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Shock jocks unite - when commercial interests overcome public good

The sort of controversy surrounding Alan Jones and 2GB is familiar territory for US shock jocks; aggressive rhetoric threatens to drown out constructive dialogue. AAP

Macquarie Radio Network Chairman Russell Tate’s decision to suspend all advertising on radio broadcaster Alan Jones’ 2GB Breakfast Show is an extraordinary testament to the conviction that commercial media doesn’t in fact give audiences what they want.

Tate has said Macquarie had been forced to “call time out” for advertisers to quell an anti-Jones campaign which followed Jones’ now-notorious remarks about Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s late father.

But it also represents a canny strategy that draws on recent precedents in the radio and television industries. When we look at those precedents, we see just how troubling the Jones affair truly is; it says ominous things about where Australia sits in international media trends toward aggressive political rhetoric.

The idea that one presenter is bigger than the radio station or even network is not new; think US shock-jock Howard Stern.

In 2006, Stern left the Infinity Broadcasting Corporation for Sirius, the satellite radio operation. Sirius believed that there was a market for a subscription radio service that would give listeners what they wanted, and what they wanted was Stern.

Sirius offered the self-styled “King of All Media” a deal reportedly worth as much as $220 million. So vast was Stern’s audience, and the advertising premium it commanded, that Infinity insisted the shock jock should honour the remainder of his contract.

Stern used his notice period to mock the station and urge listeners to buy satellite sets so that they might follow him to Sirius. No matter; the revenues stream he generated made it literally worth putting up with the insults.

The sort of controversy that surrounds Jones and 2GB was meat and drink to Stern. His career has seen a running battle with US media regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There is almost nothing Stern won’t joke about - including the Columbine school massacre.

And yet his popularity moved from strength to strength. He’s even been anointed as Simon Cowell’s heir on America’s Got Talent. Employers have stuck with him through the turbulence, and been handsomely rewarded for doing so.

Sometimes, industry insiders justify the presence of men like Stern and Jones by arguing that they are essentially actors. Take Glenn Beck, latterly of US Fox News. Beck set out to style himself as a right-wing alternative to the enormously successful Jon Stewart. So, early in his television career, CNN urged viewers not to be alarmed by Beck’s penchant for wishing violence upon liberal opponents. He didn’t mean it. This was just his shtick.

People were less inclined to laugh after the assassination attempt on US Member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords. Jared Loughner opened fire on Giffords at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona in January 2011. She survived, but six people were killed, and 12 others wounded. Before the assault, Giffords had spoken of her unease at being the target of sinister mediated criticism.

Chillingly, she had predicted the attempt on her life; Sarah Palin had published a campaign graphic depicting Giffords’ electoral district in a cross-hair. Giffords read this as a sign of an alarming escalation in the acrimony of political debate, warning that this trend was likely to have serious consequences. How right she was.

Shock jocks soon found themselves subjected to scrutiny on this count. Former MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann explicitly accused Glenn Beck (and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly) of creating a climate that directly encouraged real acts of violence.

In an extraordinary attack on Beck, O’Reilly and Fox News, Olbermann ordered all of them to apologise to America, and also demanded that sponsors abandon the men and the station should contrition fail to materialise. None of these events came to pass.

Against this background, it’s easy to see why people have made so much of Alan Jones’ comments about the Prime Minister, and just as easy to see why Russell Tate is standing by his errant employee.

If there ever was a time when it would have been possible to joke about putting the Prime Minister into a chaff bag and throwing her into the sea, a glance over at America shows why that time should be put firmly into antiquity.

US media observers are enormously concerned about how the popularity of aggressive political commentary is making it impossible to hold constructive dialogue at a time when the nation needs it most. As Jon Stewart has put it, men like Glenn Beck should “stop hurting America”.

Of course, they won’t as long as they can find a market for their views. Or, more to the point, powerful employers who believe there is a market for their views, and who will work to build one.

Seen this way, the Jones controversy is not about giving 2GB listeners what they want; it is about the commercial value of male outrage in highly competitive media markets, and a privileging of commercial concerns over the public good.

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