“Perhaps the only thing more counterfeit than Australian Idol co-host/FM radio jock Kyle Sandilands’s carotene tan is the myth of his significance.” So wrote Helen Razer in 2007 of radio host Kyle Sandilands in a piece entitled Kyle Sandilands, you are a big fake fake. In the years since Razer’s commentary, commentators and radio listeners have continued to question the legitimacy of Sandilands’s performance as a radio host, while his supporters have defended him on the basis that this performance is authentic (Wynn). References to him as “shock jock,” a term frequently associated with talkback radio, suggest Sandilands’s approach to performance is one of intended confrontation. However, the genre of radio to which his performance is associated is not talkback. It is chat-based programming, which relies on three tenets: orientation to the personal, use of wit, and risk of transgression. This paper examines the question: To what extent is Kyle Sandilands’s performance of authenticity oriented to the genre format? This paper argues that the overall success of Sandilands is supported by his mastery of the chat-based genre.
The Radio Host, “Authenticity”, and Performance
Kyle Sandilands has been one of Australia’s most prominent and controversial radio hosts since the 1990s. In 2014, Sandilands was one half of Australia’s most successful breakfast team, hosting the nationally syndicated Kyle and Jackie O Show with fellow presenter Jacqueline Henderson on Kiis 1065 (Galvin, Top Radio). Sandilands’s persona has received significant attention within the mediasphere (Galvin, Kiss; Razer). Commentators argue that he is often “putting it on” or being overly dramatic in order to attract ratings. The following interaction is an example of on-air talk involving Sandilands (“Ronan Keating and Kyle Sandilands Fight On-Air”). Here, Sandilands and his co-host Jackie O are talking with singer Ronan Keating who is with them in the studio. Jackie plays Ronan a recording in which Sandilands makes fun of Keating:
Kyle: ((On recorded playback)) Oh god. I don’t want to look like Ronan Keating, you two foot dwarf.
Ronan K: ((laughs)) Right (.) I don’t know how to take that.
Kyle: Well I’m glad it ended there because I think it went on and on didn’t it? ((Looks at Jackie O))
Jackie O: I was being kind. ((Looks at Ronan)). He went on and on.
Kyle: That says something about…
Ronan: Play it, play it [let me hear it]
Kyle: [no no] I don’t have the rest. I don’t have the rest of [it]
Ronan: [No] you do.
Kyle: No I don’t have it on me. It would be here somewhere.
Jackie O: [Ok this…]
Ronan: You go on like you’re my friend, you know you text me, you say you love me and are playing all these songs and then on radio you rip the crap out of me.
Kyle: I was just joking. I think I said something like his little white arms hanging out of his singlet…and something like that.
Jackie O: OK this is getting awkward and going on. I thought you guys would have a laugh, and…
Kyle: [It’s tongue in cheek]
Ronan: [That’s’ not cool man]. That’s not cool. Look I popped in to see you guys. I’m going to New Zealand, and I’ve got one night here (.) I’ve got one day in Sydney and that’s the crap that you’re dealing me.
((silence from all))
Kyle: ((Looking at Jackie)) Good one Jackie. ((Looking at Ronan)) That’s not crap. That’s just radio banter.
This segment illustrates that Sandilands recognises talk as performance when he defends his criticism of Keating as “just radio banter”, inferring that his comments are not real because they are performed for radio. The argument between Keating and Sandilands, reported in media outlets such as The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph the following day, was significant because the two had been friends, something referred to a few minutes later by Keating:
Ronan: You’ve changed, man. You’ve changed. I come back and you’re on a new station and all this and that. But you’ve changed…I knew you when you were a nice guy.
This segment may or may not have been staged to illicit publicity, and it is one of many possible examples that could have been selected that involve an altercation between Sandilands and a guest. Its inclusion in this paper is to illustrate orientation by co-participants, including Sandilands, to a “real self” (one that has changed) and performance (talk for radio) as an example of talk.
If one is to be a fake, as Helen Razer suggested of Kyle Sandilands, one needs to be measured against that which is authentic. Authenticity is not a static concept and accordingly, can be difficult to define. Are we talking about being authentic (real) or being sincere (honest), and what really is the difference? This is an important point, because I suspect we sometimes confuse or blur the lines between these two concepts when considering authenticity and performance in media contexts. Erickson examines the difference between sincerity and authenticity, arguing “authenticity is a self-referential concept; unlike sincerity, it does not explicitly include any reference to others,” while sincerity reflects congruity between what one says and how one feels (123). Authenticity is more relevant than sincerity within the cultural space because it is self-referential: it is about “one’s relationship to oneself,” whereby actors “exist by the laws of one’s own being” (Erickson 124).
Authenticity and performance by radio hosts has been central to broadcast talk analysis since the 1980s (Tolson, Televised; Tolson, ‘Authentic’ Talk; Tolson, New Authenticity; Scannell; Shingler and Wieringa; Montgomery; Crisell; Tolson, ‘Being Yourself’). The practice of “performing authenticity” by program hosts is, therefore, well-established and consistent with broadcast talk as a discursive genre generally. Sociologist Erving Goffman specifically considered performativity in radio talk in his work, and his consideration of theatrical performance written early in his career provides a good starting point for discussion. Performance, Goffman argued, “may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants” (8). In performing, actors play a part or present a routine in such a way that the audience believes the character (Goffman).
This presents an interesting dilemma for radio hosts, who act as facilitators between the institution (program) and the audience. Hosts talk—or interact—with their co-hosts and listeners. This talk is a performance for an overhearing audience, achieved (or performed) by facilitating interpersonal talk between two or three people. This talk is conversational, and requires the host to play on “interpersonality”—creating the sense of a close personal relationship with audience members by talking to “anyone as someone” (Scannell). A host is required to embody the character of the radio station, represent listeners (Shingler and Wieringa), and perform in a way that appears natural through conversational talk, all at the same time. A host also needs to display personality, possibly the most critical element in the success of a program.
Authenticity, Shock-Value, and Radio Genre
The radio economy revolves around the personality of a celebrity host, and audiences expect celebrity hosts to which they listen to be playing a role despite appearing to be authentic (Stiernstedt). At the same time, radio hosts are aware of the “performed nature of the displayed self” (215). The audience familiar with a host or hosts expect some inconsistency in this playing of role: “The uncertainty such performances generate among the audience is intentional, and the motive of the producers is that it will encourage audiences to find ‘evidence’ of what ‘really happened’ on other media platforms” (Stiernstedt). There is much evidence of this in the mediasphere generally, with commentary on Sandilands and other “shock jocks” often featuring in entertainment and media sections of the general press. This coverage is often focused on examining hosts’ true personality in a “what’s behind the person” type of story (Overington; Bearup; Masters).
Most research into host performance on radio has been conducted within the genre of talkback radio, and the celebrity talkback “shock jock” features in the literature on talkback (Turner; Douglas; Appleton; Salter; Ward). Successful radio hosts within this genre have fostered dramatic, often polarising, and quick-witted personas to attract listeners. Susan Douglas, in an article reflecting on the male hysteric shock jock that emerged in the US during the 1980s, argued that the talk format emerged to be inflammatory: “Talk radio didn’t require stereo or FM fidelity. It was unpredictable. It was incendiary. And it was participatory.” The term “shock jock” is now routinely used to describe talk-based hosts who are deliberately inflammatory, and the term has been used to describe Kyle Sandilands.
Authenticity has previously been considered in Australian talkback radio, where there is a recognised “grey area between news presentation and entertainment” (Barnard 161). In Australia, the “Cash for Comment” episode involving radio talkback hosts John Laws and Alan Jones specifically exposed radio as entertainment (Turner; Flew). Laws and Jones were exposed as having commercial relationships that influenced the manner in which they dealt with political topics. That is, the hosts presented their opinions on specific topics as being authentic, but their opinions were exposed as being influenced by commercial arrangements. The debate that surrounded the issue and expectations associated with being a commercial radio host revealed that their performance was measured against a set of public standards (ie. a journalist’s code of ethics) to which the hosts did not subscribe. For example, John Laws argued that he wasn’t really a journalist, and therefore, could not be held to the same ethical standard as would be the case if he was. This is an example of hosts being authentic within the “laws of their own being;” that is, they were commercial radio hosts and were being true to themselves in that capacity.
“Cash for Comment” therefore highlighted that radio presenters do not generally work to any specific set of professional codes. Rather, in Australia, they work to more general sector-based codes, such as the commercial and community broadcasting codes of practice set by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. These codes are quite generic and give no specific direction as to the role of radio presenters. Professor Graeme Turner argued at the time that the debate about “Cash for Comment” was important because the hosts were engaging in public discussion about policy, often interviewing politicians, a role normally associated with journalists. There was limited fall-out for Laws and Jones, but changes were made to disclosure requirements for commercial radio. There have been a number of attempts since to discipline radio hosts who seemingly fail to meet community and sector standards. These attempts have appeared tokenistic and there remains acceptance that talkback radio hosts should be opinionated, controversial, and potentially inflammatory. Research also tells us that callers within this genre are aware of the rules of interaction (O'Sullivan). However, it is important to understand that not all talk-based programming is talkback.
The Case of Sandilands and Adherence to Genre
Although he is often referred to as a “shock-jock”, Kyle Sandilands is not a talkback radio host. He is the host on a chat-based radio program, and the difference in genre is important. Chat-based programming is a speech genre based on wit, orientation to the personal, and the risk of transgression. Chat-based programming was originally theorised in relation to television by Andrew Tolson (Televised), but more recently, it has been applied it to breakfast programs on commercial radio (Ames, Community). Talkback segments are incorporated into chat-based programming, but overall, the type of talk and the basis of interaction throughout the show is very different. In chat-based programming, hosts work to foster and maintain a sense of listening community by taking on different roles—being a friend, host, counsellor, entertainer—depending on the type of talk being engaged with at the time (Ames, Host/Host). Like all forms of broadcast programming, chat-based radio is driven by the need to entertain, but the orientation to the personal and risk of transgression alter the way in which “being real” or “true to oneself” (and therefore authentic) is performed. For example, chat-based hosts orient to callers in a way that prioritises sociability (Ames, Community), which is in contrast to studies on talkback interaction that reveal an orientation to conflict (Hutchby). The key point here is that talk on chat-based programming is different to the talk that occurs on talkback.
Kyle Sandilands’s ability and desire to outrage has possibly always been part of his on-air persona. He has made a staff member masturbate live, questioned a 14-year-old about her sexual experiences, called a journalist a “fat slag”, and insulted members of the radio industry and listening public. In an interview with Andrew Denton, Sandilands categorised himself as a fellow victim. He talked of his difficulties as a teenager and largely justified his on-air behaviour by saying he did not think of the consequences of his actions in the heat of the live moment:
I just didn’t even think about that. Back in those days I would only think about what I thought was funny and entertaining and it wasn’t until reflection once it had gone to air then everyone flipped out and everyone started saying you know, oh this could have gone horribly wrong. (Sandilands)
Sandilands’s self-categorisation actually meets the description of being a radio presenter, described by Stephen Barnard in Studying Radio, one of the early “how to be a radio presenter” texts released in the UK in 2000:
Unlike music presenters, phone-in presenters do not work within the comforting disciplines of a prescribed format but are hired for their ability to think on their feet. Phone-in presenters have as much or as little leeway as station heads allow them, leading to widely diverging approaches and a continual testing of the limits of tolerance. (Barnard 161)
Sandilands made specific reference to this in his interview with Denton, when he referred to tension between his practice and what station management wanted:
I like to cut the rubbish out of what everyone else thinks people want. So radio to me in Sydney was for example very boring. It was you know someone in another room would write out a joke, then someone would execute it and then you would hit the button and everyone would laugh and I just thought you know to me this isn’t, this isn’t real. I want to deal with real life stuff. The real life dramas that are going on in people's lives and a lot of the times radio station management will hate that cause they say no one wants to go to work in the morning and hear a woman crying her eyes out cause her husband’s cheated on her. But I do. I, I’d like to hear it. (Sandilands)
Sandilands’s defence for his actions is based on wanting to be real and deal with “real” issues:
this is the real society that we live in so you know I don’t and my interest is to let everyone know you know that yes, sometimes men do cheat; sometimes women cheat, sometimes kids are bad; sometimes kids get expelled. Sometimes a girl’s addicted to ice. (Sandilands)
In one sense, his practice is consistent with what is expected of a radio host, but he pushes the limits when it comes to transgression. I would argue that this is part of the game, and it is one of the reasons people listen and engage with this particular format. However, what it is to be transgressive is very locally specific. What might be offensive to one person might not be to someone else. Humour is culturally specific, and while we don’t know whether listeners are laughing, the popularity of Kyle and Jackie O as a radio host team suggests that there is some attraction to their style—Sandilands’s antics included.
The relationship between Sandilands and his audience and co-host is important to this discussion. Close analysis of anyKyle and Jackie O transcript can be revealing because it often highlights Sandilands’s overall deference and a self-effacing approach to his listeners. He makes excuses, and acknowledges he is wrong in a way that almost sets himself up as a “punching bag” for his co-host and listeners. He isdoing “being real.” We can see this in the interaction at the beginning of this paper, whereby his excuse was that the talk was “just radio banter.” The interaction between Sandilands and his co-host, and their listeners, serves to define the listening community of which they are a part (Ames, Host/Host). This community can be seen as “extraordinary”—based on “privatized isolation” that is a prerequisite for membership:
The sense of universality of this condition, reflected in the lyrics of the music, the chatter of the DJs and the similarity of the concerns expressed by callers on phone-ins, ensures that solitary listening grants radio listeners membership to a unique type of club: a club where the members never meet or communicate directly. The club, of course, has its rules, its rituals, its codes of conduct and its abiding principles, beliefs and values. Club membership entails conformity to a consensual view. (Shingler and Wieringa 128)
If you are not a listener of a particular listening community, then you’re not privy to those rules and rituals. The problem for Sandilands is that what is acceptable to his listening community can also be overheard by others. To his club, he might be acceptable—they know him for who he really is. As a host operating in chat-based formatting which relies on the possibility for transgression as a principle, he is expected to push boundaries as a performer. His persona is accepted by the station’s listeners who tune in every evening/afternoon (or whenever the program is broadcast across the network). His views and approach might be controversial, but they are normalised within the confines of the listening community:
Radio presenters therefore do not construct a consensual view and impose it on their listeners. What they do is present what they perceive to be the views shared by the station and the listening community in general, and then make it as easy as possible for individual listeners to comply with these views (despite whatever specific reservations they may have). (Shingler and Wieringa 130)
But to those who are not members of the listening community, his actions might be untenable. They do not hear the times when Sandilands takes on the role of “deviant host”, a host who will become an ally with a listener in a discussion if there is disagreement in talk which is a feature of this type of programming (Ames, Community). In picking out single elements of Sandilands’s awfulness, as happens when he oversteps the boundaries (and thus transgresses), there is potential to lose the sense of context that makes Sandilands acceptable to his program’s listeners. What we don’t hear, in the debates about whether his behaviour is or isn’t acceptable within the mediasphere, are the snippets of conversation where he demonstrates empathy, or is admonished by or defers to his co-host. The only time a non-listener hears about Kyle Sandilands is when he oversteps the boundary and his actions are questioned within the wider mediasphere. These questions are based on a broader sense of moral order than the moral order specifically applicable to the Kyle and Jackie O program.
The debate about a listening community’s moral order that accepts Sandilands’s antics as normal is not one for this paper; the purpose of the paper is to explain the success of Sandilands’s approach in an environment where questions are raised about why he remains successful. Here we return to discussions of authenticity. Sandilands’s performance orients to being “real” in accordance with the “laws of one’s own being” (Erickson 124). The laws in this case are set by the genre being chat-based radio programming, and the moral order created within the program of which is a co-host.
Radio hosts have always “performed authenticity” as part of their role as a link between an audience and a station. Most research into the performance of radio hosts has been conducted within the talkback genre. Talkback is different, however, to chat-based programming which is increasingly popular, and the chat-based format in Australia is currently dominated by the host team known as Kyle and Jackie O. Kyle Sandilands’s performance is based on “being real”, and this is encouraged and suited to chat-based programming’s orientation to the personal, reliance on wit and humour, and the risk of transgression. While he is controversial, Sandliands’s style is an ideal fit for the genre, and his ability to perform to meet the genre provides some explanation for his success.
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