Alan Jones’ recent outburst against New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has reinforced his reputation locally as one of our most shit bagging ‘shock jocks’, along with his fellow 2GB presenter Ray Hadley. However, compared to some of their US counterparts, their venom is of fairly low toxicity.
America, of course, has a long and at times sordid history of so-called shock jocks, dating back to the highly confrontational Joe Pyne in the early 1950s. Often referred to as the nation’s first-ever shock jock, Pyne swapped his normal DJ duties for a highly opinionated approach to politics and social issues. The result was a ratings bonanza as he pioneered an early form of talkback radio, often telling members of the public with whom he disagreed to “go gargle with razor blades.” His most infamous incident came when he graduated to a TV talk show and was interviewing a black militant during the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. At one stage he opened his coat to reveal a handgun he was carrying, complemented when his guest did exactly the same.
Traditionally the American shock jock has fallen into one of two categories. The hardline political jocks like Rush Limbaugh and G Gordon Liddy have long peddled an ultra-patriotic line of right-wing opinion. On the other hand, there’s the irreverent, taboo trashing school of personalities like Howard Stern, a lot less conservative in their political beliefs and ready to say whatever America’s much more liberal freedom of speech laws will allow them.
Here in Australia, those radio presenters who chose to sound off, are shackled with all kinds of station restrictions, delay buttons, ACMA scrutiny and defamation laws that have resulted in some massive payouts in recent years. No doubt broadcasters like Jones, Hadley, Bolt, and Sandilands would welcome the kind of free speech environment that the American opinion-makers enjoy.
Whether the Australian public would ever tolerate the more extreme hate speech that is synonymous with some American broadcasters is highly unlikely. The kind of backlash we saw against Jones’ Ardern outburst, where his critics targeted his advertisers, is just one response we might expect.
With the demise of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and media controllers like Roger Ailes, there’s a feeling in the US that the ranting, raving school of aggressive political influencers might have had their day, even given the current climate of Trumpian discourse. Broadcasters can still push a highly opinionated form of political and social commentary but without the histrionics and in your face confrontation made famous by Bill O’Reilly.
In May of this year, Variety magazine ran a story titled, Is Radio’s Shock Jock Era Over, in which they argued a number of factors for why the format was floundering. They pointed to the rise of political correctness as well as radio stations not wanting to offend their advertisers. More telling, however, was the following quote from a PR executive which suggests that the shock jocks may well have nothing left to shock.
“In an era when there is daily news about the president of the United States paying off a porn star… and telling Billy Bush that he can feel free to grab a woman’s most private parts, shock radio has become reality – So how can we be any further shocked?”