Commercial radio stations are constantly involved in the cut-throat business of attracting a finite number of potential listeners ('the market') to tune in to their programs. The greater number of listeners, the more advertisers will be attracted to the station, the higher advertising fees it can charge, and the higher its profitability. Dropping behind in the ratings war can spell the end of a radio station as a viable commercial enterprise.
The need to achieve the highest possible ratings is the major influence on the format, style and content of a station's programming. Programs are designed to attract specific target audiences which have well-defined patterns of spending and consumption. Programs are constrained in their content and style mostly by the perceived limits of acceptable taste, morality and values of the target audience group. There is also a requirement to meet Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) Program Standards and to comply with State and Federal legislation and common law pertaining to publishing.
Talk-back radio is most popular in the mornings, and is heard on commercial, public and ABC radio. During the 1980s it emerged as a high-rating format whose appeal was based on letting ordinary people comment publicly on controversial news and current affairs, somewhat like an electronic version of the "Letters to the Editor" columns of newspapers.
Despite the impression it may give, the talk-back format used by stations such as 6PR (where Sattler is heard) does not result from any idealistic commitment on the part of station owners to free speech, or even to 'giving the listeners a say' (sometimes known as 'participatory media'). It is valued by commercial radio for its superior product-selling effect. As a 6PR promotional document puts it:
Logic says that a commercial in a talk environment will be heard -- there is not the turn-off factor such as there may be when music is interrupted by a commercial break.8
The live aspect of talk-back is also a selling bonus:
The power of a live read is even greater. The listener is attuned to talk and to a particular voice and then is subject to a commercial from that voice. Talk radio is foreground, it cannot be ignored!9
The daily discussion-topics of these programs are drawn together by the host, who usually follows up social and political issues that have been circulating in other media, often that morning's newspapers. Studio guests are sometimes invited to answer listeners' calls. The host's skills involve ensuring a lively program in which a perceived range of public opinion is canvassed. However, talk-back hosts have considerable personal power to set the limits of discussion, to solicit particular points of view, to lend credence to some calls but not to others by verbal gestures of agreement or disagreement, aggressive or supportive lines of questioning, and by allowing certain points of view to have extended airtime while others are truncated. All these factors mean that the presenter is in control of what is said on the program and how an issue is treated, despite the claim that talk-back hosts are merely facilitators of public comment. Much of this control is made possible by the technology of talk-back, which will be examined later.
The presenter's personal power is, in fact, exactly what the stations emphasise in their pitches to advertisers:
Howard gets the message across -- place your product in Howard's trust and let his influence sell it for you.10.
When it comes to selling audiences to advertisers, the talk-back host is most valuable when the greatest public reaction is provoked:
Howard Sattler, Perth's most controversial broadcaster, doyen of the airwaves, not only has people listening -- he gets them to act as well. With Howard's encouragement, thirty thousand people protested outside Parliament House, and the Government listened to their cries of disapproval.
The 'Rally for Justice' in August 1991, designed to pressure the government to introduce harsher penalties for juvenile offenders, was also a 'Rally for Ratings'.11 Under the slogan of 'lock them up', Sattler unlocked extra listeners for 6PR. His ratings rose dramatically between the 'Rally for Justice' and the end of 1991; from 14.6 to 19.4 percent of listeners aged 10 and over, an increase of approximately 30 percent.12
The advertisers responded in kind. Dotted throughout The Sattler File, especially around his daily 'Stolen Vehicle Report,' Sattler himself speaks advertisements for anti-car theft devices and for home and business security equipment, while other voices promote personal anti-assault alarms.
It is remarkable how easily these advertisements can be conflated with news, current affairs and even weather:
Sattler: Over the years thousands of you have trusted Securus to protect your homes, others mightn't. Well you should because suburban crime is still on a frightening spiral and we all are more security conscious, Securus are specialists, they fit quality Lockwood key locks to aluminium or wooden windows. They're all keyed alike. This means you only need one key. It also means your windows can be locked partly open for ventilation which is pretty important in the summer months which we're experiencing at the moment, although today a bit milder, twenty-one and a half degrees in the city. Window locks for an average home costs as little as $220 installed. That makes peace of mind affordable. So call Securus this week. If you do they'll throw in a bonus 180 degree door viewer or a door chain with each order.13
The ratings success of media opportunists like Sattler comes at a heavy price -- a climate of public hysteria, with ominous overtones of violence. Among the placards and banners at the 'Rally for Justice' were hangman's nooses, some with effigies of certain 'lenient' judges dangling from them. This lynch mob sentiment is epitomised by the following three excerpts from The Sattler File :
Caller: All I can say is save the community some money and hang this bastard, that's all I can say.
Sattler: Well some people would say you can't even contemplate that, we're talking abut a 14 year old boy here.
Caller: You're talking about a 14 year old boy and as someone else said on your radio, if you commit an adult crime get the adult punishment. You have any problems hanging him? I'll do it, I'll readily bloody do it.
and another caller:
Caller: ... the problem is you've got to have definitive sentences put before these useless bloody magistrates so that they can say right oh then, I'm bound by law to do this...
Sattler: Narrow the options.
Caller: That's right. No options. If it was my...
Sattler: They all get 18 months.
Caller: If it was my daughter that got killed in that car prang, I'd be sitin' off the mongrel with a three-oh [303 rifle] and I'd blow him off the face of the earth.
Sattler: I just happen to think that victims come first. If they [car thieves] spend the next 20 years breaking rocks behind bars and that's all they do, that's all they've got to look forward to, I couldn't care less.
Caller: I couldn't either Howard.
Sattler: They are scum. They are the lowest form of human life.14
By December 1991, one Perth man was no longer content with words. Arrested by police while carrying an air-rifle through the streets one night, he confessed he'd been looking for juvenile car thieves to shoot.
Just three weeks before he died, on 17 December 1991, leaving a cafe in fashionable Northbridge where he'd had a coffee with two girls, Louis was savagely beaten by white youths. He'd never seen these assailants before. Like many Aboriginal people, Louis was experiencing the white hostility that had intensified during the Perth media's youth crime campaign. He told his father 'things had changed in Perth', 'had got worse', and that the streets were not safe for him any more.