By Siobhan Duck
December 23, 2012
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IMAGINE being called into your boss’s office and offered $25,000 to have a baby. Most of us would think it was a joke, because those sorts of indecent proposals aren’t routinely made in the workplace, let alone real life.
But for one former Austereo host, the baby bonus was no laughing matter.
She knew all too well that her employer meant business. A baby would mean ratings. And ratings meant all-important advertising dollars.
So, when her then-boss took out a calendar and began speculating the optimum time for her to conceive so that she could give birth between survey five and six (“when it would get the best ratings”), she didn’t feel violated. Or even surprised.
Just sadly resigned to the fact that being asked to have a child (and give birth on air wearing a T-shirt bearing the station slogan) was considered a reasonable request by her employer.
Welcome to Austereo – a world where King Kyle reigns supreme.
Where penis enlargement surgeries are offered as giveaways. And “guess who?” games involving women’s genitalia are brainstormed in staff meetings.
The ratings-at-any-cost culture of Austereo existed long before Mel Greig and Michael Christian – Kyle Sandilands’ colleagues at Sydney’s 2Day – made their ill-fated call to Kate Middleton’s London hospital. And, once the media storm passes, will flourish again because Austereo’s schadenfreude philosophy has won it as many listeners as it has critics. In this environment, it is little wonder that a run-of-the-mill hoax call was given the green light, like hundreds before it.
To two young DJs starting out in the Austereo machine, Christian and Greig, it seemed like they had hit upon the “prank of the century” until news of nurse Jacintha Saldanha’s suicide broke and they found no one was laughing anymore.
Realising its latest scandal was bigger than anything even star DJ Sandilands had ever caused, Austereo closed ranks and hired a professional crisis manager to help it negotiate the international furore.
Austereo chief Rhys Holleran has said he was confident all procedures had been followed, adding that pranks were part of the fabric of all commercial radio.
“They are not just part of one radio station, or one network, or one company,” he said.
“They’re done the world over. No one could have foreseen what ended up being an incredibly sad tragedy.”
Such is the popularity of the prank-call craft that Fox FM, in Melbourne, has even released entire albums of “gotcha calls” on CD.
Fonejacker – a British TV series about prank-calling people – won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award.
Even family favourites Hamish Blake and Andy Lee have played the odd trick on listeners on their radio show.
What has set Austereo apart (even before Ms Saldanha’s death) is the extremes to which it goes to promote and encourage humiliation as a form of entertainment.
Former Triple M presenter Peter Berner doubts there would have been much thought behind the hoax call to Kate Middleton’s hospital.
“FM radio people sit around, they spitball ideas, and somebody has said: `Hey, let’s try to ring the hospital and pretend to be Prince Charles and the Queen’,” he said.
“That would have been the level of consideration given to it, I guarantee it. At no time would anyone have wondered whether they should be doing this – that’s not the mandate of FM radio. They’re just looking for a laugh.” Sources say the same presenter who was offered money to get pregnant was also rewarded with $50 cash incentives for making people cry on air.
“I think it’s really unfortunate for the presenters that have been caught up in this because they’ve only just done what many others had been directed to do for 20 years,” one source said.
Another former Austereo star, Amber Petty, constantly butted heads with management over the persistent push for bad taste stunts.
The tipping point for Petty came when they got her father to record a “joke” obituary to her, which was then broadcast on the station’s news.
“They got to my dad when he was vulnerable – he was out and about and thought he was doing me a favour by doing it,” she said. “He was very uncomfortable but he did it.”
Petty said she was appalled when people began ringing the radio station in tears believing that she had actually died.
“It wasn’t funny,” she said. “A lot of what I was asked to do just wasn’t funny.”
Petty said her Austereo bosses believed any publicity was good publicity.
“They just wanted you to be talked about – they didn’t care if it was good or bad,” she said.
3AW presenter John-Michael Howson said the culture of stunts and prank phone-calling was rife in FM radio.
“What goes on at Austereo is beyond the pale. It’s puerile stuff. And it’s bullying,” he said. “If they were serious about changing they would have sacked Kyle Sandilands a long time ago.”
Pop culture expert Dr Lauren Rosewarne said prank calls would always have a place on radio as long as people continued to find humour in the humiliation of others.
“It’s a cycle,” she said. “We’ve seen it before with Kyle Sandilands.
“The station promises it will clean up its act and put strategies in place and slowly, slowly, the culture comes back because that’s what the audience wants to hear. The advertisers pull out of Alan Jones and Kyle Sandilands’ shows when things blow up but they always come back.
“The prank calls will come back eventually. I think they’ll be more careful about the legalities of these sorts of stunts in the future because `any publicity is good publicity’ only works if it’s not costing them money.
“The only way to stop this kind of behaviour is to take away the market for it. Radio stations aren’t going to keep making prank calls if people switch off.”
The prank file
* 1996: 2Day FM host David Rymer was suspended for four weeks after phoning a teenage girl who had received a perfect score for her HSC exams to say she’d actually failed. The cruel trick left the girl in tears.
* 2001: Fox FM arranged a wedding ceremony for a couple who met on the internet. The stunt was spoiled when it was revealed the potential groom was an ex-con who had failed to declare his criminal past to Australian Customs officials.
* 2005: In 2006, Judith Lucy revealed that the previous year she, Peter Helliar and Kaz Cooke had been encouraged to run a competition offering listeners the chance to win celebrity sperm and impregnate themselves with it. The hosts refused to run the competition.
* 2008: A man was challenged to identify his girlfriend from a line-up of three women just by examining their private parts.
* 2009: Kyle Sandilands strapped a teenage rape victim to a lie detector and questioned her about her sexual history. He did not know she had previously been sexually assaulted until midway through the stunt.
* 2009: Sandilands remarked that Magda Szubanski would need to spend time in a concentration camp to lose weight. Szubanski’s parents were Polish freedom fighters in WWII and the remarks caused condemnation from Holocaust survivors.
* 2009: After being told she had won a competition to meet a long-lost relative, a survivor of Pol Pot’s Cambodian regime was forced to get down on her knees and beg to meet her niece.