As people marvel at the immediacy of news via the internet, it is easy to overlook the fact that old fashioned steam radio has been doing this for 70 years or more. The words come out of the announcer’s mouth and they are worming into listeners’ ears in real time. And therein lie the potential problems.

While many more active media consumers gave up on stultified radio years ago for podcasts, online streaming and other portable digital tools that open the world to our ears, most people still rely on either parish pump local stations, Barnesy and Farnsy FM and talkback shockjocks that pander to the fears, prejudice and ignorance of their listeners.

The common view is that most talkback listeners are old – lonely, bored people, overwhelmed by change, taking solace in strong opinions and feeling reassured by the tones of an authoritative tub-thumper. But in recent years, audiences have been supplemented by the middle-to-late baby boomers, who grew up with rock radio, but who have migrated to talk radio after growing tired of the same handful of rock ‘classics’ that the mullets on FM radio have been recycling since the early 1980s (the Run From Paradise generation?).

Middle aged or old, though, these people generally don’t read books or pay much attention to broadsheet newspapers; their primary source for news is commercial talk radio and commercial television. Consequently, they tend to adhere to the view that the economy is going to the dogs, that crime is out of control, that the country is being swamped by Al Qaeda-trained Islamists and that climate change is a plot by communist greens to establish a One World government.

To maintain these contrary-to-evidence convictions, they listen religiously to shockjocks talkback whose job it is to manufacture outrage and keep their listeners in a state of continual indignation and anger at an invisible and indefinable “they” who are ruining the country and destroying their memories of an idealised past.

Of course, we’ve had talkback radio for decades now and, for the most part, it is a vague background noise that many of us are aware of only when we get into a taxi. The supposition was it would die off as the last of that pre-WWII generation disappeared to the meet the great Burl Ives in the sky.

But talkback has gained a second wind in recent years as politicians, led by John Howard, beat a path to its door. In Howard’s case, the motivation was pretty clear. He was speaking to his constituency – the old (in body or mind) and afraid and conservative. And he could be guaranteed an easy ride by the right-wing non-journalist entertainers who were grateful to have at last a political leader who sanctioned the airing of their audience’s prejudices under the guise of an attack on “political correctness”.

Just why Julia Gillard should legitimise these clowns by appearing on their programs is not exactly clear. The reception she received recently from that self-aggrandising windbag Alan Jones, who dared to chastise her for being late before calling her a liar, should have been enough – I would have thought – to put a blackban on his program and to send a mildly threatening letter to 2GB’s licence holder about broadcast standards.

To the issue of standards, old journalists like this blogger – who came up through radio – are shocked at what is allowed to be broadcast these days. Journalists of my generation were taught that to maintain a broadcasting licence and to meet one’s professional code of ethics, one was expected to observe laws concerning undisclosed paid comment, sub-judice, contempt of court, racial vilification, incitement to riot, defamation and just plain public decency. But apparently no longer.

Australian commercial radio was deregulated in the early 1990s and since then a climate of anything goes seems to have taken hold to the point where shock jocks can say just about anything with relative impunity – the only risk being a mild slap over the wrist by the ACMA (formerly the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal) or perhaps a mention on the ABC’s Media Watch, a program that few people see, unfortunately.

(Incidentally, anyone who is interested in the development of talkback radio in recent years should get hold of a paper by the acknowledged expert in this area, Professor Graeme Turner of the University of Queensland, ‘Some Things We Should Know About Talkback Radio’. It’s not available online without registration, but you can hear his summary here.)

Essentially, those changes in the early 1990s led to the unravelling of the public service obligations of radio, including the provision of an independent news service. So radio reinvented itself, as Turner explains, by using its non-journalist talkback hosts not just to read news but to break news (and make and break governments). They do this by mobilising and polarising public opinion, with little respect for facts, fairness, balance or any of the ethics of professional journalism. And they do it for dollars.

The nadir (at least to date) of this shameless rabble rousing and stirring of public raw emotion for ratings points and advertising contracts (which is what this industry is fundamentally about) was Alan Jones’ provocative comments during the racial disturbances in Cronulla in late 2005. ACMA later found that Jones’ broadcasts were likely to vilify people of Middle Eastern descent and encourage violence.

Of course, Jones is still on air, as are all the other propagators of hatred and fear – entertainers masquerading as journalists who pollute the public arena with deliberate falsehoods and propaganda. The difference now, of course, is they have a new generation of careerist Liberal Party politicians who grew up with One Nation, who speak their language and who peddle their own wingnut opinion to raise their profile through talkback.

Call me old fashioned, but does anyone else wonder just WHO is in charge here? WHY does no-one complain about this? Are there standards? If so, why are they not enforced?  Where are the civilised voices speaking out against these practices? And what are the consequences for our democracy of a system that legitimises the deliberate peddling of falsehoods and hatred for commercial advantage to people whose primary source of news is these very licence holders?

Of course, the right-wing defenders of talkback will respond to this critique as an attack on freedom of speech and open public debate. But no-one is arguing against the right of people to vigorously debate issues of public interest through the media. But a radio station, using the publicly owned airwaves, has a primary obligation to providing its audiences with the truth before it sets its attack dogs off the leash. It has an obligation to declare the commercial interests of its licence holders in pushing particular policy viewpoints. It has an obligation to our principles of justice and to the responsibilities that come with a radio licence.

If this is just too hard, can I suggest two courses of action. Firstly, those who are fed up with the behaviour of the talkback demagogues should organise a boycott of the products of those companies who advertise on these stations. Money is what Alan Jones and the rest of them are fundamentally about. So hit them where it hurts. Secondly, we should pressure our policymakers to re-regulate the industry, give proper teeth to those who police it and to take off air for good those who breach publicly agreed standards.

Oh, and Media Watch should run for an hour, not 15 minutes.

See Also:
Dial-Up Death Threats Do Not Deter as Shock Jocks Maintain the Coalition’s Rage (Peter Hartcher)
Tony Windsor Calls for Talkback Calm after Death Threats (ABC News)
Climate of Hate Ramps Up from Right-Wing Populists (Clive Hamiltion,  Crikey)


24 Comments

Anonymous · March 1, 2011 at 9:50 pm

2GB not 2UE which is a good error as it means u don't listen. As for the rest here here

Greg G · March 1, 2011 at 10:26 pm

“The common view is that most talkback listeners are old – lonely, bored people, overwhelmed by change, taking solace in strong opinions and feeling reassured by the tones of an authoritative tub-thumper.

But in recent years, audiences have been supplemented by the middle-to-late baby boomers”

No need for a “but” here – the latter has become the former over the last five years.

Mr D · March 1, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Well, Greg I'm a late boomer (born same year as Neil Finn, Paul Weller and Thurston Moore) and there's no way I'm retiring to talkradio!

SJC · March 2, 2011 at 12:15 am

Fantastic post. I have 30-somethings quoting me Jones and Hadley all the time, they are penetrating a whole new demographic.
I heard someone make a great point before the election. They were asking how many tradies were in a job, working on a BER project and nodding along with Hadley's attack on it. Oh the irony.

I think the other thing that has gone unnoticed is the influence Jones has on the whole station. He owns a part making all the other's his employees. Even Ross Greenwood is going along for the ride. A noted, intelligent economist who suddenly has differing opinions to the majority of other economists.

My measure of their opinion on an issue is what they would say if the political roles were reversed but everything else stayed the same. I believe it would have been – the BER would have saved us, look at the unemployment figures. Look at that black hole in the election costings (we would not have heard the end of that)the reaction to Riley would have been not fit to be PM. And one of my favorites, the email calling for donations to the stop the levy fund, well you can just imagine. That could have easily been Julia. Do you think we would have heard about it? In reality, that email was not mentioned the day after on Hadleys 3 hour show but he got around to mentioning Verity Firths hubby.

I dont pretend these guys dont do some good for some that are worse off and they do indeed shine a spotlight on some important issues and can pick the govt up where they deserve it. But, does the end justify the means.

reb of Hobart · March 2, 2011 at 12:32 am

Great post, thank you Mr Denmore!

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 1:18 am

Great post, Mr Denmore. The only way to curb these offensive liars is to hit them in the hip pocket as you suggest.

Boycotting the products advertised on their shows is a very good start, but we need to make sure that the companies know we're doing so and why.

And I agree we should start putting pressure on legislators to give the ACMA the teeth and the will to make them accountable.

However, the penalties should be severe enough to ensure their compliance with the rules.

A very hefty fine initially (in the millions, imo), and immediate removal from the airwaves for a lengthy period if they continue to breach.

There should also be a substantial impost for the radio station which employs them, including cancelling their broadcasting licence.

I may be unduly alarmed, but this sustained and well orchestrated campaign of lies, hysterical villification and barely restrained incitement to violence against anyone who disagrees with their world view, has sinister undertones of a certain era,imo.

tredlgt · March 2, 2011 at 1:43 am

Great article Mr D,
jones works for a station owned by an advertising guru ,the advertisers must have some morals but won't let them interfere when making a profit is all that counts. They will continue to advertise on these grubby programs as long as the trogs listen and they continue to listen because with this rubbish they are not required to think,they like to be told the answers, baa.
Just watched ABC replaying the libs vile accusations equating our PM with gaddafi duck with no implication that this may be anything other than normal and correct . If the ABC plays these games what chance stopping the gutter broadcasts? NONE . Any regulator would be vilified mercilessly , derided and mocked and even were they to have any power to regulate and penalise they would be ignored ,if they tried to enforce any penalty the whole belittling would repeat till the regulator ran out of funds. Win for jones and abbott.

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 2:06 am

Wonderful article Mr.Denmore.
You are such a gentleman.
How do we find out who the sponsors are for these programs?

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 2:09 am

I concur, great article.

I've also just read the linked article about the interview between Gillard/Jones – it's shocking the level of disrespect he displayed towards our Head of Government. Imagine the outrage if he had done the same thing to the Queen, the US President, or any other head of government.

As with anyone, Jones is perfectly within his rights to express his opinions on Government policy, but his personal attack on the Prime Minister is terrible, especially in comparison to the free ride he gave John Howard.

Regarding the proposal to boycott Shock Jock sponsors – one problem – we would have to listen to the programs to find out who the sponsors are. I'm afraid I'm not willing to do that.

Mr D · March 2, 2011 at 2:45 am

Yes, their double standards are gob-smacking. I like SJC's test above of how they would react if all these situations were reversed.

The economy would be a miracle of Liberal economic management, the carbon tax would be a sensible and gradualist approach, the flood levy would be an example of responsible fiscal policy and the healthcare agreement would be a victory for pragmatic federalism.

Look, they just don't like a Labor government. And they like a Labor-Green-independents minority government even less.

The conservatives who run the media still haven't accepted as legitimate the outcome of the election last year. And they are now cheering along efforts by a particularly ugly Liberal-National coalition to run down the institutions of democracy to bring about a change of regime.

It is very shoddy and distasteful. As I say, the only way of stopping it is by pressuring and disgracing their corporate sponsors and by combating the propaganda with truth.

ern malleys cat · March 2, 2011 at 2:47 am

I was born that same year Mr Denmore, and I would never consider myself a boomer, late or otherwise. “I belong to the blank generation, and I can take it or leave it each time.”

Good article otherwise.

Mr D · March 2, 2011 at 2:58 am

Ern Malleys Cat, yes it's hard to imagine Richard Hell listening to Alan Jones. I think the Americans calls us Generation Jones (Obama and Rudd are both members)

Ann of Brisbane · March 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

How about developing a list of sponsors of these shock jock types?
Here in Bris the worst of this type of broadcasting is on 4BC. Occasionally I used to listen to a horror called Michael Smith (aka, annoyingly, as Smithie). A very self important person who could whip himself up into a lather over Labor Govt doings both Federal & State. I think he's in Sydney now, maybe on 2UE?
Gary Hardgrave, an ex-Liberal MP seems to have replaced him. Can't bear to listen to much of these people but I think Morrison was talking to Hardgrave today, dog-whistling away again.
If someone 'takes the lead', eg Mr D, we could compile a list of sponsors of these people's programs and then set about inform them that we intend to boycott their products and services in protest.

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm

To paraphrase Mike Carlton on the Jones/Abbott interview — it was like warm shit being poured into your ear.

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

The problem with boycotting the sponsors of these programs is that you have to listen to them to find out who the sponsors are. Doing that is far too disturbing for me.

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm

The sponsor boycott is the ONLY way to defeat this. As you noted – it's all about the money. But as many others have noted you'd have to listen to the filth to find out who was paying for it.

An organised online campaign that identified every corporate sponsor of these peddlers of stupid that let each of the companies involved know exactly why we won't be using their products and services would have a chance. If the money that sponsors bile and hatred dried up they'd be done and have as much influence on national discourse as the Green Left Weekly.

The problem more moderate minds face though is we are much harder to inflame into anger. We have lives. A voluntary disadvantage that the hate mongers seem all too keen to exploit.

Anonymous · March 2, 2011 at 11:20 pm

One need not listen to the partisan poison from 2GB to learn who are the sponsors. The “station” has helpfully provided a list at this link:

http://www.2gb.com/index.php?option=com_adcentre&Itemid=187

Anonymous · March 3, 2011 at 5:45 am

“we should pressure our policymakers to re-regulate the industry, give proper teeth to those who police it and to take off air for good those who breach publicly agreed standards.”

Spot on.

We could use an 'Air America Radio' here. A Rachel Maddow, Mike Malloy, Ed Schultz & Al Franken.

We also need a fundraiser like Arianna Huffington.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_America_(radio_network)

Gone but launched some careers & enhanced others.

N'

Anonymous · March 3, 2011 at 7:57 am

“As I say, the only way of stopping it is by pressuring and disgracing their corporate sponsors and by combating the propaganda with truth.”

Indeed, which makes me wonder why you seem opposed, Mr Denmore, to a leftish, intelligent, radio presence to counteract the bullshit. I would happily listen in to brainy people rather than ranting right wing morons.

Mr D · March 3, 2011 at 9:58 am

Anonymous, take it from me, you don't need 'brainy' people, you need entertaining people. If their brainy too, great, but their first KPI is the ability to bring in listeners.

If you had a radio station that was just a bunch of lefties sitting around agreeing with each other, well, it wouldn't last long.

I'd like to see a genuinely progressive and funny and provocative and lively radio station that played eclectic music, some brain food and a mix of announcers that knew how to engage an audience.

Everyone imagines that these people listen to the ABC, but the truth is the ABC is a prisoner of its public service obligations – so it pulls punches and panders to a nationalist Australian constituency that guards all the usual sacred cows – the Anzac myth, mateship, 'egalitarianism' and the bland 2BL world where people like me give up and listen to James bloody Valentine (as inoffensive as he is).

There are still a few people over 40 who want to rock the boat and don't fall into the left/Balmain basket weaver cliche that people like Andrew Bolt and all have been dining off for 20 years. We're just as pugnacious and capable of picking fights as that Dutch prick. And I'd like to see a radio station that does that.

Tredlgt · March 4, 2011 at 8:19 am

So would I . Ridiculing right wing nut jobs would be great entertainment. Any one got a spare am licence.

Anonymous · March 4, 2011 at 11:09 am

Maybe it will be an internet radio station, Tredlgt. Not much cost, apart from the time involved, and no need for the licence.

Anonymous · March 5, 2011 at 12:04 am

Most of their sponsors are hard to boycott, because you wouldn't buy their product often anyhow.
The exception is the coffee brand. I sent them a letter.

Mr · March 5, 2011 at 3:51 am

The most high profile sponsor of Jones is Challenger, the financial services group. Email them at info@challenger.com.au.

Remember to CC your emails to the regulator broadcasting@acma.gov.au.

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