Commercial radio really must stop feeding the Ego Monster.
By over-inflating the self-worth of some of their employees, the broadcasters create risks for the public, toxic environments, and rods for their own backs.
The problem is not limited to radio hosts, although they are the most obvious manifestation of the abnormality. It affects executives and, indeed, anyone in the organisation who buys into the belief that they are personally contributing to success in the latest audience ratings.
The need to chase ratings is, of course, part and parcel of the commercial environment. Advertisers buy time based on the audience the radio network reaches. The segmented nature of the market and the number of stations attempting to reach listeners within those segments mean it is a highly contested environment.
The potential audience is 3.5 million New Zealanders who listen to commercial radio each week and the networked nature of much of that broadcasting means the audience is a national one. There is money to be made – $233 million or thereabouts, which is more than newspapers’ print advertising revenue last year.
To gain a bigger share of that pie, commercial broadcasters not only put effort into programming but into marketing the programmes and the people that make them.
That’s fair enough but there comes a stage where those involved begin (to put it none too delicately) to believe their own bullshit. And the higher up the ratings ladder, the greater the likelihood that those involved (again to put it none too delicately) will be a bit full of it.
Commercial radio has always had its personalities. Bill Francis’ history of ZB is festooned with household names, from Colin Scrimgeour (Uncle Scrim) and Maud Basham (Aunt Daisy) to Leighton Smith and Paul Holmes. The book was dedicated to the latter two, along with fellow ‘breakfast stars’ Phil Shone and Merv Smith “who, for 65 of the past 70 years, have given 1ZB an unassailable ascendancy at the start of each day”.
It is that quest for ‘unassailable ascendancy’ that has allowed the Ego Monster to take up residence in commercial radio which feeds it so regularly it often fills the room.
Holmes was arguably the first to be overfed. He was surprisingly insecure and needed constant reassurance. As a ratings winner he received it on a regular basis but, like other junk food, it was not particularly good for him, and he came to see himself as greater than the sum of his parts.
When I read his breakfast show successor’s New Zealand Herald column last week, I wondered whether Mike Hosking also needed a change of diet. He called for the demise of the Labour government at the next election (as is clearly his prerogative) but his final sentence had the air of a vaunted ultimatum about it: “If we don’t, I’m off to Australia.” Aside from inviting his detractors to vote Labour, the comment smacked of “Hosking Has Spoken”.
Personally, I find that sort of inflated-ego discourse distasteful and opt to listen to programmes that don’t exhibit it. However, I’m less concerned about the effect of the ego diet on individual hosts as I am on the overall culture of commercial radio.
A clutch of news stories over the past week struck me as pointing to a deeper malaise.
One was the disclosure that ZB sports host Martin Devlin was off air after verbally abusing and throwing a punch at a young colleague in the NZME newsroom and, earlier, sending inappropriate messages to other colleagues. Delvin expressed his shame over the incidents.
The second was a report that Ski FM, owned by Iain Stables who is a former host on both NZME and MediaWorks stations, had posted a job ad that called for an unpaid intern and an on-air presenter. In the presenter’s ad, Ski FM told prospective employees they would “love our MediaWorks inspired ‘sexual harassment Sundays’”. That was a reference to an ongoing external review of workplace culture and harassment at MediaWorks Radio. SkiFM’s owners, Central Media Group now say they are “deeply sorry” for the advertisements and that a review is under way of the “current workplace practices”.
The third was a One News follow-up to its investigation of harassment at MediaWorks station The Rock in which current and former staff say they fear nothing will change in the company’s culture in spite of the external review. The story contained allegations against overbearing managers, a “toxic culture”, and bullying that had been “actively enabled by some of the most powerful people in the organisation”. The review, by Maria Dew QC, has yet to be completed.
The fourth was another One News report (in which I was asked to comment on the principles involved) in which a young woman claimed she had been misled over a ‘dating game’ on The Edge (a MediaWorks network) in which company employees had posed as potential dates. The woman had revealed details about previous relationships on the programme, unaware that the other participants were not bona fide. In my view the station had failed the woman on two counts: informed consent and subterfuge.
And yesterday came a fifth story that suggested the malaise just might extend beyond commercial radio into the realm of the state broadcaster RNZ. The New Zealand Herald reported that five RNZ employees have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexism in the last five years – three of whom have left the broadcaster as a result. That led me to reflect that, although ratings are not tied to advertising for RNZ, it nonetheless pays close attention to the surveys because they point to the ongoing size of audiences served with public funding. Maybe the Ego Monster – a primary contributor to harassment, bullying and sexism – is being fed there, too.
A common thread seems to run through these stories and the culture that I believe underlies it. It may be explained by going back to that wonderful educational tool, Sesame Street. Cookie Monster, Frank Zappa’s bug-eyed blue beast with a big mouth, had a catch-cry: “ME WANT COOKIE!”. Radio feeds its key people not with cookies but with ego boosters. The result is the same form of craving that bedevils Sydney Monster (Cookie’s real name as revealed in a 2017 interview).
“Me want…” is one of the consequences of inflating people’s sense of self-worth beyond what is real or even reasonable. This sense of entitlement (or “you owe me”) grows as people come to see themselves as key contributors to the fortunes of the organisation in which they work. Often their excesses are excused as radio’s need to embrace ‘larger-than-life personalities’ and ‘colourful characters’.
You might argue that there is nothing wrong with seeing yourself as a key contributor and, on one level, that is perfectly true. A sense of contribution makes you a good employee. However, the trouble starts when it grows out of proportion, and that leads to real trouble when the employee (or employer) also believes they are bulletproof.
Look back over decisions of the Broadcasting Standards Authority and you will find examples of that combination at work. The one that sticks in my mind is the case where the mother of cricketer Ben Stokes poured her heart out after being told she was off-air. She wasn’t, and the radio hosts knew it.
The stories that ran over the past week suggest that commercial radio, and perhaps the radio industry generally, has to take a very close look at itself. Those stories leave me with the impression it is, indeed, an environment that creates risks for the public and toxic cultures within.
I am looking to MediaWorks to show the way. Maria Dew’s review of the company’s workplace practices will provide a start point. Thereafter, the organisation’s new CEO Cam Wallace has the ability to create a new culture. He has the right credentials for doing so. He is an industry outsider (he came from Air New Zealand and is bringing one of his airline colleagues into the structure as chief financial officer). He is a straight talker who doesn’t minimise issues. And he charted the correct course in bringing in Maria Dew. In short, he should be able to institute reality checks, bring some people back down to Earth, and ensure they stay there.
NZME and the other players in the radio industry need to do likewise. Collectively, they need to recognise ego can be a toxin and stop feeding the monster.
A bouquet: To Toby Mahire for his editorship of The Spinoff over the past three and half years. He is stepping down in September to take on a new role as editor-at-large, which will allow him to write more and do more podcasts. It will be good to see more of his work. He has brought intelligence, creativity and –at times – a little devilment to the role of editor. He and managing editor Duncan Greive have seen the website develop and mature (but not grow up too much). He will be replaced by two impressive women as co-editors – foundation staffer Alex Casey and long-time colleague Madeleine Chapman who was formerly a senior editor at North and South.
Happy 160th birthday: The Press in Christchurch celebrates its birthday May 25 and, in an editorial to mark the occasion, editor Kamala Hayman concludes with words that are at the forefront of journalism today. She says: “In an era of misinformation and a distrust of mainstream journalism, we do not take our readers’ trust for granted. Mindful of this, we remain proud of the words we publish on every front page: Nihil utile quod non-honestum or “Nothing is useful that is not honest”. https://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/125143116/from-the-editor-160-years-of-the-press