Should You Avoid Some Topics for Fear of Being Fired?
by Tracy Johnson
As an air personality, do you avoid topics for fear of being fired? Or getting in trouble with management? Or a client? How bold should you be? What risks are acceptable?
You probably heard about Kimberly & Beck (WBZA/Rochester) being terminated for inappropriate comments about transgender people. Their rant about the city’s benefits policy for employees cost them their job.after a 12 minute break sparked an immediate backlash.
In all, more than 4,500 people signed an online petition calling for their heads. Entercom market manager Sue Munn apologized for “hateful comments against the transgender community that do not represent our station [Rock ‘98.9 the Buzz’ WBZA] or our company.”
Some of the highlights (or depending on your point of view, lowlights) of the break including using “Dude Looks Like a Lady” as production value. They also aired a caller that complained. Then the show attacked and made fun of the caller.
Here is part of the banter:
The services that will be paid for under the new coverage: gender assignment surgery, psychological counseling, because you’re probably a nut job to begin with. That’s my opinion. Hormone therapy [and] cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.
Kimberly later responded after in a tweet:
Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend others. You aren’t granted a right to not be offended in this life #getoverit #ROC.
To mitigate the negative backlash, Entercom jettisoned the show, and went to an all-music show.
Was It Worth The Risk?
I won’t comment on the appropriateness of the content. After all, is it appropriate for Howard Stern to interview strippers and prostitutes? That is subjective, and is largely affected by the target audience, the appeal of the show, the mission of the station, etc.
But I will comment on how it was executed and then managed:
Broadcasters (management) ask personalities to be local (they were), relevant (yes, ticks that box), and relatable by putting a unique spin on content. This does all of that.
I’m not familiar with this show or station. But it may very well be in line with the nature of what they present on their show. And, being a rock station, the content may fit the expectation of the core audience. It may offend you, but does it offend their fans? That’s a key question.
Controversy or Controversial?
It’s one thing to deal with a controversy. It’s another to become the controversy by being controversial. One thing stands out as almost certainly outside the line of good taste. Kimberly suggested that the transgender was “probably a nut job to begin with”. That’s a stupid, inflammatory comment, and it stands out in the midst of this segment.
Personalities should never, ever attack a listener individually. This makes it personal. Going after the caller that disagreed makes the talent come off as insensitive, intolerant and generally unlikable. And that’s universal, independent of station goals and audience expectation.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a spirited and lively discussion. But avoid personal attacks. That’s a no-win situation. It’s bullying. And it’s probably why there was such a strong negative reaction.
It seems an over-reaction to terminate the show. There may be factors we don’t know, of course. But when the GM responded to the backlash, she transferred power to the protesters.
Alert to the next morning show: Good luck the next time you stir up a special interest group.
This is happening more and more. An individual, or a local group is offended and using their resources (including social media tools) activate a community that didn’t hear it, doesn’t listen to the show or station and never will.
Performing With Fear of Being Fired
Personalities must be bold. They have to have an opinion. A point of view.
Most shows don’t because the company won’t let them, or are afraid of the fallout. Strong opinions rally (and polarize) an audience. It defines a personality. It causes listeners to get to know you, and either love you for courage or at least remember you for provoking an emotion.
But be smart about it. This wasn’t about the content, but about the approach taken by the show. They came off as intolerant, angry, and frankly, shallow. It wasn’t fun or playful. They come off as bullies, and mostly unlikable.
Incidents like this cause other personalities (and stations) to add one more thing to the growing list that must be avoided.
More and more, we program and prepare to avoid controversy, out of fear. That results in generic, vanilla, safe stations. It’s one more step into the Zone of Mediocrity.
I’m not excusing the morning show that was terminated. Not at all. What they did poorly planned and mean-spirited. It wasn’t clever to simply go on the attacThe mistake wasn’t in content selection. It was in performance. This can be coached and managed. They should learn to prep better, longer and deeper.
Be clever. Don’t be stupid.
Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.