“I don't think it will change.”
That is the view of seasoned radio presenter – and “wind-up” call veteran – Jonathan Coleman, who believes the fallout from Mel Greig and Michael Christian's 2Day FM royal prank in terms of changes to the radio industry's approach to prank calls will be short-term and nominal.
While acknowledging the tragedy of the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, Coleman said of calls for increased regulation, “I can't see where it will change, because wind-up calls are part of the history of Australian radio. The great thing about radio is it's such an instant medium. You can regulate it as much as you want, but if you regulate too much it takes the grain of humour out of it."
For Coleman, who has hosted radio shows on Australian networks including Triple J, 2DayFM, Triple M and WSFM as well as broadcasting in the UK for Virgin, Heart FM and the BBC, the question of whether external regulation or in-house rules will come into place is mostly irrelevant, as he “can't see it changing, because the rules have always been there. The laws and statutes are already there. They're already there in Australia, already there in the UK”.
The key, he says, is in the interpretation of the rules, the subjective decision made by on-air talent and producers on a case-by-case basis. "When we were doing the show on Virgin in London, half the time we didn't ask permission [to air the recording],” Coleman said. “A lot of people we were ringing live. We put calls to air where they hung up and said 'fuck off' and we just beeped it.”
Coleman noted that while he expects the reaction overseas will be “bloody Australia, they do those wind-ups”, the wind-up prank is widely used by both British and American DJs. He pointed to English DJ Steve Penk, who has “made his name out of doing wind-up calls”, as well as comedian Russell Brand, “though he didn't get away with it”. The latter referred to Brand's prank call in 2008 to the then 78-year-old Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs in which he claimed to have had intercourse with the actor's granddaughter. Brand ultimately lost his slot as a result of the public backlash.
The timing of the coverage in Britain was also of interest to Coleman. “Talk about hypocrisy," he said. "The British media getting all up in arms when they're having the Leveson inquiry [into the culture, practice and ethics of the British Press].”
In Australia the timing has been fortuitous for the Austereo network's efforts at damage control, as the final Nielsen radio ratings survey period for 2012 ended on November 30, with results reported on Tuesday, December 11. As well as making it hard to measure any impact on audience numbers, the end of ratings marks the beginning of presenters' holidays, with on-air talent traditionally fleeing the country as swiftly as possible to be replaced by replays of their year's best-of show highlight packages.
As such, presenters from every radio network have all had the perfect excuse not to take calls or comment on the situation, while production staff at both Austereo and its rivals have withdrawn behind a strict senior management “no comment” policy.
The immediate impact within Austereo was on-air damage control, with one insider confirming staff from all programs had spent the weekend in the office going over the year's highlight reels to “remove all mentions of Kate and Wills”, with entirely unrelated segments from earlier in the year being pulled.
In the longer term, the only thing Coleman felt would change at the networks was the individual internal compasses as to entertainment value.
This sentiment was echoed by the Chaser's Julian Morrow, who said: "there's still a place for comedy stunts, satirical ones and silly ones too. Of course there needs to be a time and place. This tragedy will rightly loom large in people's memories."
Coleman compared comedic wind-up calls to live crosses in TV news shows in which members of the public take risks to get in the back of the shot, suggesting it is impossible to legislate for all possible scenarios.
“We used to do wind-up calls on Triple J as Jono and Danno, calling everyone from the police through to ringing up someone's work to say someone's not coming in today, they're not feeling well and then sending them to the cricket,” he said. “It was a different era, times have changed, but I can't see the government or the broadcasters outlawing wind-up calls. It's part of FM radio. They seem to work 99.9 per cent of the time, you can't make rulings or law that will cover the 0.01 [per cent] of the time.”