Free Speech Versus Political Correctness: Land of the Free, Home of the Browbeaten

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 649   By: Lauren Davis

15th November, 2007     0

Recently, poplar local radio personality and WHNN morning host Johnny Burke was blasted for a stunt he pulled on line and on the air regarding the Flint Public Schools. It would appear that Mr. Burk did a few parodies and placed a mock assessment online that got some people's dander up.

Naturally, when the proverbial "matter" hit the machine, I was asked by my editor to contact John, a friend, and get some comments. For those of you who don't know, I spent nearly 2 decades in the business and worked with Johnny for a number of years. I now work in multimedia, which includes online radio.

While the press ballyhooed all over the place looking for any scrap of inside information, I didn't feel the need to make a single call. Because I know what's up. I knew what was up with Don Imus, and "Mancow" Meuller, and all the other radio personalities who have gone out of the frying pan and into the fire in recent radio history.

This is nothing new. It's part of the job.

It might surprise people to know that radio is really not a very easy gig. With all due respect to those of you who do very hard physical labor: construction, excavation, nursing, etc. al., I feel the need to point out this fundamental fact. Too often, listener perception of his/her favorite jock is that he/she sits around, burning incense under a black light, waiting to put on the next song like Venus Flytrap on WKRP. That's just not the way it works.

It really works like this:

While the music is playing, your favorite personality is doing an interview off the air, taking a remote feed from a co-worker "on location at Joe's Cars" ("free pop, popcorn, and balloons for the kids!!!"), and he's getting an earful from a sales guy who really wants to please a client, but doesn't want to check with the jock to see if he has the time to appear at another "brilliant" promotion.
If the personality in question has the kind boss that I did when I was in it, he is going to win the daily lottery and get a brief and pointless visit from the General Manager, who is a master in the art of patting the jock on the back and slapping him in the face in the same, swift movement.

Said General Manager will recommend a stunt or feature that has likely already been in practice for three years, and, when the three point five minutes of slumming are done, can be seen slinking quickly back to the office to cross "take time with the morons" off his to-do list.
In the real radio world, the average regular radio personality logs anywhere from fifty to seventy hours a week, sometimes more, including weekends and holidays. Since they are paid on salary, this does not bump up their salary, and it does not engender them any more greatly to the boss: it is merely an expectation.

You see, aside from spinning tunes (which is now done by computer), a radio personality of today is a savvy marketer, and effective promoter, and a skilled politician. He's got to wrangle his way around the expectations of his program director, his management, his public and his general community. An effective radio personality is always "On", no matter what.

After the show, each personality has a million other duties that he/she has to squeeze in between what can sometimes be dozens of personal appearance each week. This can be anything from writing and cutting radio spots, dubbing pre-recorded spots into the system, music scheduling, promotional planning, and show-prep. Corporate management loves meetings, even if they don't accomplish anything substantive. So you can add that to the schedule too.

Since radio has gone to automation, which is supposed to make things easier on the jock, the amount of employees who actually make the station tick has been cut in half. It may surprise the general public to know that the average is station in our market, discounting the sales staff, is run by a handful of guys and gals who have been schooled in the world of "multitasking". It's a no win situation. Push your self past exhaustion and show the boss that you can accomplish something, and it will add another title to your bulging job classification.

Take WKQZ's Joe Volk, for example. While I'm not a fan, I have to say I respect the fact that he proves that radio is a test of endurance. Joe not only co-hosts Z's "Joe and the Poorboy", he works sales too. So he comes in at 4:30 in the morning, does his show, works with his other multitasking partner on building the next day's show, and he's off to do sales calls until the late evening. He is also expected to do appearances, which can mean another 2-4 hours each. Joe has a wife and two boys at home, who are lucky to see him half as much as his fans and clients do. He's tired. We're all tired.

Tragically, a program director from a radio station in Flint recently died of a heart attack at an airport while waiting to go to a business conference. He was very young, and a very dedicated broadcaster with a wife and children. Everyone shook their heads and wondered how it could happen. Those of us who have been there, well, they know.
Radio is not an easy job.

The Meat of the Matter

SoŠ going back to Johnny Burke, and a stunt that ruffled some feathers. I didn't call Johnny because, in light of the fact that we're friends, it would have been improper. Besides, even if I had the limited level of propriety it takes to make that kind of call; Johnny would have been well gagged by Citadel Broadcasting's legal department.

So I'm going to say what he can't.

On the air, you are expected to be compelling. This means that no matter what is going on off the air, or who you are off the air, you have to create a perception in the listener's mind. Johnny, a master at self-promotion and a tremendously talented broadcaster, has played this game for a number of years, and he's done it well.

Try this yourself: write material for one show. Just ONE. See if you can make your friends and family laugh with it. Now try doing it 5-6 days a week, for nearly 30 years. Come up with fresh material, be topical, and do something that is going to generate "water cooler chatter". Go on now. Get it done! The lesson here is how much time you can devote to each bit. If you actually try this, you will find it nearly impossible to give any one thing a great deal of your time.

This thing about being "compelling" is what the General Manager walks into the Jocks' studios to talk about. When my station banned The Who after Pete Townsend admitted to surfing the web for child pornography, ostensibly for research with his pre-pubescent son, our reaction was a carefully choreographed maneuver that we knew would cause flack. It was done with the full knowledge and consent of our superiors. And once the Who Fan Club got hold of us, it got pretty ugly.

Former General Manager Scott Meier pulled me into his office and said, "It doesn't matter what they say about youŠas long as they are talking".

So while there are still a few jocks that go off and do their own thing, the truth is that a personality who takes chances and does something controversial has a reasonable expectation that if it's expected of him, he should have the full support of his company when things blow up. 

Nobody should be surprised that this is exactly what happened.

Don't get me wrong. I am not making excuses for Johnny Burke. It's just that he doesn't need any.

Was the posting on his website, and any relevant bit over the line? I can't speak to that. I didn't see the bit. But I can assure you that he didn't take the time to plot and scheme a way to best offend the Flint School District. He didn't have the time.
Was it in poor taste?

Maybe. But in my experience, it's all frustrating. As a radio personality, it is your job to follow current events and know what your community is doing. Flint Public Schools may have taken offense to the statements, and they may be have some valid points: but I believe that there is a lot going on with stones and glass houses here.

I think when they can point to safe schools and educated children, when they can show well handled finances and teachers who, in the majority, do more than "mail it in".... when they can claim their schools are reasonably drug free and their juvenile crime rates are next to nothing, they may have a case. Otherwise, I think they are just finding that life in the spotlight is a little uncomfortable. Sure, it could have been a bit about Frankenmuth, Midland Schools, or any other school system in America. Perhaps Burke chose Flint not because of the demographics of the Flint population, but because this particular school district is just a shining example of what NOT to do.

Knowing Johnny Burke personally, I think it fair to say that when he runs a bit like this, he is just expressing a frustration that all of us feel when any attempts at reasonable discourse and calls to action have failed.

Flint has been a community in a quagmire of selfishness, poverty, corruption, apathy, and crime. Burke painted a picture of that using humor and irony. Perhaps he could have done so more tastefully. But that would have been disingenuous. It's not what his listeners (or sponsors) sign on for. It's not what his bosses expect. And it doesn't get anybody thinking.

Truth Doesn't Equivocate

Johnny Burke has picked on everyone with equanimityŠincluding himself. It just doesn't get noticed.

In all, the constant and ridiculous barrage of the Political Correctness Nazis has taken the fundamental right of our constitution to task: that is, the right to free speech.

While I have no desire to get on a soapbox over this issue, I think it is worth pointing out that it's not so much someone speaking out against Johnny Burke running a bit that offends Flint Public Schools that I find interesting. It's the hypocrisy that it takes for that school district to point a finger at him and to try to deflect the truth in it by accusing Burke of attacking their kids.

They are missing the pointŠmuch as they have for decades.

The school district has let its kids down. That was Johnny's point. That is the focus. And as a guy who has dedicated years to the Johnny Burke Children's Foundation, someone who I have seen agonize over some of the letters he gets telling him about children, of all demographics, who need help, Johnny Burke called the people responsible for the children in that district to task.

Our constitution afforded him that right, he exercised it, and he got nailed for it. One might say that Flint Public Schools exercised that right too, in protest. Fair enough. If I were Burke, I would send them a giant thank you card and a dozen roses for the noise they've made on this issue.

Because now, people are talking.

In my time in radio, I have worked closely with people who have put their lives on the line in Iraq. These bright, motivated, and talented people take criticism over the war with a grain of salt, saying "I may not agree with what you have to say about the war: but I will fight and die defending your right to say it."

That is a powerful testament to the value of the freedom to speak in the good old U-S-of-A.

I agree there have to be certain rules of propriety in the game of broadcasting. As public figures, we all have a responsibility to our communities. But there seems to be a definitive selectiveness at work in this particular "PC" agenda. There is hypocrisy.

Perhaps, if they were truly interested in the welfare of their children, Flint Public Schools could have sent the same dozen roses to Johnny, with a note saying:

"It was a really lousy way of doing it, but thanks for pointing out what we're up against".

They could have made the same statements to the press, taking that opportunity to point to the fact that they were struggling against many issues. They could have used that opportunity to call out for help.

Instead, they chose to use the media to deflect the spotlight from the real issues.

If that isn't sad, I don't know what is.

Don Imus and his callous comments about a female basketball team were racially motivated and out of line. He got called on it, and he had it coming. Mancow's irreverent stunts have pushed the line many times. But the point of free speech, specifically on the radio, is that free listening applies too:

You don't have to subject yourself to it.

Every radio comes with an off button, every website comes with a navigator bar, and every newspaper can be folded and thrown in the trash.

If you choose to hear the message, you are exercising your first amendment right, which includes many options; not the least of which... is to think.

Had Flint Public Schools done that before they shot off a heated retort, they might have gotten help for the kids they so vehemently defended.

As it stands, what they have is public attention on what they aren't doing.

While it might be easy to do you can't blame Burke for that.

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