Fancy the toughest job in the Australian media and I don’t mean chairing Fairfax Media?

No, the toughest job in the world is husbanding 2DayFm and Austereo through to the end of the two current ACMA inquiries into talkback radio, one for which relates directly to Kyle Sandilands’ and Jackie O’s appalling behaviour, starting with the lie-detector stunt, then the fund raising that wasn’t, and then the Magda Szubanski comments.

Suspending Kyle for four weeks (effectively fining him a lot of money, more than $100,000 because he won’t be paid for that time), sending him to therapy (“Tell me Mr Sandilands, when did you start feeling this contempt for your audience?”) is nothing but an attempt to make sure the company keeps its licence and freedom to program its radio stations the way it sees fit.

In that respect, it has the support of every radio station in the country, for once Chris Chapman and his crew at ACMA start telling radio what it can and can’t do in its shifts, is the day we revert to the bad old days of the Broadcasting Control Board, which indeed did that.

Kyle has in all reality been thrown a lifeline from Austereo despite the two suspensions in the past two months. He remains suspended without pay until October 7, three weeks into the new ratings period, while he attends the external counselling.

That is what Austereo and 2Day management should have done after the lie-detector stunt debacle. Punished him financially, suspended him and sent him to counselling. Why now and not after the lie-detector stunt, which was a far more egregious mistake?

Austereo chairman Peter Harvie, the former CEO, is either out of his depth or utterly contemptuous of the media, regulators and the audience when he said he didn’t listen to Kyle and Jackie O all that much. It’s clear he didn’t from the Magda Szubanski comments, but such public displays of media executive insouciance no longer wash. ACMA should tell Mr Harvie that he should listen to an on-air personality who is not only a big earner, but a walking time bomb.

Harvie spun in a statement yesterday: “2Day FM advises that Kyle Sandilands will remain suspended without pay until 7th October 2009. The period of the suspension will therefore be four weeks, of which one week has already been served. The pay penalty will be directed by 2Day FM to community charitable causes. In addition Kyle Sandilands will attend external counselling. 2Day FM has taken into consideration Sandilands’s concern and remorse for statements made.”

In reality it’s saying to ACMA, “see, we are self-regulating and cracking down on him”. This is the really serious ACMA inquiry. It uses that questionable phrase, “Community safeguards“.

“In exploring this issue, the authority is seeking to take a broad approach which considers industry practice generally, current community concerns and attitudes and the responsiveness of industry to these concerns.”

ACMA is already proposing that it dictates to commercial TV current affairs programs and their owner networks that they improve their complaints procedures and take heed of those complaints. We already know that there are a flock of moaners and groaners out there ready to bombard the media with complaints (and other “helpful” suggestions) about swearing, nudity, abortion and other issues.

Now ACMA will use the Sandilands atrocities to look at talkback radio and its obvious excesses, which should be controlled. But who wants a regulator telling us what we can and can’t hear and can and can’t see. The audience should be the ultimate decider.

But if he tones down his approach, the same people might also abandon him because he’s become safe and boring: a difficult talk for Austereo and why chairman Harvie should listen to Kyle and Jackie O every morning from October 7, really.

Austereo management knows that it and 2Day got off lightly so far as the Sydney audience is concerned over Kyle’s lie-detector stunt. By suspending him into the next survey, Austereo is saying to the advertisers, ACMA and others that it is prepared to take a revenue and audience hit in the next survey and possibly in the one after that to try and keep Sandilands on air and ACMA out of the radio studio.

In that the rest of commercial radio would be quietly supporting Austereo.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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