When does ‘theatre of the mind’ cross the line?


It’s been a while since a story generated such hostile division within the radio industry.

When the Capital Radio Network was accused of fooling its listeners by faking calls with competition winners, it opened up a big, juicy can of worms.

It also put a whole new slant on the oft-used radio expression ‘theatre of the mind.’

This week, the ABC’s Media Watch introduced us to Deb. Deb is a real person, who won a real competition to see the Rolling Stones, live in LA.

There’s only one Deb. But you’d be forgiven for thinking there are more. Because Deb magically morphed into four people, when the local breakfast hosts on Perth’s 6iX, Gippsland’s 3GG, Goulburn’s GNFM and Canberra’s 2CA were edited into the same call, giving the appearance of a local winner on each station.

So, four Debs, on four network stations … and four brekky hosts all reading practically word for word from the same script.

Deceptive? Not at all, according to Josh Matthews, Chief Operating Officer of the Capital Radio Network, who says the Terms and Conditions make it clear it was a network-wide contest.

“The Capital Radio Network further ensures that the on-air promotion of its network contests are clear in that the promotion is network wide, including the audio aired at the time that the winner is announced.”

Many radio industry colleagues have expressed surprise that this story is even newsworthy. After all, they argue, isn’t it common knowledge? Radio stations have been doing this sort of thing for years. It’s just how network radio works! And in this particular case, it’s a time efficient and effective way to promote localism.

But consider it from the point of view of someone who doesn’t work in radio. Most would think the winner was local, and that, it would appear, was exactly the intention.

I reckon if it were my mum, my bestie or my next door neighbour, they’d be shocked to see that’s how it works.

It reminds me of the time, many years ago, when a radio news colleague of mine covered a local festival. Instead of actually going to the festival and filing a report from there, they made the call from a landline phone in the office.

This journo did not say in the report that they were at the festival, but clearly – by doing the report over the phone – that’s exactly what they wanted people to think.

I knew the listeners would be none the wiser, but that wasn’t the point.

In the case of the competition calls, has any harm been done? What impact does it have on listener trust? Does it matter if the happy winner is from Ballarat instead of Bunbury?  Maybe not, but you wonder whether local sponsors will be as keen to hand over their dollars knowing the winner might be from the other side of the country.

One thing it has done is generate plenty of discussion in radio groups.

One comment in the Radio Today inbox says this kind of thing is totally misleading, and cannot be called ‘theatre of the mind’:

“It’s faked. It’s a rip-off. It gives listeners the wrong impression about their chances of winning. Plus, it sounds so tinpot.”

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Recent comments (4)
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12 Jun 2024 - 2:28 pm

I totally agree. I never realised and would have been fooled into thinking a local had won. This is pure deceit and can’t be argued less. Seriously, who reads the T & C’s for the hidden lies the network is pushing? I say this is a blight on the industry and they should be called to account.

Peter Matheson
12 Jun 2024 - 6:59 pm

I remember hearing this sort of thing back in the 90’s/2000’s with Austereo’s “Crack The Code”, albeit a little bit different.

The thing is though, as minimum wages, taxes and licensing get higher, budgets get tighter. Everything is connected.

I say good on Capital for doing SOMETHING. And something decent, too! The alternative is nothing, or $10 to blow at Joe’s Meat Mart. We need more big ideas like this to make our audience talk about us, to engage with us, and to ask their friends “did you hear what Station X are doing?”

This sort of thing is becoming the norm, just as it is in the US. I do think we could be more transparent with the ins and outs of it, and slightly change how we deliver these types of things.

Why did Capital do this? For their audience. Hats off to them.

Perhaps ABC need to look at their own “local” radio brands which are often piped in from other markets. Cairns is one example, often coming from other parts of regional QLD but still branded as a Cairns show.

Ex Breakfast Radio Announcer
16 Jun 2024 - 3:58 pm

I have to agree there, It happens more than you realise…. I remember doing breakfast radio at a very small radio station a while back and we had a “secret sound” segment twice a morning where listeners would call up and guess the secret sound to win cold hard cash…… No one was ringing into the station at one point, so I was told to fake calls where listeners would call to to guess and had made up names and say what they may have answered when in fact no one was calling the station…… Radio stations have been doing this for years, it’s just how network radio works. unfortunately.

24 Jun 2024 - 12:54 pm

Catch 22 – theres no way 2GN could ever afford to send someone to see the Rolling Stones off their own budget, but I guess, at the same time, it could be managed as a network promotion.

Capital Radio Network presents “Rolling Stones USA!”, or the like, rather than having 2gn branding in it. Run it at an arms length from the station, with recorded segments that are played as part of the day. Have a separate dial in number (not hard these days) and run it out of one place with the grabs going out to the stations, rather than doing it with local announcers (which are few are far between these days thanks to networking)


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