Apparently, you can go too far on satellite radio. But whether crude comments about the secretary of state will get two radio hosts fired remains to be seen.
In a situation that led to an on-air apology Friday morning, shock jocks Opie & Anthony were scolded by their employer, XM Satellite Radio, which called the offending sketch deplorable.
That kind of defensive move by XM wasn’t supposed to be required in the satellite programming business, because it operates beyond the purview of the Federal Communications Commission. Indeed, a good part of the original lure of XM and its rival, Sirius Satellite Radio, was the way hosts like Howard Stern could finally say whatever they wanted.
Turns out, for a variety of reason, that isn’t necessarily so.
This is a sensitive time for XM because federal regulators are considering whether to allow it to merge with Sirius. Further, the radio industry is still stinging from the outcry and firing of legendary radio host Don Imus for his racial comments.
Mike McGuire, a Gartner media analyst, said XM’s rebuke of Opie & Anthony is interesting because it is the “ownership responding to a public outcry. Are they overreacting and taking the role of the FCC?
“These guys have crossed the line,” he said of the shock jocks. “But what’s the surprise? Aren’t these the same guys who were fined by the FCC for recording the sounds of people making love in a Catholic church?”
In 2002, Anthony Cumia and Greg “Opie” Hughes were suspended from CBS radio after they broadcast two of their listeners’ illicit activity in New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral.
On Friday, Opie & Anthony apologized during their XM morning show after a character, Homeless Charlie, said in exceptionally vulgar language on Wednesday that he would like to have sex with Queen Elizabeth, Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice. The audio clip has since raced across the Internet, drawing additional attention.
“We apologize to the public officials for comments that were made on our XM show on May 9th,” Opie & Anthony said in their statement. “We take very seriously the responsibility that comes with our creative freedom and regret any offense that this segment has caused.”
Some radio observers were puzzled by the apology, since the comments were not made over the public airways.
“As shocking as it was, it aired on a paid satellite radio service,” said Tom Taylor, senior editor for Inside Radio. “If you’re a subscriber, you know what you’re getting.”
That is a key difference from the Imus issue. “I don’t sense this story (Opie & Anthony) will have the same kind of legs,” Taylor said.
Yet even though XM offers parental controls for its channels and Opie & Anthony is deemed “XL” for extreme language, the company said Friday that “we deplore the comments made on Wednesday’s Opie & Anthony show.”
In an interview, a spokesperson for XM said the broadcaster would not go beyond the statement to “address any broader issues,” including whether the statement was released to appease politicians who are reviewing the proposed XM-Sirius merger.
In order to get federal approval for the merger, which Taylor called a “toss up,” XM may not want to give opponents any “ammunition,” such as offensive language. “This is bad timing” for XM, Taylor said. “It doesn’t help” the merger talks.
Sirius and XM announced their proposed merger in February. As the only two companies to be granted licenses for satellite radio, the deal is garnering scrutiny.
The two companies, which have yet to turn a profit, say the merger is necessary to survive in an increasingly competitive audio market. They hope they will be viewed as one option for consumers, with gadgets like an iPod considered another option and therefore competition. Or, they could be viewed as the only two competitors in the same field, which would likely scuttle the merger.
Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which opposes the merger, said Friday the growing controversy does not come at the “best time for proponents of a government sanctioned monopoly.”
The Opie & Anthony duo was hired by XM in 2004 but also records a separate morning program for CBS stations.
“Fortunately we have standards that did not, and would not, ever let something like this make our air,” CBS said in a statement.
McGuire said for XM to come down hard on the shock jocks, based on their history as the lure that made them ideal for regulation-free radio, is “disingenuous at best.”
“Some entertainers thought they would be going into a space that would be wide open,” he said. “In the end, that may not be the case.”