Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Line

-If you cross it. You're fired.

But there's no clear-cut boundary line for broadcasters anymore. Just gray area.

Apparently Bryan Burwell, although I didn't hear it, crossed it during a tirade on KFNS last week. Some fellow African-American who called in to his show had the idea that Burwell was an "Uncle Tom" because of his on-going position condemning Barry Bonds. The listener felt that Burwell was less critical of the ultra-white, erstwhile St. Louis hero Mark McGwire, and should be called on the carpet for not being more supportive of someone of his own race in baseball's Great Steroids Debate.

The foolishness of the caller's expectations can be argued another day. But, Burwell's profanity-laced response was enough to get him suspended by KFNS management for something like 12 hours. I don't know exactly what he said. I don't know the specific terms of the suspension. But, since he's back on the air this week, it seems more like an after-school detention than a suspension. Friends tell me what was said should be...or at least at one time would have been... grounds for immediate termination. (Some say Dave Lenihan was canned for a less blatant offense at KTRS.)

Because stations could be heavily fined and their licenses threatened for such boo-boos, part of an education in broadcasting "back in the day" included instruction, in no uncertain terms, as to where the line was that you dare not cross. Part of my Radio Production 201 class at SIU in the early 70's included a listing of the words that were unacceptable, and the degrees of seriousness that each of them carried. We were told that once you set foot in an area that may have a live microphone, you did not utter such words for any reason. Then you put that policy into practice each time you were asked to do anything that came close to air work. Even if it was in a production...or recorded...setting. You studied. You practiced. You became a broadcaster with a "trained mind" that included a sub-consciousness of what was, and wasn't, acceptable when the on-the-air light was on.

Nowadays, having a third class radio-operator's license (which used to be the FCC's minimum requirement for anyone who would actually put hands on the equipment..and formerly a minimum requirement for being hired at a radio station) as a prerequisite for on-air work is essentially a thing of the past. So is actually being trained in the hard-and-fast rules of the broadcasting business. Managers seem ready to sacrifice quality of background and training now for the name value of the potential speaker, or the opportunity to hire someone part-time and "on-the-cheap". So, many writers, such as Mr. Burwell, then are able to go on the air for a few hours a day and consider themselves broadcasters. Uh-uh! Not in my opinion. Show me your Mass-Comm diploma with a concentration in Radio-TV, or show me your diploma from Broadcast Center or a similar trade school, or show me your third-class ticket, and maybe I'll sign off on that idea. I don't care how many Super Bowls you've been to.

Now folks who talk into a microphone, and get paid something for it, have the notion that that's all that's needed to be considered a broadcaster. Mr. Burwell, or any of the very protective legion of scribes who pound the keyboard at newspapers, wouldn't consider me a print journalist just because I can string some words together on a blog. We have some pretty good butchers at the local market too...but I wouldn't want one to take out my appendix.

Am I a trained and qualified newspaper writer or columnist who should be paid for my thoughts? I guess so, if someone would pay to read my stuff...right? I don't have a journalism degree. Don't know the inner-workings, or unwritten rules of the newspaper business. The only newspaper experience I have is in the mailroom at the Belleville News-Democrat when I was in college. But, maybe I'll consider myself a writer anyway. Doesn't mean I'm right though...does it?

Mr. Burwell has attempted to take responsiblity publicly by apologizing for his on-air faux pas. I've heard and read enough from him to know that he is an intelligent and educated man. But, does that mean we should excuse him with a meaningless reprimand when he crosses the line in such a blatant way? Should anyone who breaks the rules, or laws, of any endeavor...such as Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire in baseball...be forgiven so easily? When these incidents just go by without serious consequences, we create more gray area, and more opportunity for young people to believe that mediocrity is close enough to excellence, dignity isn't necessary, and honor doesn't really matter. When Burwell lowered himself to the words he chose to use, he stooped to a level perfect for the executioner's ax. But none was put into motion.

We have to understand that there is a line....then enforce and respect it.

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