Con­tro­versy could sig­nal change in me­dia mar­ket

With­drawal by ma­jor ad­ver­tis­ers may have been fi­nal straw for sta­tion

The Irish Times - - Home News - Hugh Line­han

The safest thing to do is stay away. His au­di­ence is only 100,000. You can just go and buy that au­di­ence some­where else. But it’s been very dam­ag­ing for Newstalk. They are haem­or­rhag­ing money

As demon­stra­tions go, it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive. A dozen peo­ple stood on the nar­row pave­ment out­side Mar­coni House at noon on Thurs­day with ban­ners call­ing for the re­moval of Ge­orge Hook from the Newstalk air­waves. But the tiny turnout was the tip of a much larger ice­berg, in­clud­ing women’s or­gan­i­sa­tions, vic­tim-sup­port groups, politi­cians, me­dia com­men­ta­tors and, cru­cially for Newstalk, ad­ver­tis­ers.

In­side the build­ing, on the third floor where the sta­tion’s stu­dios and of­fices are lo­cated, the 76-year-old pre­sen­ter was kick­ing off his two-hour show. Ear­lier he had again been meet­ing sta­tion man­agers as part of a process aris­ing from his com­ments the pre­vi­ous Fri­day about blame and re­spon­si­bil­ity in the case of an al­leged rape in the UK.

What ex­actly hap­pened on Thurs­day is un­clear. But the next morn­ing the pro­test­ers got what they wanted. Newstalk is­sued a state­ment an­nounc­ing that Hook had been sus­pended un­til the com­ple­tion of the process, which it hoped would be reached next week. Sources at the sta­tion were tight-lipped, but the gen­eral in­di­ca­tion was they don’t ex­pect to hear Hook on Newstalk again.

“He’s gone. It’s over,” said one me­dia in­sider with knowl­edge of the com­mer­cial pres­sures the sta­tion is fac­ing. He said the de­ci­sion by the ho­tel group Dalata to stop spon­sor­ing Hook’s show was seen as a PR stunt, as “that deal was up in two weeks any­way”. But he said there had been a sig­nif­i­cant move by big ad­ver­tis­ers as the week wore on to pull the plug. “You could re­ally dam­age your busi­ness by ad­ver­tis­ing there,” he said. “The safest thing to do is stay away. His au­di­ence is only 100,000. You can just go and buy that au­di­ence some­where else. But it’s been very dam­ag­ing for Newstalk. They are haem­or­rhag­ing money.”

An em­ployee who asked not to be named said staff morale was at an all-time low, a sen­ti­ment echoed by the for­mer pre­sen­ter Sarah Carey, whose Satur­day-morn­ing show was axed re­cently, dur­ing the sec­ond re­vamp of the sched­ule within a year. Speak­ing on RTÉ Ra­dio 1 yes­ter­day, she said staff had been “beaten down by man­age­ment” over the course of re­peated ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions and re­jig­ging of the sched­ules. “This cri­sis was fore­see­able and avoid­able,” she told Seán O’Rourke. “When you make con­tro­versy your busi­ness model, then this is in­evitable.”

One of sev­eral un­prece­dented as­pects of this week’s events was the in­ter­nal re­volt against man­age­ment’s han­dling of the cri­sis. Up to 20 em­ploy­ees – about a third of the to­tal staff – put their names to a let­ter crit­i­cis­ing the com­pany.

“The longer Ge­orge Hook re­mains on air, the more rep­u­ta­tional dam­age this sta­tion will suf­fer, dam­age that will un­fairly re­flect on the hard­work­ing and pro­fes­sional staff at Newstalk,” they wrote. The let­ter re­flected wide­spread bit­ter­ness, di­rected not just at man­age­ment but also at Hook, the sta­tion’s big­gest star.

Con­trar­ian pun­dit

Hook came to broad­cast­ing un­usu­ally late in life, achiev­ing fame and a lit­tle no­to­ri­ety in his late 50s as a con­trar­ian rugby pun­dit on RTÉ, be­fore the fledg­ling Newstalk took a punt on him to present its drive-time pro­gramme on its launch, in April 2002. In the 15-years that fol­lowed, pre­sen­ters such as David McWil­liams and Ea­mon Dun­phy came and went from the peren­ni­ally strug­gling sta­tion, but Hook re­mained ever-present.

Newstalk strug­gled to make a profit, but the “Hooky” per­sona, a brash saloon-bar con­tro­ver­sial­ist with a dis­taste for po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and a life­time’s worth of opin­ions to share, won more lis­ten­ers than any other pro­gramme in the Newstalk sched­ules .

He has been Newstalk’s big­gest name and most colour­fully bom­bas­tic per­son­al­ity for most of the sta­tion’s 15-year his­tory. Re­mark­ably, given his age, he re­mains a key part of the Newstalk brand. But this episode may come to be seen as a har­bin­ger of changes in the medium-term me­dia weather fore­cast. It is not a co­in­ci­dence that the cur­rent con­tro­versy comes only a cou­ple of weeks af­ter Newstalk was crit­i­cised for dou­bling down on its al­ready glar­ing gen­der im­bal­ance, leav­ing it with only male hosts in ev­ery key slot from Mon­day to Fri­day.

It was al­most as if the sta­tion had fi­nally given up on at­tract­ing more fe­male lis­ten­ers. Within the in­dus­try some ar­gue that such de­ci­sions are driven by re­search show­ing that both men and women pre­fer male rather than fe­male voices on air and that news-cen­tred talk ra­dio does not ap­peal to women.

“That’s hog­wash,” says Mar­garet E Ward, founder of Women on Air, which works for more equal gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion in broad­cast me­dia. Ward says there is no data to sup­port th­ese claims, but they per­sist as ur­ban myths. “Ev­ery time you ask to see the re­search they say it’s com­mer­cially sen­si­tive or it’s just some­thing that ev­ery­one knows to be true.”

Dif­fer­ent beast

Some have com­pared this con­tro­versy to the re­cent fir­ing of the colum­nist Kevin My­ers from the Sun­day Times. But live ra­dio is a very dif­fer­ent beast from print, not least be­cause there’s no safety net. In the­ory a news­pa­per has lay­ers of edi­tors to guard against er­rors. On ra­dio the pre­sen­ter has a vi­tal role to play in keep­ing the show within the rails of what is safe and le­gal, not least in the words

that come out of their own mouth. If you build your sched­ule around big per­son­al­i­ties and off-the-cuff philosophis­ing, don’t be sur­prised if things go hor­ri­bly wrong from time to time.

And in­di­vid­ual news­pa­per colum­nists don’t gen­er­ally come with their own sponsorship deals at­tached, or with ad rates tied to their pop­u­lar­ity. Com­mer­cial ra­dio is wholly de­pen­dent on ad­ver­tis­ing and sponsorship, and tends to mar­ket its stars as stand-alone prod­ucts to com­mer­cial spon­sors. If the star’s im­age turns sour, the spon­sors get edgy. If the sta­tion is in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty the pres­sure is far worse. And with the im­me­di­acy of so­cial me­dia a cri­sis can spin out of con­trol within min­utes rather than days.

What­ever their views on this par­tic­u­lar case – and quite a few in the me­dia be­lieve Hook has been un­fairly hounded off the air – other me­dia com­pa­nies will ner­vously take note of how this story is play­ing out.

‘‘ When you make con­tro­versy your busi­ness model, then this is in­evitable

Ge­orge Hook: Newstalk’s ■ big­gest name for most of the sta­tion’s 15-year his­tory. ERIC LUKE PHO­TO­GRAPH:

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