The three DJs and seven others (not identified by name or job title in any of the stories I’ve found so far) have been fired for their role in the “Hold your Wee for a Wii” contest that resulted in the water intoxication death of 2007’s first Darwin Award nominee, Jennifer Lea Strange. Authorities say it’s unlikely charges will be filed, saying something to the effect that it’s not a crime to lead a horse to water.
Here’s the problem. Was Entercom Sacramento’s president fired? The GM? Were any of the people responsible for creating the atmosphere in which this kind of “entertainment” must occur held accountable?
Every day, across the country, millions of listeners are treated to a radio programming philosophy that emphasizes Xtreme Stupidity – what can we get people to do for a dollar? What will they do for a game system? Hell, what will they do just to get their names on the radio? How will they humiliate and degrade themselves?
I started to suggest that the radio employees involved were also degraded by their participation, but then realized how stupid a thing that was to say – if you listen to some of these shows you realize that DJs, promotions people and programmers are already about as low on the cultural ladder as it’s possible to be. If you have any shame, any self-respect, any moral character, any judgment – really, any positive human social qualities at all, you’re unqualified for the position. Many of these people are little more than apes in pants, and I say this at the risk of offending apes everywhere: I offer you exhibit 1, exhibit 2, exhibit 3, and finally, the mother of all exhibits.
But again, who’s really to blame? These people are symptoms, and as much as they itch, the problem is the actual plague, not the individual pustules erupting on the ass of the media landscape. Yes, they certainly need lancing, but they don’t own stations. They don’t own the conglomerates. They don’t do the hiring.
I used to work in radio, and let me tell you, the kind of people who sit in the front offices and call the shots behind the scenes are often lower forms of life than even the shock jocks. They want ratings, ratings, more ratings, and do whatever you have to so long as you don’t nailed by the FCC. And it’s okay to get nailed by the FCC a little, so long as the promotional value from the scandal generates more net revenue than the fine costs us. And if you “cross the line,” they’ll harrumph and get their shocked citizen masks on and kick you to curb with extreme righteousness and as soon as the cameras look away they’ll have another crew just like you, if not worse, on the air in your spot.
The shock jocks are just the foot soldiers in the war on culture. The real warmongers, as is so often the case when bad things are happening, are the suits.
The other thing to think about is this. Chart the rise of the shock jock phenomenon. Now, on the same graph, chart the decline of music quality. Hmmm. As the music industry sucks worse and worse, we have more and more non-musical programming on the air. See, once upon a time they had entertainment on the radio – it was called music. But in The American Idle Age, the music you hear on the air is unlistenable and the labels and programmers have no interest whatsoever in investing in development of genuinely talented artists.
I keep coming back to Fowler and Brenner, the masterminds behind Ronnie Reagan’s dismantling of the public interest clause. They’re the ones who famously said that the public interest is what the public is interested in, which I think even the daftest among us are now starting to realize is something of a lie. It’s not a simple cause/effect dynamic – it’s a much more complex system of intercausalities that have ushered us to the point where shock jocks stage stunts that result in people dying and nobody really thinks much about it except to do what I did – toss off a Darwin Awards joke. Really, in the most advanced nation on Earth, here at the dawn of a bright new millennium, don’t you think we ought to be outraged just a little? Don’t you think it would proper if the FCC were at least as outraged over the state of shock radio as they are over, oh I don’t know, a wardrobe malfunction? Hell, every single episode of 24 features satellite shots of terrorists that are clearer than that microflash of Janet Jackson’s presumedly luscious nipple.
And by outraged, I don’t mean lancing isolated boils – I mean outraged in the sense that they might actually think about curing the fucking disease.
The last thing I want is to take the fun out of life. And I say this as a guy who has had a lot of fun with the radio on – truly, I love radio, or used to. But spectrum is a (legally) scarce and regulated commodity, and the government has no apparent justifiable interest in licensing it to those whose only function in life is profiteer off our degradation.
I hope I don’t trivialize Strange’s death (any further) by reminding you that I’m running for president, and there will be a forthcoming platform plank where the phrase “public interest” gets dragged out of mothballs and exposed to the light. The worst thing that reapplying an enlightened public interest standard would do to radio is kill it. Check the numbers – it’s already on the way. And if the alternative is 24/7 programming of people trying not to piss their pants before they kick over dead, then the sooner we flip off the lights the better.