'Gotcha' call has got to go

The pressure on radio presenters and their program teams is constant and unrelenting. The demand to be noticed, to stand out from the crowd and give listeners a reason to stay on the station and talk about it around the water cooler is not a request – it is a pre-requisite.

Large and loyal audiences mean high ratings and substantial revenue flows for the networks. The demands on presenters, producers and the program teams are monumental. Radio is tough, fast and unrelenting.

This was the case when I was responsible for the programming of radio networks and is more so now as all media faces growing competition for audience ears and eyeballs.

I have held senior programming and management positions in radio and television for the past three decades, including time as program director for the Southern Cross Austereo station 2Day FM, now at the centre of the extraordinary events surrounding the death of London nurse Jacintha Saldanha.

Never before have I experienced such polarised opinion and so much emotion. This situation is one of the saddest and most thought-provoking I have ever been exposed to and one which no one could have credibly predicted.

There are no winners here.

We have two unseasoned radio presenters presenting the 2Day FM Summer Hot 30 countdown who are required to do more than just play music. We can get that from our iPods and iTunes downloads.

If you are a presenter on music radio today you must have a point of difference to be successful. You must create the “watercooler effect.” As a senior manager I constantly reinforced the need for the presenters to be the mortar between the bricks, to stand out from the music, give listeners a reason to stay on the station.

This was and still is the key to being a successful presenter, whether it is on a music or news talk format. Presenters must connect and entertain listeners; it is paramount to being successful.

Decades ago, before social media, iPods and iTunes, the pressures on presenters were less demanding than they are now. We had no legal teams to check our proposed content; no additional person to man the dump button. The presenter was armed with a seven-second delay system that he or she controlled.

It was simple and straightforward. Prank calls went to air regularly – funny, irreverent and entertaining. The presenter pre-taped them and if they were not sure of the content they would check with me. I would call it. I used my experience and commonsense combined with the radio codes of practice.

My professional boundaries were simple: no permission, no broadcast; it had to be compelling radio, cannot hurt anyone and importantly, had to let the caller in on “the reveal” to give them a voice and an opportunity to share the joke.

This is how our teams worked. We ensured that the person on the end of the prank call would be in on the joke and be able to have a laugh at themselves and have a chance to chastise the presenter.

Prank calls in various forms have been around for decades, on television and radio. The national youth broadcaster Triple J had one of the best in presenting the “gotcha” call – Alan McGirvan.

One of McGirvan's more memorable calls was when he posed as a panelbeater and spoke to a man who had booked his car in for a simple service. He called the owner to tell him that he accidentally dropped the car off a hoist, smashing it to pieces.

The prank went on for several minutes until the owner became so agitated that McGirvan did “the big reveal”. The response was funnier than the call with the owner chastising McGirvan in colourful language requiring multiple beeps.

McGirvan's prank calls were so popular with listeners that many would call to set up their mates.

During his time as a broadcaster McGirvan posed as many different characters including Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) wanting to purchase real estate to an airline pilot needing to refuel in Guam.

I played McGirvans' examples to my on-air team to demonstrate the way to entertain, and how you could connect with your audience with “gotcha” calls, with the listener sharing the spotlight.

Other successful “gotcha” callers include the legendary Doug Mulray, Club Veg, Andrew Denton, Ian MacRae, Richard Stubbs, Keith McGowan, and Hamish and Andy to name a few. The prank call has been in play for many years with some very funny and entertaining results.

Southern Cross Austereo is arguably Australia's most successful radio network. Chief executive Rhys Holleran is clearly gutted by what has happened – not only by the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha but with the long-term effect on his broadcast team and his network. He is known as someone who has always played by the rules and has never taken a backward step in accepting his responsibilities.

In my view, what was lacking in the current situation was old-fashioned commonsense and use of the adage “when in doubt, leave out”. Today's codes of practice are clear, as is the law, and in most radio networks, including SCA, there are legal teams on staff, producers, program directors, group directors of programming and senior managers to check and scrutinise every word that goes to air.

The question remains: how did this call get the green light for broadcast? There is no need for more regulations to deal with this. It is clearly covered by the codes of practice and the law.

On Monday's A Current Affair and Today Tonight presenters Michael Christian and Mel Greig said they had no idea of the system of approval at 2Day – just that they knew they had to have content cleared before it was broadcast. This is conceivable, given the number of people involved in the process, but if it were simplified perhaps this tragic episode could have unfolded differently.

There remain many unanswered questions. Did the London hospital have a privacy policy?

How did this call get through to the nurse and private information declared? How did Saldanha's superiors handle her mistake? Was she rebuked? Did the British media contribute to the situation by playing and replaying the prank call? Did Saldanha suffer depression prior to this incident?

The pressure on radio presenters and their program teams is constant and unrelenting, the demand to be noticed and create “the watercooler effect” is a common request. However it is not funny to make fun or dupe any more – the general media combined with social media can be a deadly combination.

The “gotcha” call has long been used as a mechanism to get attention on air. But it is clear that this old method of entertaining needs to be edited out of the format manual. It is a different era and different times demand different approaches. The best of the new generation of broadcasters will find alternative ways of entertaining and connecting with their audiences.

Cherie Romaro is CEO of International Media, providing programming expertise for radio, television and new media. She has decades of senior-level experience in the radio industry and is the former program director for Austereo's 2Day FM network.

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

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