This past week Wisconsin has been talking about the words used by a radio broadcaster from Madison who verbally took off on a Republican statewide officeholder. Mocking her colon cancer, and making outlandish sexual statements makes me wonder what is next for our radio airwaves.
As such there has been a dialogue in the state, and elsewhere about what was said, and what should now be done about it. On this blog I have been called everything from a socialist, fascist, champion of small government, and proponent of big government concerning my call for cleaning up rancid talk on radio. That none of those labels make sense concerning me or my views, and all seem to steer the debate into a political corner far away from the direction I have taken this issue, is perplexing.
Over the past week I have read and heard much about John ”Sly” Sylvester and his poor judgement while on the WTDY airwaves. There have been those who defend him, and even used the free speech argument as their foundation. A faulty foundation, I might add, but used all the same. (I will discuss that below.)
Then there are others, like myself, who want Sly off the air for abusing the standards we expect from broadcasters.
This week as I read and listened to the frothy back and forth one thing kept coming back center stage. No one was talking about radio itself, about the ‘tone’ we want to hear on our radio airwaves, or the standards we want honored by those who hold broadcasting licenses. No was asking about why our public radio airwaves have become angry places as opposed to the friendly ones that I recall from my youth.
I think these concerns about radio are very legitimate to consider.
I still recall as a kid the time my mom was not pleased to hear the word “damn” used by a politician in a news actuality. She felt there was no need for cursing on the airwaves, and that it sounded bad.
I need to add that I am 48 years old and grew up in middle America like most of my peers. I mention this to show that there was a time, not so long ago, when broadcasting standards were a desired thing. Listeners noticed things that ran counter to the expected norms.
I remember telling my mom I did not think the word usage was out-of-bounds. She held to her belief that people who were educated could find word choices that did not offend, especially on the airwaves.
She was right of course.
What I could not see as a child was the turn being taken in radio broadcasting, a curve that was long and unseen due to the length of its arc. Little by little standards were about to be lowered in radio broadcasting that would ‘allow’ for someone to go on the airwaves in 2011 and talk about false sex acts by an elected officeholder. Worse yet the announcer who makes such statements on the radio expects to get away with it.
My mother would he shocked.
We all should be shocked.
Yet some are not.
Some are trying to hide behind the First Amendment when defending the words shock jocks use on radio. Others have chided me for not caring about the First Amendment when I added my call for Sly to be reprimanded by the FCC for his on-air actions.
Let me say there is no defending what took place this past week on WTDY with constitutional armor.
Let me use the Westboro Baptist Church as my example.
I have expressed on CP that anti-gay Westboro Church is repulsive in every sense of the word. I have stated that concerned citizens need to surround the Westboro members and block their impact when they picket funerals. But I have also stated that I hope the Supreme Court does not rule against these crazed bigots when it makes a decision later this year about the constitutionality of their right to speech.
As disturbing as Fred Phelps and his tribe prove to be almost daily, we have nothing to fear from this type. It would be far more chilling and disturbing to place restrictions on free speech.
That I stand on the side of the First Amendment is not in doubt, even when the anti-gay foulness of this group is aimed at guys like me.
But Westboro is not doing their deed on the public airwaves that are licensed for use by the federal government to broadcasters. Broadcasters MUST adhere to certain guidelines. Guidelines that are well-known by the license holder that need to be abided by.
The guidelines for use of our airwaves should have some meaning. Every letter of the regulations should be honored. Call me old-fashioned, but that is just how I think. Having worked in government I fully understand there is no way to defend half a law or regulation and pretend the part we do not like can be disregarded.
So there is NO constitutional question about free speech when it comes to what Sly did on WTDY last week. If Sly wants to mouth off on the street corner, or write a book, or even blog he can have it. If someone tried to stifle him at any point in the public square, or on-line he would be advocated for on my blog. Not for content, but for his right to free speech.
There are those who contend I am biased when it comes to the issue of Sly and only oppose those I do not like. That is not true.
This is not about friend or foe. This is about the character of radio. It is about the quality of what is on the airwaves that the public owns.
I am one who bounces on Rush Limbaugh and others when I hear of antics that go against not my politics, but the grain of good taste and decency that should still apply on the airwaves.
THAT IS WHAT THIS IS ABOUT.
Somewhere along the line common sense was dumped for ratings in some radio stations up and down the dial. We all can find evidence of that when we roam the AM dial.
The question is how to remedy it.
There are laws and actions by the FCC, of course. They might or might not work, and besides that all takes time.
Therefore, I have a quicker remedy.
One that I know something about.
When I worked in radio nearly 30 years ago (yikes!) I wanted to be more effective when broadcasting from the WDOR studio in Sturgeon Bay. I had several small picture frames containing images of my nephews, parents, and a close friend. I often had one of them on the console in front of me when announcing the news or weather report. I was aiming the tone of my delivery as I would if back home chatting over the dinner table. (I was always the one that wanted to break the latest news and such to family, and that was one reason I wanted to work in radio.)
That the WDOR FM signal reached down to Milwaukee at night, and I spoke to listeners from there often, I knew there was more to my job than just being the average, everyday neighborhood DJ. I felt a bigger responsibility to do my job in the best way I could.
I was not only representing myself on the air, but also the station.
Being a friendly neighborhood broadcaster now seems quaint, and probably even deadly for what too many program directors seek out when playing for ad revenues.
Yet I think if more broadcasters had a picture of their family on the studio console they would find it hard to spout rancid talk over the airwaves. They also might find the listening audience would respond positively to civil talk and the higher standards of broadcasting that my mom desired.