The Death of Common Sense

As you know, I have worked in UK radio for almost 20 years, in pretty much every capacity, from technician to presenter to producer to programmer.  Over those years I have been responsible for, and witnessed, some quite monumental cock-ups on-air (and off-air!).  Live radio has an inherent risk of cock-up.  it is what makes being on-air so exciting.  It is what is missing from 99% of TV, that elusive, electrifying near-fear of the cock-up.  When it almost happens you get shivers, you thank everyone and anyone that it was averted, you sit in the studio for hours afterwards in a state of nervous ecstasy.  When it DOES happen, then you have to get out of it.  Your brain either fries or goes in to overdrive.  9 times out of 10 you manage to get past the mistake and move on.  The listeners get a laugh but then move on with you.  and 9 times out of 10 no-one else at the radio station notices.  If the boss does hear it, or you come clean, the intelligent, experienced and clever programme controller works through the cock-up with you, you learn from the mistake and, possibly with a reprimand, you move on.  Rarely do you lose your job over it…because, and let us make this point in big capital letters…IT IS ONLY RADIO!!!  Sometimes, if the cock-up is sufficiently large, you might lose a shift, or be moved on to a less prominent programme.  And of course, if you break one of the cardinal rules of radio (swearing, blasphemy, losing advertisers’ money) you may well be fired.  But a sacking is a rare and, usually, well-considered move.


By now, if you follow the radio or entertainment news, you will have heard about the BRMB (Birmingham commercial radio station) presenter who was sacked because he cut short the Queen’s speech on Xmas day.  According to reports he had cocked-up his timing and the speech was going to over-run and he decided to cut it short.  He then, as a stand-up comedian as well as a radio presenter, made a poorly tought-through gag…he referred to the Queen’s speech as ‘boring’.  This resulted in the radio station receiving a small number of complaints from ‘offended’ listeners.  The presenter was then sacked.

Right – let us look at this in some uninformed detail:

[1]  BRMB as a commercial broadcaster decides to transmit the Queen’s Speech (presumably supplied via feed from IRN).  This is a little unusual for a commercial station, but fair enough.  The programme controller and head of music will then, you will hope, have programmed the hour so that the speech, always around 5 mins long, fitted in with room to spare…possibly including a spare music track the presenter could easily drop if things got a little tight?

[2] There were actually people tuned in to BRMB to hear the Queen’s speech rather than viewing it on the BBC, or listening via national networks.  Odd, but maybe they were travelling or were such die-hard BRMB fans that the thought of going elsewhere for a whole 5 minutes freaked them out to the point of apoplexy! We shall return to these people later…

[3] On the day, the presenter was aware that he was (a) doing the shitty shift at some ridiculously low rate of pay (no doubt) and that (b) traditionally very few people are tuned in.  That said, as a professional, and I presume, wanting to please the boss and maybe get better shifts in 2010, gave the show his all.  Bear in mind that this man is also a stand-up comedian and was no doubt hired because of his comedy talent and notoriety.  Having done many a Xmas day shift I know you get one of two things from the bosses – (a) a good heads-up about all they want and expect, the special items they have programmed in and the flexibility you have to throw in things like callers, jokes, Xmas jingles, change music tracks, etc… or (b) no communication at all and you are left to turn up and figure it out for yourself.  I don’t know what the case was here.  The experience of the station boss leads me to think it would have been the former, but who knows.  For something as seemingly important as the Queen’s speech I would have to assume that the presenter was at least told how and when to take the live feed.

[4] The hour of the Queen’s speech would have been programmed with music, jingles, adverts and news.  Since the speech is approx. 5 mins long, there would have been one less song that hour.  The presenter says he messed up his timings and had to cut the speech short, in order to stay on time.  THIS is where the cock-up happens.  There is nothing in an hour schedule that HAS to be on time except the news and if you are linking in to a network.  Now, in this case, the programme was being networked across several other radio stations (another cost-cutting lazy piece of modern radio programming) which would have put some pressure on the presenter IF he was having to back-time the end of this hour to hand over to another presenter from another station.  These hand-overs need to be done to the second or networks go somewhat awry.  If this was the case then I sympathise with the presenter…network timings are sacrosanct and it is drummed in to us that we HAVE to be spot on or the computers all go out of sync and the network collapses (one of those amusing little white lies engineers use to try to ensure they don’t get called on days off by panicking presenters!)  However, I believe the Queen’s speech was AFTER the start of an hour, not up to the end of one…so I do not think that this can be the explanation.  If the presenter thought he was going to miss an ad break or not have room for all the music then he was very much in error.  Ad breaks can be played late, music tracks can be dropped or cut short.  Even in network mode these are fairly simple ways to fix an over-running hour.  I am perplexed by just what he thought was so important that he choose to cut short the speech…very odd.  But no matter what, this was a cock-up, simple and that is that!

[5] EXCEPT…after cutting the speech short he quipped that it was ‘boring’.  Let me repeat that so terribly offensive word…BORING!  Oh dear, oh deary deary dear.  Ooops.  Can you hear the edges of our society starting to crumble? Listen, you can hear the screaming of children from middle-England.  There is a wailing and a gnashing of whitened teeth from the good burghers of the West Midlands!!  It seems from the reports that the presenter’s gag at the Monarch’s expense upset/annoyed/offended a handful of listeners who had nothing better to do with their Xmas holidays than to write in and complain.  I have to say at this point that I am a card-carrying Republican (not the US sort) and believe the Royal family are a leech on our country and have no place other than as a tourist attraction that should be sold off to Disney.  However, that said, I also believe that there is no reason to ever be offensive towards anyone.  But BORING?  Is boring an insult?  Maybe if you are a poet or a lecturer or a public speaker.  But calling the Queen, in fact the Queen’s speech, boring?  That is not, cannot be, nor ever will be an insult.  I am certain Her Majesty has taken worse blows to her ego over the years – she is married to Philip after all!  So he wasn’t sacked for being offensive to the Queen then, not really.  No sane or realistic boss would consider that a sacking offense (get it?!)  So why was he sacked?  Let’s go back to those listeners:

[6] A handful of BRMB listeners are tuned in on Xmas day and hear the Queen’s Speech (which is, let’s be fair here, overwhelmingly dull and of little relevance to about 90% of the population).  The speech is cut short and the presenter refers to it as being boring and then dives in to “10 Xmas hits, back to back, with no ads – that’s a BRMB guarantee!” or some such commercial radio nonsense.  These few people are so offended by this they put pen to paper, or font to email, or chisel to stone tablet possibly, and complain to the BRMB bosses.  WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?!?!  What is there to complain about?  I would understand if they complained solely about the cutting short of the speech.  Admittedly I am still confused why they have gone to BRMB to hear it, or why they can’t just use the BBC’s iPlayer, or the internet to watch the damn thing again later in the day.  But to purposefully complain about being offended by the word ‘boring’?!  I would hate to meet these people for fear of any word I use in passing offending their genteel easily damaged constitutions!  Are they all extras from Emma?!  For some reason they believe that THEIR offense is shared by the Queen but that Her Maj can’t stand up for herself, so they have to vent their upset and ire on her behalf.  Do these people use the Daily Mail to build papier-mache shrines to the Royal family and burn copies of David Icke books?  This is something of an over-reaction.  Let’s hope they never accidentally tune in to James Whale when he is calling for the abolition of the Monarchy…he’d be sacked (again) in a heartbeat!!  Now, if you think I may be over-reacting, understand this…the presenter has had death-threats because of this situation.  DEATH THREATS?  For one word?  Do we live in a free-speech democracy or should we all just give up and bow down before the vocal minority who espouse such hatred and violence?

[7] So, these ‘upstanding’ citizens complain to the BRMB bosses who, once they have removed their backbones, take immediate action and sack the presenter.  Here’s what they said:

David Lloyd, group programme and marketing director, said: “On Christmas Day, one of our presenters, Tom Binns, made some inappropriate comments surrounding the Queen’s speech. We do not condone what he said in any way; whether said in jest or not. We are making contact with the small number of listeners who were offended by Tom’s comments and have complained to us to convey our apologies, and have also apologised on air.”

OK, some questions:

  • WHAT is so inappropriate about the word ‘boring’?
  • Surely you do not need to condone his joke, but you can defend his right to make such a joke.
  • You say a SMALL number of listeners…why such an over-reaction then?
  • You have apologised on-air…Tom could have been asked to do the same and that could have been the end of it, why sack him?
  • WHO are you running scared from, it can’t be the Queen, is it the local press?

For me, this is another example of the way that broadcast media, especially radio, has been running scared and pandering to the vocal minority and the trash print media for the past 2-3 years.  Everything from Ross/Brand to guests swearing on-air…if just one person complains, or might complain, then the bosses go in to knee-jerk reaction mode.  Radio is an art form, an entertainment, a place of fun and education and information.  It is a place for comedians and broadcasters and poets and writers and performers and artists to learn, develop and master their craft.  As my first boss in radio kept telling us, RADIO IS ENTERTAINMENT.  Why will the bosses not grow a backbone and defend their talent?  If they don’t want the risk of live radio why not just programme it all into computers (as much of the overnight and weekend programming on your so-called local radio station is already)? What is the point of running a radio station if you always pander to the minority?

So…if I had been the boss, what would I have done?  First of all I would have ensured in advance that the hour in which the speech was being broadcast in was well-programmed and that I had gone through this with the presenter in fine detail, making sure he understood the importance of the speech and how to deal with it technically. (Of course, if I had been in charge we wouldn’t have been wasting the airtime on a pre-recorded speech by an anachronistic leech on society in the first place!) After the fact, had it happened, I would have required the presenter to apologise on-air AND to reply in person to each of the complainants. To his replies I would have added a note from the station apologising for the fact that the individuals had felt offended but defending the right of my talent to make jokes and be entertaining, explaining that a joke to many can sometimes be less than funny to some.  As the employer it is my responsibility to defend and protect my employees as far as possible.  And in this case, short of a demand from the Palace for his “‘ead to be chopped orf” I would defend my talent.  There was simply nothing inappropriate about the gag other than its timing and because the presenter chose to cut short the speech.  If he had built the gag into a link later in the show it would have been fine and I believe no complaints would have been made.

But he has been sacked, and once again the vocal minority win the day.  It is about time some of the old laws of the land were re-evaluated.  Blasphemy and ‘speaking out against the Queen’ have no place in a modern society.  If your monarch or religion are so fragile they can’t take a few jokes or counter-arguments then maybe you should consider the foundations on which these institutions are built.

And on a simpler note, let us try to define what is actually OFFENSIVE and what simply ANNOYS you and is counter to your point of view.  If you want to put the Royal Family up on a pedestal and bow before them, give away your freedom, your individuality and your right to be an equal, then go ahead.  But many others do not wish this.  Many are happy to have the Queen there, but do not see her as superior to themselves.  Others, like me, see the Royal family as a waste of money and resources, an elite who put themselves above the rest of us and expect us to see them as superior humans.  They are not, they are there due to history, war, politics, suspicious in-breeding and wealth (accumulated through OUR hard work, not theirs!)  Much like many politicians believe themselves to be worthy of superior status because of the  job they do, the Royals sit in a position of power only because we allow them to.  I am certain that they will continue to do so for the rest of my life…but it doesn’t mean that I have to show them any deference, protect them from any slings and arrows, and certainly not to pander to the ‘offence by proxy’ feelings of others who see them as some kind of rare and protected species.

Tom…if I were still running a radio station I would happily hire you.  As it is, if you have any ideas for radio docs, features, etc…gimme a call and let’s see what we can develop together.  Talent shouldn’t be punished for a cock-up.  But then again, it happened to James Whale, it happened to Nick Abbot, it happened to many others and they are all back on air, at other stations…stations with bosses who have backbones.  Maybe Tom should give Absolute Radio a call…

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