Is There a Future for Shock Radio?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
After Don Imus was fired from his radio show for his racially and sexually offensive remarks, some questions still remain. What is the future of shock radio? Will it eventually disappear from commercial airwaves? Is satellite radio, with no worries about FCC guidelines, the last refuge? Here to help answer those questions is NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik.
First, David, do you think this Imus affair is going to have a lasting effect on broadcasting, or do you think this is just a temporary setback to shock radio?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Oh, I guess there are two schools of thought on that. If you take the head of CBS' word - that's Leslie Moonves - I just want to briefly read from the statement that he circulated to all CBS employees after the firing of Imus. In there, he said - and this is a quote - "He has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people. In taking him off the air" - Mr. Moonves continues - "I believe we take an important and necessary step not just in solving a unique problem but in changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company."
Now, CBS Radio is the major distributor and creator of radio content, particularly in the talk world. Moonves would suggest, seemingly, that this is going to change, that this is a signal moment.
I've got to say that if you look at the history of radio, it has tended to move somewhat inexorably towards a greater exploitation and pushing of boundaries. He wasn't fired - Don Imus - for doing something, in a sense, that the radio company, CBS, and its distributor, Westwood One, didn't want him to do. He was essentially fired for doing a perversion of what his employers did want him to do. It's hard to believe. There are hiccups along the way.
You get Bubba the Love Sponge with this very, very sexually explicit kind of satire. You know, this was something that caused FCC fines, caused revulsion. Clear Channel Radio promised to change the way it did things, but these tend to be, sort of, brief-lived hiccups along the way toward, sort of, the progress.
HANSEN: And so you think it may, sort of, stick around? I mean, some political talk shows could be considered shock radio.
FOLKENFLIK: I don't think that you're going to see shock radio disappear. I think it fills a need. It gets local and a national listenership. If CBS Radio, if Westwood One, if Clear Channel, can come up with extremely thoughtful disquisitions about poetry that can attract greater audiences, they will flock to that. But until that time, I think you're going to see versions of shock radio that may be not jumps the line but don't cross it in the way that Imus did.
HANSEN: Let's talk about satellite radio. I mean, it already has two refugees from commercial radio: Howard Stern's on Sirius, and Opie and Anthony are on XM. First of all, are they doing well there?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, certainly, you'd have to say that Howard Stern's doing quite well. Sirius gave him a package worth over $500 million to walk away from terrestrial, old-fashioned radio. And it is largely seen as to Stern's credit that Sirius Radio now has well over six millions subscribers at about 12.95 a month. It had about 700,000 subscribers in 2005 when Stern's appointment was announced.
Opie and Anthony - it's hard to judge on satellite radio, the ways of measuring and estimating these tiny slice of - niches - of almost a couple hundred channels. It's very difficult. One measure of how they're doing, however, was that the replacement for Stern on many CBS radio stations when he left for Sirius was that David Lee Roth, formerly of Van Halen - he did very poorly. And on about a half dozen CBS stations, he was replaced by a syndicated version of Opie and Anthony's satellite radio show. So CBS turned to their former employees who had been pushed off for themselves being too shocking.
HANSEN: So satellite radio, a place where Don Imus can go. I mean, given the public reaction to his firing from CBS Radio and the fact that a merger is now being discussed between Sirius and XM.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, sort of, countervailing forces. As he mentioned, satellite radio is not subject to the strict regulation of content that can be levied by the FCC. So in a sense, it's a haven. Howard Stern capitalized on that and played off that saying, you know, my free speech is being just absolutely strangled by the FCC on terrestrial radio; come join me in satellite. That might be a place he could go.
For anyone other than somebody like Stern, it may not be the same kind of payday. But as you say, there is this merger, and this merger is interesting because it will trigger regulatory review on two levels, one by the Justice Department. The question of anti-trust - after all, the federal law and regulations creating satellite radio 11 years ago stipulated there had to be two viable companies doing it. The second thing is the FCC, and the FCC itself gets to regulate not only is this good for the consumer, for the listener, it's their moment to really squeeze the leadership of satellite radio.
HANSEN: Given what's happened with Don Imus, a lot of people have been talking about demeaning lyrics in hip-hop and rap music. Will there be further movement there, do you think?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, and that's certainly something that Imus and his defenders have said in recent days, but interestingly, it's been also something you've heard from the critics of Imus, particularly African-American critics who say, we have to look, perhaps, at the rest of culture, at what he was drawing from and exploiting, perhaps, to titillate and to offend. But, you know, the question is, is it appropriate for African-Americans to say these things about one another, to say these things about themselves? The question was raised by Ray Jones of - formerly of Sports Illustrated - of, you know, whether BET should be looked at, formerly a black-owned network now actually owned by CBS. But, you know, it runs a lot of very edged entertainment, musical content that contains very similar imagery and words.
HANSEN: NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. Thanks a lot, David.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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