WPHT Philadelphia morning host Chris Stigall found himself in hot water last week. Stigall mused that Julie Kramer, a cancer-stricken Philadelphia Phillies fan who had been surprised by Phillies star second baseman Chase Utley on the Ellen show, would not live through the entire 2015 baseball season.
The comments made it into the blogosphere and got picked up by local news. Stigall apologized, while simultaneously accusing people who he considered to be out to get him of taking his comments out of context (as many members of the media and politicians who stick a foot in their mouths so often do).
It remains to be seen if WPHT will discipline Stigall for the remarks, which were completely inappropriate, and yet completely predictable.
To an extent, this sort of comment is imbedded in the DNA of talk radio. Before everyone who works in the business attacks me, or assumes that I am slamming hosts or denigrating the medium, hear me out.
The best talk radio is edgy, unpredictable, and pushes boundaries. That is part of what makes it entertaining. It's not all that different than the funniest stand up comedy. Richard Pryor offended lots of people. So did George Carlin. Indeed other entertainment forms (especially spontaneous ones) including The Daily Show, Conan, and standup comedy, can also be raunchy, edgy, or inappropriate at times, but hilarious.
But there is an inherent risk when an entertainer pushes the boundaries of propriety. Thus, it should not surprise anyone when hosts occasionally stray over the line. Radio hosts are imperfect beings like the rest of us humans.
Giving Stigall the benefit of the doubt, he probably wished that he had the words back as soon as his brain fully processed what he said. We all have moments where we say things, and think, oh bleep, I bet I just offended someone, or that didn't come out at all like I meant it!
Now imagine trying to be entertaining and edgy fifteen hours a week, skirting the line without crossing it, and having no script or safety net. Additionally, every word you say is recorded and uploaded onto the web, so that your comments not only have to avoid offending your listening audience, but also have to pass the test of someone who might only hear a twenty second clip.
Under these circumstances, hosts are bound to cross the line every now and again. The longer that a host has been on the air, the more likely it is that he or she will have said things on multiple occasions that would offend at least some, if not all, people.
You would hope that someone would know that talking about a cancer victim is begging to get himself in trouble. It's the sort of topic that should have flashing warning lights attached to it. But we should be lenient towards talk radio hosts in these situations. When a comic makes an inappropriate joke in a live show, the audience typically just sits silently, or laughs half-heartedly and nervously in an oh-my-god-did-he-just-say-that-sort-of-way.
Typically (though not always in a world of camera phones) the comic gets away with the line and goes back to the drawing board before his next performance. The talk radio host is a similar style of entertainer. Yet, he/she does not have this luxury.
The difference between a talk radio host and a comic is that because the core content of so many talk radio programs is political, hosts face far more scrutiny than comics, because there is a huge group of people that consider hosts to be part of the political opposition, and thus, a target. Additionally, hosts operate in a mass medium, whereas even the most popular standup comics perform before a few thousand people per night.
This difference explains why standup comics often get in trouble when they venture into the political realm. For example, comedian Louis CK withdrew from his role as the host of the White House Correspondent’s dinner in 2012 after Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren called for a boycott of the dinner because of offensive comments that CK made about Sarah Palin. All of a sudden, comments that CK's usual audience might have found funny, drew a very different reaction from a very different audience.
Offering this information is not to defend Stigall. He probably should have known to avoid the minefield, and I certainly would have preferred an apology that didn't try to blame people for taking his comments out of context. There really is no good context. We all make mistakes, and hosts need to be willing to say I screwed up, I'm sorry.
But we should understand the difficult job that hosts have, and recognize that if every host who crossed the line got fired, radio would be far less entertaining. It also would not be much of a stretch to start censoring broadcast comics and taking away material that brings laughter to lots of people.
While Rush Limbaugh or Chris Stigall might offend you or I, and Jon Stewart might seem hilarious, it's easy to envision Stewart offending plenty of people. The same goes for scores of performers from every different demographic group and with every different type of worldview.
We're better off as a society avoiding media censorship, and instead making choices about what media we consume. If people find a host offensive, they can vote with their listening/viewing habits. If enough people agree with them, the host will be unemployed soon enough.
That does not mean that a host should avoid sanction when he/she crosses such a clear line. If I was Stigall's boss, I would probably suspend him without pay through the end of the year to make it clear that such comments are not acceptable. It also does not mean that a host who repeatedly crosses such clear lines should not eventually lose his/her job.
But it does mean that people need to stop holding radio hosts to the standard that if any group is offended by some of their comments or jokes, that host should face sanctions, boycotts, etc. The result would be a very boring, vanilla product that didn't thrill anyone but also didn't offend anyone.
No one would benefit from that. And I say that as someone who disagrees with Chris Stigall far more than I agree, and who would prefer to see far greater diversity of opinion on the talk radio airwaves.