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February 21st, 2004


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10:23 am - Radio Ga-Ga: Truth or bit?
Some of the strangest and sad news out of radioland is that the lawyers at Infinity Broadcasting have apparently launched a humongous crackdown on what their talk jocks can and cannot say on air. This isn't government-mandated, now, mind you; the rules come from and are enforced by Infinity for the stations they own. I do have my doubts as to the total veracity of this, seeing as how the only Infinity station and show I listen to is Ron & Fez out of WJFK in DC and the boys have a history of pulling patently believable satirical pranks to make a point. However, the Don & Mike show gave up talk entirely and played nothing but music for their three hours on Friday in protest of the new regulations and Don & Mike don't exactly get along with Ron & Fez (that's fine with me, I wouldn't listen to Don & Mike if they paid by the hour) so it doesn't sound like this is a conspired prank. The proof, I guess, lies with Infinity's biggest talker, Howard Stern, as I am sure the rules would apply to him as well, but he's apparently on vacation this week. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say about all this when he returns. (He could very well pull some kind of rank and have the rules relaxed for him, or perhaps he thinks he can. Stern's getting to be a bitter old man.)

Doubts or no, it's really quite disconcerting to think about. Apparently there's going to be rulebooks in place on Monday that may give concrete examples of what can and cannot be said, but from the gist of things on Thursday, it's basically this:
  • The overall rule is "nothing that could be arguably offensive." Just mull that over for a moment. 'Arguably offensive' is one of the most nebulous terms I can think of, especially in the realm of live talk radio. And still the question remains: Arguably offensive to whom? I mean, whose arbitrary taste (and decision) renders a conversation "arguably offensive?" The guy behind the dump (excuse me, "censor") button? (The talk shows are already on a lengthy delay; however Ron of Ron & Fez mentioned Thursday night -- bit or real? -- that the lawyers had even discussed recording pre-packaged radio shows entirely, giving the boys three hours in the afternoon to record their show before airing it in the evening. Of course, this kills entirely the show's main strong point, which is taking live calls on the air.)
  • Even letters in the right context are right out. Used to be jocks could get away with certain words by just using their first letter (e.g. "F this", "That's BS", "Don't drop the F-Bomb") but apparently that's no longer allowed. It's meta-censorship, really.
  • You can't call anybody any names anymore. No Name-Calling! What is this, the Fourth Grade all over again? No Name-Calling! And apparently you can't even call yourself names: again on Thursday, Ron & Fez reran a clip from a few weeks ago where a show regular lost a bet on-air and moaned "I'm such a retard!" a few times. The Thursday rerun had "retard" dumped (censored) out.

Now there are some who might view these changes as a return to more genteel radio; nah, that's just a straw man. I listen to Ron & Fez because I enjoy their free-for-all call-in format and their character banter. Some nights they take a stupid premise and build a "comedy pyramid" around it with caller suggestions ("It's So Cold in DC..." or "Whitney Houston Christmas Songs".) Some nights they hold contests to see who can call in with the best brush-with-fame story or most embarassing prom date. One night they had callers come up with as many stupid borderline-sadistic impossible challenges as they could (you can't drink a gallon of milk in under an hour, you can't eat a teaspoon of straight up cinnamon) and later on in the week had their producers and interns try 'em out. For Valentine's Day they discussed the best 70s soul songs (The Reverend Al Green came out on top, if I remember correctly.) One recent show was devoted entirely to Fez's going into therapy and getting antidepressants for the first time, and all his anxieties and compulsions were brought to the forefront for caller inspection and comment. For every sardonic call that came through there were at least two other calls offering words of support and sympathy. The fans really do care about these guys.

Wednesday night's show was dominated by a lengthy religious discussion on Mel Gibson's new film; they took calls from all faiths and discussed what the film's going to mean to people and who should be watching it and why did they go with another white Jesus and was there anybody out there who had suffered more than Jesus, all sorts of interesting posits. It wasn't a dry, boring theological show, nor was it a real downer (even when Ron brought up AIDS babies) because they kept things moving and kept it interesting. It didn't make fun of religion, nor did it excessively preach it. These guys aren't crass shock jocks, they disdain the radio guys who do things solely for the visceral reaction (Ron: "Didja hear that, Fezzie? That caller went for a little Shock Jock bit there, he wanted to shock us!" Fez: "Rude and rude!") and they're not even adamant on hearing only one side of an argument. They're down-to-earth, honest hosts, and they're also funny. (Fez: "Well, I'm a Lutheran." Ron: "I know you are, Fez, and it's great to know that there are people out there like you who love Luther Vandross so much that they've made a religion out of it.")

So could Ron & Fez have had such an open, honest discussion with the new Infinity guidelines in place that prohibit anything that could be "arguably offensive"? Could they keep up the kind of show that earns them loyal, if slightly bizarre, fans? (One regular caller gets through the screeners every time and derails the entire conversation, whatever it may be, by singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"; Ron & Fez get so amused they join in every single time.) I don't think they could. Sometimes their conversation gets adult or at least a bit salty, but they're very good at keeping things within FCC guidelines and always manage to come out clean. The guidelines by Infinity are going to cram them down into the smallest possible conversational range, and they know it. They already hate it.

They're already disheartened by the way WJFK has been treating them, and disheartened by the lawyers in particular, who in the past have ruled the boys can't hold poker tournaments even when there's no gambling and no money at stake; they've also prohibited on-air drinking contests, a regular Friday night staple of Ron & Fez's old show in New York. They're disappointed in management's decision to give them a night slot as well as the 11 AM - noon hour for a recap of the day's events ("The Fastest Hour in Radio" is absolutely hilarious, it's like Paul Harvey with two drinking buddies, but it breaks up their day and makes them wait 7 hours between shows) and they're especially disappointed with WJFK's lack of promotion. Now they're not even going to be able to keep up the level of conversation that gets a wide swatch of the listening demographic to call in (and it really does change from topic to topic, which is real interesting to notice.)

The real sad part is that Ron & Fez are hard workers. They come in and do two shifts a day because that's what they're supposed to be doing. When Opie & Anthony got kicked off WNEW in New York for their "Sex for Sam" stunt in 2002, Ron & Fez took over some of their time slot, and effectively did two three-hour shows every weekday. Every weekday! They came in and did their work and were eager to show they could be relied on to help out. So WNEW, in an incredible display of gratitude and incompetence in management, dumped them and the other talk hosts, getting rid of the talk format entirely in early 2003. As of last count they've gone through at least two or three more format changes since, including one where they played nothin' but Christmas music. And their ratings stink -- or as Ron would say, "stink on ice."

These two guys do a show that's intelligent (for the most part) and fun to listen to. They've attracted a loyal following of listeners in New York, DC and their home state Florida, many of whom now have to listen to the shows streaming online or a day behind on MP3 through generous sources. They actively get callers of every age, color and creed, their conversation is lively and amusing, and they're just plain good folks. Unfortunately in this business good means being walked all over, and I'm sure WJFK is gonna screw 'em over just like WNEW did. And when they do, perhaps the boys will go to XM Radio. Or perhaps they'll just find another station somewhere, set up shop again, and let the callers find them. By chance. I mean, that's how I found them, and they've never even played in my market.

I still am hoping, in my little optimistic heart of hearts, that this heavy-handed censorship angle is just a bit. Just a joke. Maybe one that capitalizes on the whole Super Bowl halftime thing. Maybe.

I hope because I'd hate to think otherwise.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:tablesaw
Date:February 21st, 2004 09:41 am (UTC)
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I think I can verify that something is definitely going down. Whatever may have been going down with what is or isn't acceptable humor, a local morning comedy show had to axe a popular segment called Sex U[niversity]. Despite the way some of the topics were talked up, the segments were always well researched, informative and respsectful looks into aspects of sexuality. Episodes I heard included giving people accurate information and resources about fetishes and fantasies, identifying and seekign help for sex addiction, and the history of the vibrator. The segment received no complaints in its years of existence, and it deftfully avoided any ridicule of guests or subjects. But because of Janet Jackson's boob, the segment was abruptly killed.
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:February 21st, 2004 02:47 pm (UTC)

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It makes sense, really -- Infinity is owned by Viacom which owns CBS which has been going absolutely bugnuts over the Super Bowl halftime show, so Viacom decides to treat every one of its media tentacles like they were fourth-graders "just in case."

I swear to god I keep saying "That was such a non-issue" and the idiots keep doing their best to try and prove me wrong.
From:yuda
Date:February 21st, 2004 03:03 pm (UTC)

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This may ultimately kill off Viacom/CBS. To which I say "'bout damn time."
[User Picture]
From:zorndeslammes
Date:February 21st, 2004 10:23 am (UTC)

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I should go listen to Stern in the morning (well, if I can wake up before 2pm) just to see how he's been dealing with it. I sincerely hope he doesn't change his format. Hell, if he got fired, he would probably see a gargantuan rise in popularity.

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