The Imus effect

Orly Mercado

Posted on April 13, 2007

Electrocuting a shock-jock

It was hardly noticed here in Asia, but in the States, the media was preoccupied with the fate of Don Imus. As a radio and TV commentator, he was known to push the limits of what is tolerated speech on the airwaves. He is, after all, a “shock-jock”.

As I followed the story, I tried to think back to the years when I was on radio. Did we, or do we have, our version of a shock-jock? Philippine radio has been known to mimic its American counterpart. After all, we imbibed American culture with gusto through radio, television, and the movies.

And then I remembered the late Damian Soto. In 1969, I was pulled out of the news department of the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Network to start the first all-talk, all-news radio station (DZAQ Radyo Patrol). The years preceding the declaration of martial law were turbulent, if not exciting. Our team of reporters and anchors quickly grabbed our share of the audience. We were on the air twenty-four hours every day. But there was one program that was not under my supervision. It was prime time commentary by the bombastic Damian Soto. He was the closest we had to a shock-jock.

I used to receive complaints about his language. His expletives peppered what he was passing off as serious comment. He was not a satirist. He would slam his fist on the table after almost every sentence. I would tell our listeners that we were just waiting for him to finish his contract and we would put him off the air. The network after all, stood to earn more from the new format we adopted. It was all about revenue.

Mass media follows the cultural standards of its time. Damian Soto’s outbursts seem tame compared to what we now hear on the air. Don Imus’ “electronic lynching” (to borrow Christiane Amampour’s term used in another context) comes after long-standing complaints of abusive slurs about race and gender.

The fact that the networks airing Imus’ programs were slow to pull the plug on him is predictable. Broadcasters are allowed to push the limits of the First amendment as long as they bring in advertising revenue. The moment that changes, you become dispensable. When Imus’ sponsors pulled out, because of the outcry against what Imus said about the female basketball team of Rutgers University, he was fired.

Imus will be back, albeit in another station. Who knows, he might even have a spike in his ratings. If that happens, advertisers may return. And he will continue his game of broadcast brinkmanship. But he has to move closer to the mainstream. The table thumping style of commentary died with Damian Soto. Don Imus cannot be politically incorrect in a time that requires tolerance and respect for diversity.

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