Reportage

Voice of the people

WE LOVE A good hoax. When it was revealed that Keith Windschuttle, editor of Quadrant, had accepted a bogus article on genetic engineering, the wide coverage provoked debate about Windschuttle's criticisms of historians for flawed footnotes. Comparisons to famous hoaxes were made, and Windschuttle's opponents relished his comeuppance. Earlier this decade, American news icon Dan Rather's use of hoax evidence regarding George W. Bush's National Guard record received worldwide coverage and led to the sooner-than-planned end of Rather's career as CBS's 60 Minutes anchor. Closer to home – perhaps in one's car, or through headphones at the gym – smaller hoaxes can sometimes be heard, perpetrated on those whose job is ostensibly to inform others of the events of the day and be a voice for the everyman.

Talkback radio occupies a unique place in Australia's media landscape. Radio stations are given more time by political leaders during election campaigns than all the other media combined, and radio talkback is the preferred venue for selling policy and managing scandals. Its fans argue that it's where Joe Public can hold the Prime Minister to account, as well as listen in on an ‘over the backyard fence' conversation between average Australians. But its critics argue that talkback's biggest stars are salesmen relying on flimsy research and stories already broken elsewhere.

‘The reason is that radio has very limited resources, it usually works off what's on the front and the first five pages of the tabloid press and whips those up in stories over the morning,' says David Salter, author of The Media We Deserve (MUP, 2007) and editor of The Week. ‘In other words, they get the early editions, at three o'clock in the morning, a little further they say, "Oh look, there's a fantastic story about no rubbish collection in Carlton or something," and they go for it ... They are not at the start of the 24-hour news cycle.'

 

TALKBACK RADIO MAY not have the same resources or investigative muscle of other media, but it has a head-start in terms in breaking stories. It is always on and doesn't have to wait for a deadline to file final copy or submit footage. The print media can never give instant traffic updates.

‘And just a traffic update ... Wayne says to me, "I'm at work, I just saw the traffic mayhem on Enmore Road. You'd better tell Sallyanne to investigate because it's bad. What looks like a whole truckload of tennis balls has been unloaded on Enmore Road, Enmore. There are about ten thousand tennis balls blocking every lane, and one very embarrassed looking truck driver." Why would tennis balls be loose? Why wouldn't they be in tins?' This information and these questions were shared by 2UE's Steve Price – certainly no stranger to weird hoaxes. Though Price expressed scepticism at the ‘tip', the station's traffic reporter Sallyanne Ryan was not so cautious, ‘I can't find any confirmation that it's happened. But I'm sure it has ... ' Despite the lack of confirmation, the station ran this as news in the next bulletin at 4 pm. As did 2CC Canberra at 4.30 pm, whose newsreader informed listeners that, in the Sydney suburb of Enmore, ‘a truck has apparently dropped a thousand tennis balls'.

Neither ten thousand, nor even one thousand, tennis balls dropped on Enmore Road, Enmore that day. It was an just another day for most in the inner west suburb, including Lew Palaitis and Nick Fintan, who were going about their day-to-day running of the Hardware art gallery. Palaitis explains: ‘I'd always been listening to talkback pretty earnestly,' while at work at the gallery and at his former picture framing business. He sent his first hoax email to Steve Price ‘back in 2003 or 2004' and through 2007 and 2008 passed a lot of quiet time at work sending ridiculous email tips with Nick, under pseudonyms, to talkback stations. His goal was to goad and inflame the hosts at first, but then it became a contest to see how far the absurdness envelope could be pushed.

‘Usually they don't check IPs ... The scrutiny they put emails under is still not very thorough,' says Palaitis. ‘We didn't use any IP disguising or any anonymiser programs at all. At first we were cautious, but after a while we'd just write anything – as their medium means they'll just get an email and not have time to 
check it.'

Palaitis and Fintan invented personae to write to talkback hosts. One of the most successful was ‘Ravi Draptur from West Bengal', a caricature of an eccentric Indian who struggles with cultural differences. Draptur had a blog and there are still a few examples of his pranks on YouTube. ‘There was a blog for a while that got taken down, with all the characters,' explains Palaitis. ‘We had a friend at Media Monitors who used to send us all the audio, but then it got too much – that's why it stopped. There were five to ten a day.' Steve Price's then-producer Darren Flynn asked Ravi to report on Price's program from India, ‘Can we call you in our first hour between 3 and 4 Sydney time? We don't have many listeners in India ... so it would be great to talk to you. Let me know via return email.' Later the penny apparently dropped and they realised it was a joke.

 

ALAN JONES, ALSO on 2GB, also shared a stream of affectionate correspondence with ‘Ravi', and even used some of Draptur's unusual stories to attack the NSW Government's progress on public transport: ‘And Ravi continues to write to me from West Bengal in India,' Jones said before reading another of Ravi's emails to his listeners. ‘When you mentioned the integrated transportation card, I was very shocked you didn't have one. We have one of sorts here in Calcutta (sic.). And even back in my home village we've got something. In my home village everyone who gets on Vishnu's cart must pay with a small piece of silk, which he collects and sells back to the villagers in exchange for fish each day.' Jones concluded, ‘So there you are. Ravi from West Bengal.'

Jones also wrote back to Ravi, again expressing amazement at Kolkata's public transport advancements: ‘Thank you for your note. All the way from West Bengal. I can't believe it ... No, we don't have an integrated ticketing system. And you've got one in Calcutta. I can't believe, Ravi, you're writing to me again. Lovely to hear from you. Keep in touch.'

Did Jones ever consider that ‘Ravi' was pulling his leg? Paul Christenson, a producer on the program, says no. ‘We had no inkling the emails were dodgy. We work on the quaint old-fashioned theory that people write because they want to get in touch with Alan,' he wrote in an email interview. ‘We use common sense when looking at emails and taking calls.' But ‘common sense' is not always enough, and shortly after Ravi's letters petered out, Jones used a set of hoax statistics to highlight the plight of pensioners: ‘I wonder who cares? Government doesn't seem to. A refugee gets $2,470 a month, the pensioner $1,012 and that's called just, just public administration.' The same hoax embarrassed Garth Russell on ABC Radio Newcastle later in 
the year.

Nick Marland, a former long-time employee of Media Monitors, who left earlier this year as broadcast operations supervisor in Sydney, concluded that hosts fall for these stunts because ‘once you start engaging with the media in any kind of way, be it through work or study or whatever, it becomes painfully obvious that they keep beating the same drums. They have their pet topics, and they tend to be pretty ignorant.'

A kinder explanation – than sloppiness or ignorance – for why hosts fall for pranks could be that the time pressures of being live to air (give or take the seven-second delay) make it harder to discriminate between junk and useful listener contributions. Tim Webster, former Channel 10 anchor and now Steve Price's stablemate at 2UE, says ‘it's something we battle with almost every day, and you get hoax calls almost every day – or somebody's just trying to stir you up ... And there is pressure, you're right, because if a caller rings and they've got a tip about something, it could be anything from a car accident to something they've heard or seen, I suppose your tendency will be to go "let's go with that," but you have to be careful. And nowadays my producers – I've got one on the phone and the other who produces the show – are very careful.'

Salter agrees that hosts are up against it when it comes to sorting quality contributions from the dross: ‘Of course there are very few quality filters between an incoming call and being put to air. The first is the producer, who receives the call on the talkback number. And they have just a few seconds to ask the incoming caller "What do you want to talk about, and what do you want to say?" And they make a snap judgement as to whether they'll put them in a queue.'

But when there's nobody in the queue, and still a show to do, the problems get worse. Salter says ‘the actual responsive listenership ... the proportion of the listening audience that actually pick up a phone and engage the talkback host is miniscule, absolutely miniscule. There are many times when even the most popular talkback hosts are reduced to scouting for calls on the air ... What that also means is that the talkback host and their producer have to grab at almost anything that comes along.'

And what about the fill-in jocks, who might generate an even smaller response than their full-time counterparts? Palaitis and Fintan found out about this last year ‘on the Mike Carlton [2UE breakfast] program – when Steve Liebmann filled in – there was one show when every email read on the show was from us,' says Palaitis. Indeed, a comparison between Palaitis's ‘pranks database' and Media Monitors' archives shows that every email read out, bar one, before lunchtime on 2UE was from Palaitis's and Fintan's characters, who informed the hosts about topics ranging from binge drinking to circus clowns stealing petrol.

 

ANOTHER AVENUE SOMETIMES explored by mischief-makers who participate in talkback is playing to a host's sense of outrage. This can be seen above with Jones' refugees vs pensioners episode. Another long-time Media Monitors employee, Patrick Kemp (not his real name), believes a hoax should ideally ‘be something that the rational individual knows is a complete fabrication, but something that is scandalising to a shock jock: something that they're quite passionate about'. It's certainly true that talkback radio has been known to trade on conflict and anger. Those who are amused by media hoaxes often contend that the best ones involve embarrassment over a topic the host feels strongly about, or even campaigns over. A famous example of this is the Angry Dwarf hoax, perpetrated on Price, then at Melbourne's 3AW. Satirist John Safran became involved in a stoush with Price in 2001, after he mocked Price's stance on the drug ecstasy and its use at dance parties. Safran convinced Price that drug manufacturers had latched on to the latter's anti-drug campaign (in his Herald Sun newspaper column and on his drive-time talk program) and used it to market ecstasy pills bearing the 3AW logo, and referred to as ‘Angry Dwarfs' – a reference to Price's short stature. Safran had a friend (dressed as a parody of a raver) deliver paracetamol tablets with the 3AW insignia stamped on them to Price at his workplace. Safran arranged for female callers to impersonate churlish old women (the kind who might make outraged calls to a talk radio station), and give irrational comments on the rumours that 3AW ecstasy pills existed and were being made by Price: ‘Well if it has your logo on it, Steve, then I don't know how you can say that you're not doing it.'

The hoax managed to critique the worst of what talkback radio can offer: pointless moralising, uninformed outrage from both presenter and caller, and the dangers of accepting information from strangers. Neither Safran nor Price would agree to be interviewed for this article.

The possibility of on-air friction can often gain the attention of a shock jock, as conflict and lively arguments form a part of the spectacle of talkback radio. Ashley Blacker is a health services administrator and former media student. He fondly remembers his evenings listening to the late Stan Zemanek, and being moved to participate in Zemanek's conflict- and insult-heavy brand of talk radio. ‘When I started university and I'd be up late doing homework in the living room I used to have him on in the background for a bit of laughter,' he says. ‘I'd been considering making joke calls for a while, as that seemed to be the nature of the show ... I'd say, "Aw Stan, I'm a bit stoned and I'm listening to Slipknot." Straight away he went for it. He didn't become too vicious – he wanted to prolong the conversation – and he said, "You're stoned, aren't you? You're a Labor supporter. You're ..." and he gave me a few of his choice insults.'

Ashley called a couple more times, and found out that calling in character and pretending to be a stoned heavy metal fan got him on the air much quicker than being sensible would. He says while he's not much of a fan of shock jocks as sources of information, he can understand the appeal of their work: ‘It's a bit like the Jerry Springer of radio. People think they're discussing serious issues, when really they're just trivial ... If I was to ring up Perspective on Radio National of an afternoon and pretend to be stoned, I'd be hung up on.'

 

BUT WHAT IS achieved by these ruses? There appear to be few safeguards on radio programs to rule them out. And they don't appear to be much of a concern to hosts or their producers: ‘We assume ... that people have better things to do with their time than fabricate things for their own childish amusement,' relates Christenson. Indeed, Jones' career in radio has flourished, despite far deeper embarrassments than being strung along by some ridiculous Mahatma Cote-type persona in a series of emails. And is the lack of intellectual rigour and discrimination displayed by a radio host in falling for a seemingly ridiculous prank anything worse than what's sometimes foisted on listeners by PR agents or political stooges pretending to be members of the public? Salter points out that ‘it's the same slackness that can't winnow out someone who's pretending to have been savaged by a Rottweiler belonging to the Prime Minister; that same inability to sift out someone who's pretending to be a housewife in the western suburbs who is actually working for the Labor Party'.

Despite the ease with which someone can subvert a program that might seem to rely on a quick flick through the morning's tabloid and a few phone calls from bored housewives for its journalistic research, these pranks don't appear to have much more of an effect than hearty laughter and a bit of schadenfreude among those who are in on the joke. Webster affably sums up the attitude that a presenter might have towards hoaxes: ‘I have to say, they can be funny, but when they come through and it happens and you're there three hours a day, five days a week, it ends up going through to the keeper and it's water off a duck's back. [You think] ‘There you go, good on you,' then you move on ...'

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