Is it time for the media to show a little respect?

Do some radio broadcasters treat their audiences as idiots, incapable of intelligence?

By James Cridland
Posted 30 August 2016, 8.22am bst
Magnus D

One item of debate in the US radio industry is a fake regular caller - Dwayne from Swedesboro, who used to call into a radio station almost every day. Dwayne didn’t exist. He was a character dreamt up and played by a producer of the show, though the presenter never knew.

While there are more issues around this specific story, I must confess that I didn’t see this as being particularly shocking. Radio isn’t always entirely “real”, and audiences probably shouldn’t expect it to be. The Friends cast were scripted to always be that funny. They were played by actors. Radio probably needn’t be too different.

One of my favourite call-in shows, Iain Lee on UK radio station talkRADIO, has a bunch of characters that are obviously acts. Barry from Watford is an old man who’s never short of an opinion. The audience is left to work out for themselves that “Barry” doesn’t really exist - he’s a 48-year-old actor called Alex Lowe, who’s taken the character onto television and a stage show.

The English comedian Peter Cook used to call into London’s LBC radio station, playing a character called Sven from Norway. Once more, the audience was never told “this is Peter Cook playing a character!” - they were credited with the intelligence to make that discovery for themselves.

Absolute Radio’s Geoff Lloyd spoke at the Next Radio conference a few years ago, in a talk entitled “People Are Idiots”. In it, he argued strongly that people aren’t. “Treat your audience like idiots, and they’ll behave like idiots.” He mentions - and it’s a great watch if you haven’t done so - that Frasier’s writers used to put in jokes that only 5% of the audience would ‘get’.

The TV Tropes website has recognised that many television executives think viewers are morons. Indeed, the BBC has been accused by many of “dumbing down”, deliberately putting programs on-air that don’t require much intelligence. “The fear and hatred of intelligence [is] so all-pervading,” complained one BBC employee, adding “One is constantly putting sheer rubbish on the air because of having talks which sounded too intelligent cancelled at the last moment.” The employee in question - author George Orwell, writing in 1942. Times may change, but the complaints don’t.

It’s not just broadcasting which treats our audience as if they’re dumb. Journalism, particularly newspapers, is also full of it. In a Medium post, Jennifer Brandel quotes some of the attitudes she’s had from newsrooms and their bosses: “If we gave the audience what they wanted, they’d ask for crap!”, or worse, “Our audience is a bunch of idiots and assholes. Why exactly would we want to hear more from them than we already do?”

And don’t even start on the way we treat people on websites, with pop-ups and punch-the-monkey ad-banners.

So it’s interesting to consider, as a Facebook commenter of mine did a few months ago, that the “public service” tradition of broadcasters in Europe and Australia mainly tend to treat audiences as intelligent human beings with things to say and views to respect. The commercial broadcasters of the same countries are significantly less engaged with their audiences, treating them more as numbers on a demographic sheet than individual people. The audience figures appear to point to a success for the former approach, rather than the latter.

So when it comes to the intelligence of our audience, all I’m asking is for a little respect. Just a little bit. Sock it to me?

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.


5 years, 3 months ago

The Stephen Nolan Show runs weekday mornings, 9am to 10:30am on BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle and does have a regular listener called 'Norman from Bangor'.
BBC Northern Ireland did a tv documentary covering the 40th anniversary of BBC Radio Ulster. Part of that documentary included regular callers to The Stephen Nolan Show including 'Norman From Bangor', interviewed in Norman's living room.

I am sure that the regular callers to the Nolan Show are actually genuine!

Stephen Nolan may not be everyone's cup of tea in Northern Ireland, but according to the stats, the Nolan Show is the biggest radio show in the province. It is certainly one of the more exciting talk shows on UK radio!

Rival commercial station Downtown Radio also celebrated 40 years on air. Downtown has done some spoof phone-ins over the years including pantomime character May McFettridge, played by John Linehan. Most long time listeners to Downtown Radio were savvy enough to realise that the May McFettridge character was only a piece of harmless fun!

5 years, 3 months ago

It was bound to happen that when broadcasters felt that phone-ins made them more 'connected' and maybe also (public service) accountable too, that abuses of the contact would happen. Thing is, just as the lazy broadcaster opted for the easy route with phone-ins so it also undermined the listener and viewer whose brain was still active. Same happens now with requests for contact via social media but you then end up hearing say maybe one or two references to tweets and FB within an hours broadcast. Pathetic.

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