Cultural Comment

Destroying the Joint? Austereo and our Moral and Social Compass

The “Royal Prank” story and its fallout, including the tragic suicide of Jacinta Saldanha, the nurse at the centre of it, has produced some lively conversation about a variety of issues, including the nature of pranks and their place in society. It has also produced some (not very surprising) hypocrisy from an English media that demonised the nurse in question – publicly humiliating her, making her life difficult – and then turning and pointing the finger at the radio hosts who did the prank. Those hosts did not place the pressure on Ms. Saldanha in Britain, the media there did that. What it has also done is place pressure on the media company that fostered this prank, but one that will dissipate quickly. They already have started to cover themselves with lines like they are ‘”very confident” that the radio station had done nothing illegal’. Nothing illegal, maybe, but morally questionable? Yes.

The stations we know as Austereo today (MMM and The Today Network) were frequently on my radio during the late 80s, 90s and into the 00s. The main reason I listened to the network was because it has had a large amount of talent pass through their corridors – Andrew Denton, Wendy Harmer, Judith Lucy, Greg Fleet, Tony Martin, Ed Kavalee, Richard Marsland, Mick Molloy, The whole D Generation, Doug Mulray, Stuart MacGill, Brian Carlton (aka Spoonman) and Amanda Keller are some of the stars whose work I have largely enjoyed or at least been interested by. The station’s main approach to the making of revenue is to play music that they think people want to listen to, mixed with comedy and / or comment on society. They hold regular music juries / focus groups to define their playlists (I was even on such a group for MMM – the room was filled with Anglo Celtic men in our 30s). While some people would not like their playlist, there is an audience that enjoys it and that’s what radio should do – cater to different tastes.

Somehow over the years, however, Austereo’s executives seemed to have taken more control over their programs and presenters, to the extent where each city has a formula and format that is fairly rigid – and is shaping a negative culture amongst the largely working class and young audience that listens. One of the things the network does is perpetuate a rigid set of female stereotypes. These days, the role of women on the shows, especially, seems to be reduced to a set of three female stereotypes. These are:

1. The Red Card Wielder – as in, the woman who Brings the Blokes Back Into Line, when the boys say something offensive, racist, sexist and otherwise “politically incorrect”. “Boys will be Boys” the line goes for these women. Brigitte Duclos played this role for a number of years in Melbourne.

2. The Giggling Babe – the one who giggles and gushes about whatever random thing comes into their mind and is often the butt of jokes from other presenters. Jackie O is the most well known exponent of this role, as is Fifi Box.

3. The Sunny, Upbeat Girl – the one who is always optimistic and happy, though one that can be serious on occasion. Almost never do you hear a female presenter on an Austereo radio station being a “downer” and having the full gamut of emotions. This is why it was astonishing Judith Lucy was employed in Sydney.

Down at MMM, there is another stereotype – the bikini babe. They will take any excuse to talk about women in an objectifying matter -this was the case in the MMM Hot Breakfast’s notorious “Bunga Bunga” party, which was supposedly “ironic”, but really was just an excuse to get girls in bikinis to appear on their website. That event also featured perpetuating discrimination against short statured people (as written about here by Stella Young). There was also the time where MMM Sydney’s Matthew Johns and the Grill Team (aka Sydney’s “Manliest Men”) talked, with testosterone dripping, about the attractiveness of Tony Abbott’s daughters – with Tony Abbott – which raised the hackles of not only Annabel Crabb. The examples showed that women, in Austereo land, seem to be just objects or are there to play some kind of second fiddle to the all important male star / stars. Not exactly providing positive role models to the teenage girls listening to the stations for One Direction tickets or to the teenage boys whose behavioural cues are being shaped in part by what they listen to on the media, not necessarily what they receive at home or at schools from authority figures like parents and teachers.

One such role model is Kyle Sandilands, who to the teenage girls and boys is the naughty kid at the back of the room who says what he thinks and doesn’t care what others think about those views. In other words, a bit of a hero. He adds to the stereotype of women being objects to look at, which show an astonishing lack of insight, sensitivity or intellect. One of the worst was his comment about Magda Szubanski “losing more weight in a concentration camp”. This comment, though, caused many in a class I was teaching at the time to ask exactly what a concentration camp actually was. This led to a discussion of Sandilands, which showed that the girls liked him, especially because he talked to stars they liked. The boys idolised him.

This is why I was a bemused and disaffected observer of the “Destroying the Joint” campaign. Alan Jones is a rigid sexist who appeals to a variety of sexist males who have held those views for a long time. Jones, being a cynical manipulator, just plays to those. The Destroy the Joint campaign to me was a way to distract progressives away from where the real fight should be – it was a little bit like people getting fired up about Peter Reith being on the largely unwatched The Drum. Worth a couple of tweets, but not a full campaign. Where we should be more concerned is with the way Austereo is bit by bit dismantling the victories won by feminism, especially amongst teenagers adults listening to them. People, I’ll add, who largely live in those outer suburban marginal seats of which we hear plenty.

The other side of the Austereo “winning formula” is the radio prank. I wrote of this in my previous post, where I discussed the idea that the radio pranks played by the various Austereo stations are almost always designed to play on the embarrassment of the poor working class person / student on a front desk at an important company or place where someone important is staying. A “bystander” as Mark Colvin put it during a Twitter conversation about this topic. They never intend to get through past the gatekeeper and the humour is derived from the embarrassment / truculence / unease of that person. Listeners to the stations are almost always working class people or teenagers who laugh at the fact that the person answering usually has to be polite, otherwise they lose their job. They know this because they themselves might find themselves in that position at some stage. It’s a case of “better them than me” because the humour is derived from the shared powerlessness with the person being called. In another Twitter conversation, Tad Tietze characterised this idea of humour as being “the feeling that, as long as those worse off than us are getting kicked, our own lack of power isn’t so bad”.

Another example of this manipulation of the powerless was a segment that finally severed me from listening to the Andrew Denton breakfast show. The segment involved people having to ring in to tell the audience why they deserved a cash prize. The bigger the story of need, the better. The audience were then challenged to either ring in the next day with a bigger story of need, or stay silent, not ring and the previous person would get the cash. Almost always, another person rang, meaning that the cash rarely went to anyone needing it. It was mean spirited and flesh crawling. Austereo at close to its meanest.

There has been a strain of comment that seems to work to absolve Austereo of responsibility for this turn of events. James Campbell from the Herald Sun blames the DJs – “I hope they stay unemployed. I hope that their names became a shorthand like Chernobyl – for a toxic disaster” and the audience – “Part of me can’t help feeling that the people who enjoy the sort of entertainment provided by Greig and Christian are partly responsible for Jacintha Saldanha’s death as well”. It’s not the DJs or the audience that we should be looking at. The DJs just played the well worn Austereo tune. It could well have been anyone at the station who could have triggered this tragedy accidentally, after following Austereo’s training and “blue sky sessions” that Tony Martin and Ed Kavalee used to joke about on Get This. The audience, too, are not responsible – they are the ones being shaped by a media organisation well honed at their task. It’s the Austereo people who should took a good hard look at this kind of call, rather than fix the PR disaster by simply playing by the 2GB trick of suspending advertising until it all blows over, when people find a new campaign, create a different hashtag or make Facebook updates about other things.

There will be those who say I “don’t have a sense of humour” and “you are trying to tread on freedom of speech” in regards to this kind of prank. But it does need to be analysed, discussed and eventually cut out from the Austereo playbook. It does belittle people who shouldn’t be treated in such a way – who never asked to be public figures, just people who do their job.

What Austereo should do is shape a more positive, progressive set of values and role models for its audiences. Have less of the giggly / house mother stereotypes and dial down the bikini babe references. They are able to attract good comedic talent and they should play that up. There have been examples of good, positive shows. I have (mostly) fond memories of the show Paul Murray and his genuine co-host, Rachel Corbett, did on MMM – intelligent, informed, stereotype and prank free (except for the time when people took a baseball bat to Gillard and Abbott shaped mannequins). Those of us who remember Get This with Tony Martin, Ed Kavalee and the tragically late Richard Marsland (aka Marslando Calrissian) would remember a show that was both popular and lacking in the kind of offensive stereotypes and pranks that we hear too much on Austereo.

I can’t imagine that a more mature and sensitive network would lose them their audience. Perhaps they fear changing from what they see as a winning formula and that’s why they won’t take a lead and change from their sexism and manipulation of the powerless. After all, they cancelled Get This, despite its very good ratings. I doubt the executives of Austereo – led by the infamous Max “the Axe” Moore – Wilton, (who once upon a time was the head of the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the Howard era) would ever want to listen to criticism. Especially that summarised by the following comment by Mark Twain (provided to me by Leroy Lynch, who also provided two of the links in this post), quoted in this excellent article – “When grown-ups indulge in practical jokes, the fact gauges them. They’ve lived narrow, ignorant lives, full of leftover standards that would have been long since discarded with their boyhood if they’d led a fuller life.” I think they’ll just continue to live out their Mad Men fantasies, down another drink and continue to manage the PR.

By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

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