Taste and decency in radio imaging – how far is too far?

The UK’s original Jack FM has been in trouble with the radio regulators this week, for an ident which said the following, while accompanied by the Ski Sunday music, two days after this terrible news story

Jack FM: As dependable as a Germanwings co-pilot

Yikes. Certainly edgy, and according to Ofcom, not acceptable. This is a quote from their decision…

While the Licensee may have believed that none of the victims had Oxfordshire connections, Ofcom noted that this incident, which had happened just two days previously, resulted in the death of 150 people in horrifying circumstances. In Ofcom’s view this was a clear attempt to make humour out of the very recent murder of 150 people. We therefore concluded that the material clearly had the potential to cause offence. (link)

Even Jack FM pulled the piece after one broadcast, so while they defended their actions, I suspect that everyone involved is probably regretting broadcasting the audio.

But that doesn’t mean we should always err on the side of safety and that we should never cause offence.

The world is not short of safe radio stations – ones that would never cause a moment’s worry. In particular, the AC format has carved a niche out of being listenable to by anyone without any upset or anguish. I’ve tuned in to stations with slogans such as “Safe for the whole family” and “Lite rock, less talk” and suchlike – they’re as cuddly as you would expect.

But not everyone wants to listen to safe radio. Radio 4 Extra’s repeats of Victor Lewis Smith’s 1990 Radio 1 series are a good reminder that being controversial to the point of not knowing whether you should laugh or not is nothing new, and Jack FM (in particular the Oxford Jack FM) has made controversial liners part of its station sound. I have examples that I’ve played in lectures that I would never, ever dare broadcast, but that doesn’t mean that they were wrong to make or transmit. It might just be that my taste-buds aren’t as able to deal with spicy radio as other people’s.

During my time as Group Production Director at GMG Radio, I oversaw the Rock Radio (laterly Real XS) station sound. Originally created by Ian Ferguson who won a European Imaging award for it in Barcelona, then Roy Martin (of Radio Today fame) and James Espley (who now makes loud and rather cool noises at TeamRock), one of my responsibilities was approving – or not – the “quirkies” – one-liner idents voiced by Nick Coady which helped give the station personality during its automated hours. The plan was to update them regularly, keep them relevant where possible, and make listeners smile.

I would estimate that I rejected 20-30% of the liners, for being too outrageous, controversial or offensive. Some were dayparted out of the main shows, others never made it to air at all. And, occasionally, I’d hear one on air that I’d approved, only to decide that, on balance, that was the wrong decision.

The fact that every time I would reject some was brilliant. Without that, the producers wouldn’t know where the boundaries were – we’d have been playing too safe, and we’d not be creating the unique station sound that helped make Rock Radio such a fun station.

When it comes to writing imaging, and even producing it, anything should go. An idea on paper can change mood and tone when it’s produced, and that mood & tone can change again when heard in context. To be creative, to brainstorm, to experiment, it’s all good.

Sure, Jack broadcast a piece that shouldn’t have gone to air. But we mustn’t condemn creativity because someone made an error of judgment. And we mustn’t presume that Jack FM is full of monsters just because that particular piece was offensive. It was a mistake – a bad one admittedly – but just a mistake.

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