In August 2010, I found myself embroiled in a public spat when commercial radio station More FM Tauranga refused to apologise to gay listeners over the use of the word “poofter” on air, following a Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) decision which failed to uphold a complaint from a listener.
The BSA was satisfied with the station’s excuse that the word was used in the context of meaning “wuss” and did not refer to gay men.
Johnny Williams, a heterosexual Maori man, made the original complaint. “I heard it on the way to work one day, and let it go. Then I heard it again when traveling in the car with my wife, we were both appalled,” he says. “The second time we heard it played it was actually part of an advert for the station and that was the last straw.”
When the BSA’s decision made headlines, I decided to test the depth of feeling by starting a Facebook group asking More FM to say sorry. Over 100 people joined in less than 24 hours, answering the group’s call to email station management with their feedback.
By Saturday, news of the group was front page in the Bay of Plenty Times. The group was soon over-run with young men from Tauranga posting homophobic abuse. “Ohh Winge Winge Fucking Winge…Get a real up ya hahaha…Its Adam and Eve if i am Correct!!” wrote Ryka Edge. “You fags are just looking for someone to point the finger at. Put a plug in it,” wrote Lars Papita de Vries.
On Monday, More FM’s irate breakfast hosts, the strangely bearish Vinnie and Kirt started a personal crusade to justify the remarks by replaying the audio several times and inviting listeners to phone in with a response to the remarks and the Facebook group.
“Tell them to stop being bloody weasels,” said Francie from Bell View. “They need to pull their head out of their bottoms,” said Michelle from Welcome Bay.
The station also ran an online poll on its website asking listeners whether the word “poofter” was offensive in the context used and if Vinnie – who made the original remarks – should apologise. The poll closed after several days with 80% of respondents saying there should be no apology.
I asked station manager Tim Lockhart whether the station would be conducting similar polls on racist terms such as “nigger”, and if they had a positive response, would he sanction the use of those words on air?
He ignored the question. “We stand by the use of the term [poofter] in THIS context as a colloquial term used by Vinnie to refer to himself as a wuss he was not referring to anyone’s sexuality.”
I also asked if More FM Tauranga has any gay or lesbian staff. “We wouldn’t discuss this and wouldn’t actually know as we do not discriminate and do not know the sexuality of all our staff.”
Phillip McGrath is a gay man of Maori/Pacific descent who worked for More FM Tauranga for two years in 2004 as a sports/news reporter and presenter. He says the working environment was generally positive, however “that was tempered by the requirement that all commercial broadcast operations have, and that is to not appear overtly gay or overtly anything other than middle class heterosexual and white, which as an individual is crushing.”
In breakfast host Vinnie he sensed “a semblence of homophobia that appeared to be won over by my professionalism or my work…[he] was always known as someone who would be vocal with his opinions without always considering the wider ramifications of what he had said.”
[UPDATE: Two years on, Phillip says Vinnie's attitude change has been "phenomenal and we still have a great friendship to this day", but that he left the media industry because he was tired of the constant struggle of "winning over" those with homophobic attitudes.]
So when is the use of a homophobic term acceptable on air? In 2006, the BSA included the word “faggot” in their bi-annual national survey of how acceptable the public finds the use of certain words on television and radio. In the survey of 1500 people, “faggot” was the 9th most unacceptable word, with 46% of respondents rating it unacceptable – just ahead of “retard” on 44%. “Nigger” was placed 2nd, with 66%.
Dominic Sheehan, BSA chief executive, says the survey’s list of words is updated every few years to take into account words that have been complained about. “Poofter” may be added to the next survey.
As for Tauranga, it’s business as usual. The Facebook group has continued to attract homophobic abuse, with More FM expressing regret over the abuse without acknowledging their own part in encouraging it.
“Tauranga’s not just homophobic but its tolerance for anything/anyone different is almost non-existent,” says Johnny Williams, who grew up in Tauranga and went to Tauranga Boys College. “So I know what it’s like to have anti-gay ideas drummed into you. I’m glad it’s [Tauranga] got a bad rap for these sorts of things of late.”
But if bigotry from a small town is somewhat expected, what are we to make of this – from high-rating nationwide breakfast show The Edge – in 2011?
During The Edge Morning Show, broadcast on The Edge on 9 December 2011, one of the hosts, Dom, performed a parody of the song “All I Want for Christmas”. He later read out a listener’s text message which stated, “Dom, your song was so gay I’m pretty sure I just got AIDS from listening to it.” The other hosts responded with laughter.
The “other hosts” include openly gay Mike Puru, who recently volunteered his time to front a campaign for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation’s testing services (a campaign which I produced the video for).
The Broadcasting Standards Authority also declined to uphold a complaint against the above, saying, in part:
…we acknowledge that there are a number of contextual factors which favour the host’s decision to read the text aloud and the broadcaster’s decision to air it. In particular, we recognise the radio station’s target audience and its expectations as to the type of content usually broadcast on The Edge. RadioWorks contended that the announcers were renowned for their wit and quirky senses of humour, and often engaged in light-hearted banter intended to entertain the programme’s target audience of adults aged between 15 and 39 years.
So in the broadcasting world we live in, “poofter” does not mean gay and AIDS is light-hearted banter.
Perhaps wisely in this instance, the hosts kept their mouths shut and let the station’s lawyers do the talking.
But given Mike’s genuine (I believe) desire to support HIV/AIDS causes, should we have expected more from him?
Or like Phillip McGrath, is he feeling crushed by a system that favours the middle-class, heterosexual and white?
Adapted from an article originally published in Express in August 2010.