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Watching contents

By Terry Joseph
September 21, 2002

"Talk your talk but watch your contents," advertising agencies warned talk-radio hosts earlier this week, the rapso-flavoured threat vowing to punish stations airing shows on which racist remarks are "encouraged".

Fortified by broadcast-licence prohibitions, the Advertising Agencies Association (AAATT) said it would "strongly encourage" clients to withdraw support from stations "found to be blatantly encouraging or inciting political or racial bias and disharmony", and expressed similar sentiments about those that endorse violence or air false claims by political parties.

No one said if stations playing Indian music exclusively could now be accused of inciting "racial bias or disharmony" in a country of tribal diversity, but one such station, FM90.5, is already under investigation by the acting director of telecommunications.

The former director, now a stakeholder as consultant for a Tobago-based station, is quoted as saying the Gladiators programme, currently running on rival Power 102FM, should be taken off the air.

This follows a release from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Tertiary Education calling on stations to comply with the terms of their licences and a strong letter to newspaper editors from former Senator Diana Mahabir-Wyatt of the TT Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

All wonderfully participative, although no one remembered to advise the aggrieved to change the station or turn the radio off altogether. With no remorse forthcoming from the stations, the piper-paying AAATT decided it was time to call the tune.

Mark you, this attainment of a long-sought level of truth in advertising content is a triumph we must now jealously defend, having achieved the condition after so many years of relentless struggle, although somehow, an old-folks’ saying about the pot calling the kettle black (oops!) comes to mind.

Given its refreshing candour on the talk-radio issue, the AAATT should use that principle in widening the scope of its social vigilance, even including closer scrutiny of concepts promulgated by its very membership, in the event this component also needs guidance.

There is, for instance, a widely held view that the version of self-esteem peddled via television advertising images is completely inappropriate to our culture. Advertising has also been blamed for maintenance of a contentious concept that longhaired, fair-skinned women with aquiline noses have the monopoly on attractiveness.

AAATT introspection must also address ads that unduly vulgarise the vernacular, as it were, lumping us all as the lowest common denominator. And on the matter of verifiable claims, it may come as a shock that whole-wheat bread cannot justify such a description by merely supplying a minimum of the promised ingredient, then crowding the dough with competing elements.

Association members could meanwhile be enticed to channel their influential facility of "strongly encouraging clients" to further support social advancement, when debate resumes on augmenting percentages of local music airplay. After all, the ad gurus have repeatedly said it was not them but their clients who didn’t buy into indigenous programming.

Radio Superior 94.1FM was scuttled altogether and 105 Radio Tempo forced to make radical changes to its local music programming format to merely survive, this predicament (and consequential loss of jobs and investments) stemming from inadequate advertising revenue. That money, incidentally, was deliberately deflected to stations that aired foreign content or (as ad agencies once "encouraged") talk shows.

Predictably, the AAATT found a ready ally in the Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA), the radio arm of which has influential members who historically resisted persuasion to increase local content, saying its business was to supply what listeners want; a consideration conveniently excluded from the current argument.

Now hear this one more time: Some 90 per cent of the music played on Trinidad and Tobago’s radio stations is foreign content, which means of every dollar of copyright fees collected locally, less than ten cents stays at home.

The time could not be more right for action from a single force that can "strongly encourage" advertisers to pump money into radio stations supporting local culture, assuming positive manoeuvres require no more robust an effort than negative missions like getting clients to withdraw funding.

The AAATT therefore has a singular opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to help forge a society more in tune with itself, by using its power to convince clients to support indigenous arts and by the same opportunity, purchase extraordinary goodwill at bargain prices.

Surprisingly, the TTPBA and AAATT have, in the current debate, secured the sympathy of the Media Association (MATT). Its president—himself a talk show host—said: "The Association has been monitoring several (such) programmes and is not pleased." Since the talk shows under the microscope air on a rival station, his comment is rendered at least inappropriate in the absence of a declared personal interest.

Recently, 104FM changed its talk-radio format that was hosted largely by journalists, to Ebony Radio with urban (mostly foreign) music, to get a bigger slice of the advertising pie. Power 102FM executives say their station enjoys less than its fair share of ad revenue because of a fearless approach to talk shows.

Now, none of the above should be construed as defending reckless, inane or inflammatory statements, but any curb on freedom of speech holds deep ramifications for democracy and should not be treated lightly.

Let’s face it: an alliance of the AAATT, TTPBA and MATT has potential for greater social peril than any line talk-radio can conjure up, and gains made by the grouping in this square-off may inspire more ambitious pursuits. What’s to stop them telling calypsonians what to sing, under threat of cutting off ad revenue to stations that play the "wrong" songs.

So if we’re going to be watching contents, dear brothers and sister, let us ensure we look in all directions.

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