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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Radio & Responsiblity

Two radio program hosts at local news station WILK have been indicted on fraud charges over the years, with the latest being involved in a scheme where over $600,000 was stolen from investors. Now does the radio station in question, WILK, bear any responsibility in these cases?

While I think these are complex issues, I say that they do. There is a terrific column by Scranton Times columnist Stacy Brown that is a must read on this topic. The full article is linked here, but I'll also paste the first few paragraphs immediately below:

Disclaimer not enough in advertising

Fraud charges filed last week against Jamie P. Lake mark the second time in two years a WILK radio talk show host and advertiser has been accused of deceiving listeners.

Those who run the station said neither WILK nor its parent, Entercom Communications, bears responsibility because Mr. Lake and former talk show host Scott Binsack, were advertisers and not employees.

"We run a disclaimer prior to the shows telling listeners that the views expressed are not necessarily that of WILK or station management," said Ryan Flynn, Entercom's general manager. "James Lake was an advertiser on WILK, nothing more," Mr. Flynn said. "He paid for commercials and paid for long-form infomercials on the weekend."

The station's disclaimer also noted that the shows were "paid" programming, Mr. Flynn said.

Media responsibility

Media experts, however, said the station does have a responsibility to make sure that what is broadcast over its airwaves is true and accurate.

Note that this kind of issue doesn't just manifest itself in investor or home builder fraud schemes; WILK is also well-known for broadcasting "miracle cure" paid program-length advertisements on the weekends. These programs sell all manner of vitamins and other concoctions designed to treat all that ails you. Yes, WILK is home to your 21st century equivalent to the traveling snake-oil salesman every Saturday morning (interestingly enough, on Sunday mornings they broadcast the "Dr Dean Edell Show", which regularly de-bunks these miracle cures).

Does WILK bear the brunt of responsibility here? No. They can not be responsible for policing every word uttered through their transmitters. Should they be completely responsible for what their paid staff says on-air? Absolutely yes, but as far as paid programming is concerned, it's simply not reasonable (in my opinion) to hold them to that same level of accountability.

Does WILK bear any responsibility here? Yes. Like it or not, many people who listen to WILK may not always be able to separate the "news" presented as news vs. the paid programming designed to sound like "news". WILK will have you believe that the little disclaimer at the beginning of paid programming is more than sufficient to separate the "fact" from the "fiction" programming. Unfortunately when you compare the 20 seconds of disclaimer vs. the 45 minutes of paid lying-advertising-disguised-as-news, the lying part wins.

What should they do? I have a few suggestions:
  1. Never allow WILK on-air staff to participate in any paid programming that sells product. That, in my mind, is a violation of the trust we place in the media. I don't care if some vitamin cure product worked for Sue Henry, as it doesn't mean it will work for everyone, and some folks WILL confuse her talk-show persona with her advertising pitch-person persona.
  2. Require the paid advertisers (not just the station) to repeat a disclaimer about the program in question not being affiliated with WILK at the beginning of each segment.
  3. WILK has to exercise some good judgement when it comes to paid programming. If a product makes an outlandish and unproven claim about being able to cure some kind of disease, then simply put WILK shouldn't be airing it. I know, there are laws against this sort of thing already, but if you have ever listened to these programs you know that these kinds of claims are in fact made, sometimes in a sublte way, but they are made.
  4. Restrict the hours where these kinds of programs can air. If WILK wants to allow the "vitamin miracle cure" to buy air time, make that air time in the middle of the night.
I know, much of this is pie-in-the-sky stuff, but so be it. That's what armchair quaterbacking (and blogging) is all about.

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