The high cost of free speech

Comment from Peter Saxon

Having won through three rounds of the under 11s inter-school public speaking contest, I was eliminated in the finals for using the word “hell.” 

It was 1962. My mother consoled me by saying I was ahead of my time. As has often been the case, I had no idea what she meant at the time but came to realise later in life, she was right.

Today, as a 10 year oId, I might have gotten away with “Hell” or even “bum.” Now, you can get away with saying “fuck” on radio which would have got you frog-marched out of the building 15 years ago.

Nonetheless, you’ve got to be careful what you say and to whom and when on radio.

As everyone now knows, Sydney’s KIIS 106.5 along with Kyle and Jackie O took a shock tumble in Survey 5. A large part of the giant swings in key demographics are likely to be the result of sampling anomalies that bob up every now and again from survey to survey. Every experienced content director knows that measuring any station or individual program’s popularity by one survey result is silly. To iron out such bumps, and establish a meaningful trend, one must take an average of results over several surveys. 

While ARN content supremo Duncan Campbell agrees that KIIS Sydney certainly suffered from a rogue survey result, he contends there were other factors that contributed to the station’s poor showing.

“I think, just some of the more risqué content which appears at times,” Mr Campbell told radioinfo. “We still have a strong station cume, but the effect (of risqué language) we’re having is a loss of listening which shows up in quarter-hour ticks – and they’re easier to get back than loss of cume. So, while we acknowledge that there’s an issue there, we don’t see it as systemic and we think we can fix that fairly easily.”

Obviously being risqué is okay in Nights but not so much in Breakfast or Drive…

“I think it goes back to one of the basics of radio,” Mr Campbell says. “With car listening so strong you have the adults in the front and the kids in the back so to speak and parents don’t like kids hearing some of that content and that was true 20 years ago and its still true today.”

Curiously, while many swear words that were totally taboo until recently and have been welcomed into the english language, other words and phrases have been outlawed – as 2GB’s Alan Jones discovered (again) last week when he used the phrase “N—– in the woodpile.” The phrase, along with the N-word itself, has long been deemed offensive to African Americans as it was said to have been coined by slave owners referring to runaways who sometimes hid in wagons under woodpiles to avoid detection as they were being smuggled out.

Even without knowing the N-word’s etymology, Mr Jones must have know that it is considered offensive to many. He admitted as much by pre-empting any backlash when he said, “The n—– in the woodpile here, if one can use that expression – and I’m not going to yield to people who tell us that certain words in the language are forbidden.”

Well, yield he did once it’d been made apparent to him by management that advertisers were cancelling their schedules in response. Within hours Mr Jones took to social media to issue an apology and to take the opportunity to reinforce his criticism of the Liberal party for failing to elect his choice for PM, Peter Dutton.

”We all make mistakes,” he wrote. “This morning on 2GB and 4BC I spoke about the covert actions of some political operatives. I used an old and offensive figure of speech that I regret saying. People should be honest and forthright in their actions and that is not happening in the Liberal Party right now.”

Unlike KIIS listeners who are concerned about what their children hear, It is doubtful that many Alan Jones listeners would have been offended by his use of the N-word. It is more likely that they would have applauded his determination to rail against political correctness. After all, it’s part of the core reason they listen.

Still, just because the N word was once acceptable doesn’t mean you can use it now. As one former programmer told me, if they reduce the speed limit in your region from 60 tp 40, you can complain all you want but if you keep driving at 60, it will become a very expensive protest.

At the end of the day, Alan Jones’ priority – as it is Duncan Campbell’s – is to attract listeners to their respective networks. The sales department can worry about advertisers… well, to a point. And this is that point. 

In commercial radio, free speech can be very expensive. Where significant loss of audience share and/or ad revenue is concerned, discretion is the better part of valour.

If Hamish and Andy or Gerry Seinfeld can create compelling entertainment without resorting to risque language so can KIIS. And Alan Jones could still berate the Liberal party to his heart’s content without using a phrase that offends others.  



Peter Saxon   


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