceded his dismissal, and kicked off the radio industry’s most tumultuous week in recent memory. And while broadcasters have now been compelled to address sexually explicit content—and are likely to overcompensate in that area—it is only one symptom of how the relationship between broadcasters and their community went badly awry in recent years.

After nearly two decades in which broadcasters had determined that any on-air controversy that didn’t compel your firing (and some that did) would only increase your legend, the “roadkill barbecue” backlash was the first time that GMs really had to consider that not all publicity might be good and not all public outrage might be survivable. Then Sept. 11 happened and suddenly broadcasters were needed to console their communities, not provoke them. But even that cataclysm only briefly kept broadcasters from upping the ante. The “sex in church” stunt that led to the firing of Opie & Anthony was just one of three radio stunts that week that led to somebody’s arrest.

Even in those few days between the stunt and Infinity’s decision to take Opie & Anthony off the air, broadcasters polled by Airplay Monitor expected the duo to survive the controversy. At the very worst, they would walk into another great job, just as they had after being fired from WAAF Boston. Bubba’s eventual return to the air after the wild boar stunt only proved it.

So firing Bubba three years later, taking Howard Stern off of Clear Channel stations, forcing air-talent to pay part of any FCC fines, or announcing a policy of “zero tolerance” might assuage Congress or the FCC (don’t bet on it, though). But it doesn’t make up for nearly two decades in which managers taught their talent that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission.

Stunts were no longer effective unless somebody threw up or the morning sidekick was arrested for carrying a chainsaw in public.

Beyond that, neither “zero tolerance” nor the FCC’s sudden attention to three year old indecency complaints gets at the truly disturbing development of the last decade: the adversarial relationship between a station and its community that so many stations and air talents decided to foster. Stunts were no longer effective unless somebody threw up or the morning sidekick was arrested for carrying a chainsaw in public. April Fools Day could come and go, and it was still OK to tell listeners that Britney Spears was dead, or in your station parking lot.

The seeming determination by broadcasters that it was okay to wreak havoc in the community was, at least for the author, as perverse as any song lyric, any bit involving X-rated cartoon characters, or any brief unveiling of Janet Jackson. It wasn’t literally, indecent, of course, but station-sponsored aggression usually tracked with a station’s attitude on edgy jock or lyrical content, and often ended up involving the same air talent. Any outrage it generated was usually handled the same way, too: brazen it out unless you absolutely cannot.

Indecency, of course, is a Congressional hot button in a way that irresponsibility is not. Had Clear Channel not decided to bring the Howard Stern caller who used a racial epithet to Congress’ attention, chances are that it would have provoked no legislator, unlike all those stripper guests of Howard. And losing the public’s goodwill doesn’t; frighten broadcasters like the possibility of losing a license. So, going forward, the night jock that inadvertently lets the “F-word” on the air will be in much greater career jeopardy than the morning team that decides to tell kids that there is no Santa.

Broadcasters have had the opportunity in recent weeks to try and establish a line, difficult though it may be, between the genuinely edgier prevailing community standards of their audience, and the incidents that go beyond even those. The capitulation that we’ve seen instead doesn’t merely allow that it was, perhaps, unreasonable to flash the Super Bowl audience; it, instead, threatens to take us back to the days of shooting Elvis Presley from the waist up.

Broadcasters also have the opportunity to look at how they’re perceived by the community, come up with a broader strategy for how they want their station to relate to the audience, and then foster that philosophy among their talent. That’s not just “zero tolerance,” which makes the air talent an enemy, not a partner. Developing a wider ranging approach to what’s appropriate is, admittedly, a tall order and one that may only be possible over time. Broadcasters can now only hope that the current climate does cool down. And those looking for more of a directive than “do what it takes, as long as you don’t lose the license” can only hope that a lack of direct pressure doesn’t return us to where we were after “roadkill barbecue,” upping the ante until we finally did push the audience too far.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.