Is Helen Razer really a wanker?

Comment from Peter Saxon.

Helen Razer must have been really hard up for a topic when she decided to devote her regular  column in The Daily Review to a critique of radio trade publications such as radioinfo.

“Publications like Jocks’ Journal, a photocopied collation of old jokes and new appointments when I first read it as a young broadcaster in the 1990s, addressed a worker niche,” Razer states. “What this print mag and the first local online trade AMT, now RadioInfo, did not and could not address were the creative possibilities for the medium.” 

I’ll address that injustice later. But first let’s fact-check Ms Razer’s claim that she’s a bit of a wanker.

Unlike her, I’m not a journalist. I’m just an entertainer. But as an investigative entertainer I wasn’t about to take her word for granted when she says “We should note here I was a bit of a wanker. In fact, I am a bit of a wanker.” After some checking with past bosses and colleagues, I can confirm that what she says is true. 

I’ve read several of Ms Razer’s columns. And although I rarely agree with her opinions, I like her style of writing… in particular her extravagant use of the English language. Whereas an ordinary person hanging from a fourth storey window of a burning building, might yell HELP!, Ms Razer is more likely to scream something like, Not wishing to sound alarmist or anything but there are flames licking at my arse, would someone be so kind as to dial 000 on my behalf and summon the fire brigade?

Ms Razer is nothing if not self deprecating. Brava for that! 

We must read deep into Ms Razer’s column to find the real cause of her discontent towards our tiny niche of the trade publication market. It is the results of a poll ranking the top 20 comics on radio posted by our other competitor. Apparently only one female Em Rusciano made the cut. Of this Ms Razer writes: “If we do not count “Where the fuck is my name?”, my first response to this list was crudely feminist. Just one lady and nineteen chaps is unconscionable sexism etc., I thought, before searching again for my name.” Ms Razer is nothing if not self deprecating. Brava for that! 

Now, I’m not about to denigrate our opposition by saying we wouldn’t publish this kind of poll – although opt in polls with a relatively small sample size can be problematic – but as a general rule we wouldn’t, not because of some moral high ground but simply because ranking people is their schtick not ours. But they, like us (notice how if you take out the previous comma it changes the meaning?) They, like us, are a business that sells clicks to advertisers and people polls are great generators of clicks for the very reason Ms Razer herself admits to taking the bait.

It’s only fair that I confess that I unashamedly used a similar device in my recent review of Glenn Daniel’s new book News Time: A life in radio.  The headline was: Are You Named in Glenn Daniel’s Life in Radio?

I accept that Ms Razer’s often acerbic wit comes with a degree of tongue in cheek and is not meant to be taken too seriously. Nonetheless, I must take her to task on her assertions about radio trade publications in general and on behalf of radioinfo in particular: “Radio trade mags are intended not to elevate the work of broadcast but to efficiently diminish the broadcast worker,” she writes. “Radio trade mags distance the worker from the possibility of creative labour.

If it’s all market share, messaging and ways to please some Adult Contemporary gobshite boss from the lower north shore, there can be no legitimate criticism of what comes out of the radio.

Wow! Where did this come from? We get our fair share of criticism here at radioinfo but no-one has ever said to me, You know what? I’m sick of how you guys distance the worker from the possibility of creative labour. Either stop it or I’ll cancel my subscription!

Ms Razer continues: “So, what these business documents can never provide is a true account of broadcast itself. If it’s all market share, messaging and ways to please some Adult Contemporary gobshite boss from the lower north shore, there can be no legitimate criticism of what comes out of the radio. They can describe this as a commodity only. They cannot tell us if it is good or bad. They only know if it has been profitable.”

Hidden in plain sight on our masthead it says: radioinfo, “a site for broadcast professionals.”    We don’t pretend to be Confidential which focuses on celebrity gossip,  nor the review publication Radio Documentary Review which is very much a scholarly journal about radio arts, nor do we wish to encroach on Ms Razer’s mostly excellent publication, The Daily Review, which critiques a wide range of arts and entertainment, including, on occasion, radio. Why? Because it’s not our schtick. The kind of reviews in TDR that she calls “legitimate criticism” that tells us whether a show is “good or bad” are by nature purely subjective. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

There’s already a giant army of critics devoted to criticising everything from restaurants to airlines as well as the arts. Surely, there’s no desperate need for radioinfo to join their ranks.

An argument could be made (in fact, it often is by artists) that most of these self-styled critics do little to advance the art form they’re criticising while throwing actors, directors, musicians, authors and radio presenters under a bus with no regard for the money and effort they’ve invested.

As a self-confessed wanker, Ms Razer identifies as someone who “has long been unable to perform any sort of labour without the sense that it could be truly made my own. I have found this tendency to be as unwelcome in the call-centre as it is in broadcast media. The worker is so often required to follow a boss’s script.”

There’s nothing wrong with being that kind of wanker as long as you can support your chosen field of wank. Apparently, Ms Razer is blessed with a position that happens to coincide with her “boss’s script” which allows her to write pretty much what she likes – but, and this is a big but – only as long as her articles keep attracting a sufficient number of clicks that can be sold to advertisers or drive subscriptions which make paying her salary viable for her employer.

It is disingenuous for her to believe that somehow she is not subject to readership numbers that ultimately determine the security of her employment whether for a boss or as a freelance.

Take the stand up comic. They are among the most creative exponents of the performing arts (which is one reason why radio employs so many of them). They are also the epitome of the self-employed sole trader. They have no boss to tell them what to do and how to do it. The smart ones though, hire a comedy coach/mentor instead.

An in-joke among comedians when trying new material is: If the audience laughs it’s comedy, if they don’t, it’s art. That was the funny version. Here’s the unfunny version: For a comic, art, as worthy as it may be as an intellectual pursuit, doesn’t pay the bills only comedy does. 

Stand-up comics who are new to radio quickly realise they must learn to work as part of a team.

Every comic I know (and I’ve known a few) understands that unless they can make people laugh the venues that provide the platform that enables them to ply their trade, will stop booking them. The equation is simple. Consistently fill the room and the owner will book you more often. Other venues will want you too which will allow you to charge higher fees. The owners will be able to charge more at the door as your fame increases. You are noticed by television executives and maybe you’re offered a radio show. 

That may sound like crass capitalism to Ms Razer, but no comedian I know wants to be stacking shelves at Coles while in their spare time they write comedy that no one sees or hears.

Stand-up comics who are new to radio quickly realise they must learn to work as part of a team. Why? Because the infrastructure needed to deliver a competitive radio show is much more complex and resource hungry than simply running a basement venue.

That team which includes co-hosts, producers, PR people and creative teams represent a giant human resource unavailable to the average stand-up.. Even those gobshite bosses (as Ms Razer so eloquently describes them) have been known to mentor and nurture talent from the time they were novices to becoming superstars. Every major name that started at the bottom, from Kyle and Jackie O to Ray Hadley can tell you who mentored them and to whom they owe much.

Like any team, there’s got to be a front office that administers the team’s resources. And most importantly there’s got to be a coach who sets a clear direction, a game plan that everyone on the team buys into. That’s how you build a winning team. But what would Ms Razer know, having already hinted that teamwork is not her strong suit.

The other notable difference between a comedy venue and radio is that instead of counting success by the number of tickets sold at the door, radio and its advertisers rely on surveys.

In a recent article in radioinfo, Brad Smart roundly criticised 2UE’s Talking Lifestyle for trying to put sales before listeners. The format lasted just over a year before management had to pull the plug on the brand. 

On the other hand, there’s ARN willing to take a risk replacing established breakfast and drive teams with fresh, untried talent (in this market) rather than keep doing the same thing that everyone else is. Rival program supremo Paul Jackson at Nova said, “I respect other stations for hiring people who do things differently.” They’ve put their listeners first by offering something new in the marketplace. Whether it is to their liking is yet to be seen. But until there are survey results to confirm that they do, there’ll unlikely be incremental sales. And, of course, it could go the other way.

Radio remains in rude health as one of the most creative of all media. And Australian radio is considered among the best in the world. Commercial radio competes hard to make popular programs that draw larger audiences. 

One may argue that a popular show is not necessarily a good show. Fair question, from an intellectual point of view, but in whose subjective opinion is a show good? Only the listener can decide.  If commercial stations didn’t strive to make popular programs than pretty soon they’d cease to be commercially viable. High quality esoteric programs such as those on RN which have limited popular appeal are the ABC’s schtick not commercial radio’s.

Since this whole thing started with Ms Razer’s column titled Are There no Funny Women on FM Radio? and her assertion that what “RadioInfo, did not and could not address were the creative possibilities for the medium,” I can truthfully answer yes there are, yes we did and yes we do.

One only need compare our article on funny women in radio to hers. Given that I wrote that article, I know I’m sticking my neck out but I’m prepared to face the backlash from you, our gentle readers if you reckon I’m wrong. Our article, Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, traces some history, celebrates our finest funny females and their hard won success as well draw attention to the gender wage gap where there is still much work to do. 

By comparison, Ms Razer’s mean spirited article celebrates nothing, provides no constructive advice and no clue as to what those “creative possibilities for the medium” she speaks of might be. All she does is bag commercial radio for being commercial and radio trade mags for being trade mags.

Peter Saxon