Sunday, April 17, 2011

Defending Offense

Dick Cavett has posted an op-ed piece about political correctness and the desire by some network execs to never let anything on the air that might offend someone.

The problem, of course, is that there's always going to be someone offended by something. The key is to ignore the few objections and keep the quality content flowing, regardless. When management allows one or two crank cases to affect what goes out on the air, the performers and the audience both suffer.

A decade ago, while doing my midday show on KTRS/St. Louis, I discussed a Washington Post story about a deaf couple at Gallaudet University that wanted to have a baby -- but they wanted that child to be deaf, so it could grow up in the same culture they were part of, and were exploring ways to make that happen. I was astounded by this narcissism, and said so at length, which led to some very interesting conversations with listeners who wanted to chime in on the story.

Somehow, my comments ended up on an online bulletin board for the deaf, but like a bad game of operator, someone who mis-heard the show had posted bad information about what I'd said, and my words were twisted to make it seem like I didn't want deaf people to have children at all. Within a couple of hours, a local group that advocates for the deaf had contacted the station's General Manager and insisted that I apologize. They threatened to picket the radio station unless I retracted my remarks.

When the GM told me about this reaction, I laughed out loud as I explained how wrong they'd gotten it. I also told him to call their bluff and let them come picket outside our windows, while I called the local TV news outlets to have them send camera crews over. I loved the idea of them walking around in a circle with signs saying "Deaf people don't listen to Paul Harris!!"

Unfortunately, the GM didn't want any controversy (on a talk radio station???), so when I refused to apologize for something I hadn't done, he quietly wrote a check to the deaf advocacy group, which made them go away. I wish that manager had been like another boss I'd had earlier in my career, a guy who knew how to support his air talent.

It was 1984, and I was doing mornings at WHCN/Hartford when Dan Hayden, the Program Director, popped his head in to say that he wanted to see me in his office when my show was over. When 10am rolled around, I walked down the hall, sat on his couch and noticed a major frown on his face. I knew that the ratings weren't due that day, and even if they were, we were consistently pulling big numbers (although probably not in the deaf demographics), so I wasn't worried about that.

I asked Dan, "What's up?" He looked at me very seriously and said, "I haven't gotten a complaint call about your show in at least two weeks. Do something about that."

That's the kind of manager you want when you're producing a thousand hours of live, ad-libbed morning radio every year. He knew that the number of people we entertained each day was far greater than the few who were offended by something we said.