Shock radio: paid speech or free speech?

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Ooh yeah, look at that child over there.

Is she nine or is she twelve? Ain't got no pubic hair.

I'm feeling frisky, I know it's risky.

Friday night I need a bite. Underage girls with some cellulite.

I like 'em young with no pubic hair. I like 'em bald and I like 'em bare.

These are the lyrics from shock jock Mikey Esparza's tribute song to R. Kelly (a rapper accused of making child porn) which precipitated Esparza's removal from the airwaves on September 13, 2002. This was the second such incident for Esparza, who had previously been suspended for a week after he aired tips for kidnappers on how to bind children with nylon rope and where to buy supplies such as tarps and lye to dispose of their bodies. The on-air instructions were prompted by the story of a seven-year-old Philadelphia girl, who escaped her kidnappers by chewing through duct tape.

Talk Radio is big in the U.S. but MOJO Radio is the latest Canadian Talk Radio station to have tried to air similar programming. On June 6, 2003, CKNW management in Vancouver was forced to announce the cancellation of the Tom Leykis Show. Tom Plasteras, Program Director of MOJO, said, “We know that Tom Leykis has a loyal following of listeners and his show has helped establish MOJO Radio in the Vancouver market. However, we have an obligation to abide by the broadcasting standards and codes in Canada and the amount of editing required to make the Leykis show conform to these standards made it impossible to continue broadcasting.”

Vancouver's The Province reported, “MOJO had regularly received complaints from those who chose to deny others, rather than simply change their dial.” Cries of censorship and suppression of free speech from the Leykis camp quickly followed.

“If you don't like it, don't listen” is the party line of the entire Talk Radio industry but it's not nearly that simple. MediaWatch Canada, whose campaign was pivotal in having Howard Stern removed from Canadian airwaves, recently conducted an omnibus national poll about shock jocks. While almost half those polled found shock jock material extremely offensive, younger listeners were the least affected. Melanie Cishescki of MediaWatch attributes this age division to a general erosion of media literacy across Canada, especially among young Canadians. “They aren't really taught to view media critically, or to raise it as an issue,” she says.

It may also be part of a larger trend, the coarsening of the public discourse, in which both the U.S. and Canada are equally implicated.

Talk Radio is particularly guilty. DJs like Mikey Esparza are only the most blatant examples. Other radio personalities such as Tom Leykis and Michael Savage (recently fired from his MSNBC show after he wished AIDS on a caller whom he called “one of the sodomites”) have been allowed to continue to populate Clear Channel's 1,200 U.S. stations with racism, hatred and misogyny all under the banner of free speech.

Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, in his 1996 book, Hot Talk: All Talk All The Time, says talk radio hosts have no interest in reason or moderation. “The most successful hosts . . . are raging egotists,” Kurtz writes, “who dominate their programs in a way that television could never tolerate. . . . No formal training, advanced degree, or lengthy apprenticeship is required. It is a tower of babble, the rawest form of media democracy.” Kurtz argues that the growth of talk culture has resulted in a “profound cultural shift in the nature of communication.”

Tom Leykis himself is the first to admit that his listeners are not particularly thoughtful. “They aren't interested in politics or the larger world, they're interested in themselves, so that's what I talk about. People are no dumber than they were thirty years ago. This show isn't the decline and fall of Western civilization, it's just giving people what they want.” To Leykis this filtering down is just part of the territory, neither bad nor good, but simply reality.

Despite some occasional moral outrage, these type of shows are popular, especially among the male 18-35 demographic and media corporations are willing to rake in the profits, while looking the other way. Loyal audiences create profits, and to media conglomerates nothing else matters — not the greater social good, not moral or ethical values. It's not the shock jocks themselves who are the source of the problem but a lack of accountability endemic to corporate media.

After Esparza was bounced off the airwaves, vice president and general manager Joe Cunningham, of Clear Channel Communications (the media giant that owns the Mikey Show) said, “We don't condone comments that make light of, or try to find humour in something of that particular nature.” It is a sentiment belied by the slap-on-the-wrist nature of the suspension and the station's subsequent media campaign which said, “Listen to Mikey before we fire him... again.” Boys will be naughty boys seemed to be the general consensus.

India Weeks, from the Santa Cruz-based Media Watch which organized the campaign to have Mikey Esparza removed from the airwaves, says, “There are time, place and manner restrictions on free speech. And concerning obscenity there are restrictions when children are in the audience. Esparza was promoting statutory rape every afternoon. He also had a four-year-old girl tell dirty jokes about oral sex and yeast infections. We taped him, phoned up his sponsors and played the tape for them. They called the station and Clear Channel, which is how we got him suspended for one week initially. Then they put him back on and we taped him again and this time they pulled him for five months, then put him back at a different time slot. The station also issued a press release stating that he (Esparza) stood for what the station stood for — which is child molestation as far as we can tell.”

Randall Mays, President of Clear Channel, was quick to deny any larger accountability. In the September issue of Broadcast and Cable magazine, he said, “We count on the Clear Channel programming and on-air staff to distinguish reckless behavior from compelling programming.”

Some media observers feel this is like assigning the wolves to watch over the sheep.

“These shock jocks are well aware of the difference between paid speech and free speech,” says Weeks. “They are not citizens expressing their views, they are employees doing their job. Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Howard Stern are all broadcast on Clear Channel stations because they toe the party line. If any of them began bashing corporations' inflated power instead of women and children then they would be taken off the air and no one would consider this to be censorship because it was an action taken by their bosses. Somehow people have come to believe that these are individuals exercising their rights. As long as they keep doing their jobs it doesn't matter what their ratings are nor how much public outrage they cause or even the number of laws they break. They are bought and paid for. Commercial speech is not free speech.”

Melanie Cishecki from MediaWatch Canada says, “In Canada, we have a very strong regulatory system, but I still think there is a big difference between Canadian and American sensibilities. Generally Canadians just tune out, and broadcasters realize they're paying a lot of money for U.S. shock jocks. It's always a question of the bottom line.” Canada isn't entirely safe however. “There's a false sense of security in Canada,” says Cishecki. “With greater levels of media convergence, comes a lack of diversity, fewer voices being heard, and a greater potential for abuse.”

This issue is much larger than radio; it also implicates the entire issue of media deregulation. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act in the U.S. singled out radio for sweeping ownership deregulation, paving the way for Clear Channel to expand from 40 stations to 1,225, and in the process, exert unprecedented control over the industry. Coupled with the Federal Communications Commission decision in 1987 that repealed the “fairness doctrine”, no longer demanding that stations give “equal time” to both sides of an issue, the rise of the rightwing wag has been unstoppable.

In their drive towards total monopoly of the airwaves, Clear Channel has been attacked by media watchdogs and community-based organizations, but they have also made enemies that may prove more daunting, namely, other media company executives. After years of intensively lobbying the U.S. government to lift ownership caps (which limit the number of stations individual corporations can acquire), broadcast, cable and newspaper giants like Viacom and Comcast aren't keen to have Clear Channel's bad behaviour queer the deal.

Under pressure from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which owns the Fox networks, Viacom Inc., CBS and UBN networks), the FCC voted to remove key restrictions on media consolidation (raise the national ownership cap and virtually eliminate the previous ban on broadcast-newspaper combinations), effectively advancing corporate interests at the expense of the public's interest.

But with radio providing ample proof of what can go terribly wrong with media deregulation, things might not be quite so straightforward. Media deregulation opponents, citing Clear Channel's example, say, “if ever there were a cautionary tale, this is it.” Barely two weeks after the FCC decision, the Senate Commerce Committee in the U.S. sweepingly rejected the changes and ordered the FCC to reopen the entire process.

Stay tuned.

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