Macho media: unapologetic hypermasculinity in Vancouver's "talk radio for guys".

Author:Darnell, Simon C.
Position:MOJO Radio--Talk Radio for Guys
 
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On August 6, 2002, "MOJO Radio--Talk Radio for Guys" was launched in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The station's format was designed with the explicit aim of "delivering the male" audience to advertisers (Sparks, 1992), a strategy confirmed in a launch-day press release from Corus Entertainment (MOJO Radio's owners) that described how the new station "fills a void in the Vancouver market by providing a forum for men to discuss and debate issues that matter to them, from health and fitness to cars, careers, beers, business, women and sports" (Corus Entertainment, 2002). In this way, MOJO Radio was tactically positioned to reflect men's apparent interests and buying habits, and to disseminate messages linked to portrayals of a type of masculinity (believed to be) most appealing to their target audience.

The station, and its Toronto-based affiliate (also called MOJO Radio and launched in 2001), emerge at a time when numerous commentators are engaging questions about the state of masculinity in the 21st century (Beynon, 2002; Holt & Thompson, 2004). Underlying expositions on the topic is an assumption that many North American men are experiencing a "crisis of masculinity." This crisis, according to authors like White and Gillett (1994) and Dworkin and Wachs (2000), is based on the notion that men are confused about the roles and identities to which they should aspire at a time when social and cultural definitions of manhood are ambiguous and in transition. In contrast, the prototypical male of the 1950s, for example, was more clearly positioned to strive to be a breadwinner for a family, a role that impacted the goals and expectations of men in private and public spheres. With the subsequent movement toward gender equality both at work and at home, so this argument goes, men became perplexed about the constitutive aspects of their gendered social roles, concerned about their apparent loss of traditional forms of power, and thus reacted with fear to an increasingly "feminized" culture and society. (1) The apparent responses to this crisis have taken a number of forms, including an increased emphasis on hypermasculine pursuits (e.g., high-risk sport participation, bodybuilding) that are presumed to aid men in their attempts to recuperate a clearly defined sense of what it means to be a man (White & Gillett, 1994).

Corporate entities like Corus Entertainment would appear to be capitalizing on the apparent destabilization of contemporary masculinity by offering a radio-based escape to manhood. On a broader social level, however, the messages offered by MOJO would seem to contribute--intentionally or unintentionally--to a mass-mediated backlash against threats to the tradition-based social advantages experienced by some men (a suggestion investigated in depth as part of the study reported in this article). According to Brayton (2005), Savran (1998), and others, this backlash initially emerged as a reaction to the social- and policy-related changes that resulted from feminist and civil rights challenges to a status quo that favored wealthy, White men. (2) Although this backlash has taken various forms, including semiorganized men's rights movements, it is within popular culture that the most pronounced and visible versions of a "return to manhood" motif can be found. This observation is particularly compelling in relation to Whannel's (2002) argument that "forms of popular culture are revealing sites in which to examine unstable attempts to deal with crisis" (p. 8; cf. Brayton, 2005). Brayton pointed to the relatively recent launch of MTV's Spike Network--the self-proclaimed "first network for men," a channel that features hypermasculine, made-for-TV sports and entertainment programming like American Gladiators and Slamball--as a stark example of this kind of popular cultural backlash. Another illustration is the cover of a recent MacLean's Magazine (a publication recognized as "Canada's news magazine") titled "Age of the Wuss," which includes a story under the headline "He's Come Undone" lamenting the loss of the confident, assertive, powerful, hypermasculine man in contemporary North American society (Gillis, 2005, p. 28).

According to scholars like Messner (2002), this sort of mass-mediated narrative reinforces and reproduces dangerous cultural norms around relationships and health. Those working and researching in these areas have argued for years that males are socialized by the media (and other influential institutions and individuals) to strive for an idealized, prototypically masculine identity that requires the suppression of emotions and the development of a powerful and intimidating persona and physique (White & Young, 1999). Messner and Stevens (2002) and Gannon, Glover, and Abel (2004) similarly argued that mass-mediated celebrations of hypermasculinity are detrimental because males who conform to such an ideal are implicitly or explicitly supporting a culture that is rife with systemic social problems such as violence against women by men, violence against men by men, reckless participation by men in leisure activities that results in injury and sometimes death, and an inability or unwillingness among men to admit vulnerability (leading to anxiety and depression; cf. Poon, 1993; Sabo, 2004; White & Young, 1999). It is this argument that guides much of the critique offered in this article.

Still, it is important to note that while constituting a compelling case for critically analyzing the programming contents of MOJO radio, the suggestion that programming for men is inherently or unconditionally detrimental to the social health of men (and women) does not account for the often subtle contradictions embedded in media depictions of masculinity. For example, researchers have identified instances where the prototypical "macho" male is satirized and parodied within programming that targets the "guys' guys" demographic, leaving space for progressive and critical readings of masculinity by audience members (Messner, Dunbar, & Hunt, 2000).

With sensitivity to this more nuanced position as well as the knowledge that images of macho masculinity are both pervasive and might have negative social consequences, a textual study of MOJO radio contents and texts was conducted. The research was guided by the following set of questions: In what way(s) is masculinity promoted in the content of the station's programming? What forms does this promotion take? What ideologies are reinforced or reproduced? Are there spaces where alternative understandings of what it means to be a man are made available? What do these spaces look like?

This study contributes to an area of research focused on masculinity and media that has been scarcely studied in the Canadian context. That this study is about Canadian-based radio is especially relevant considering that radio airwaves in Canada are subject to guidelines devised by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)--guidelines that are especially oriented around the protection of "Canadian content," but also toward equity in representation. There is a relevant history of CRTC policy development around gender that forms the backdrop for this study, in particular a decision made by the Commission on April 2, 1984, to grant a license to The Sports Network (TSN), a Canadian-based sports channel seeking to target a largely male audience and demographic. Sparks's (1992) study "'Delivering the Male': Sports, Canadian Television, and the Making of TSN" is instructive here, especially his summary of negotiations between the CRTC and TSN, where he illustrated how the Commission's decision "provided a framework of guidelines and restrictions that in many respects amounted to a laissez-faire endorsement of current market practices, particularly with regard to the network's preferred audience(s) and programming contents [i.e., boys and men]." Sparks also showed that "standards of objectivity and balance were not well specified, particularly with respect to the equitable representation of women and men in event coverage, news, and information," a point of particular relevance to this study of MOJO radio if one considers the approval of TSN as a precedent-setting case in CRTC guideline development.

Of course, developments in both the CRTC and MOJO take place in a social and cultural context where neoliberal policies--such as deregulation of media ownership--currently proliferate. Until recently, for example, CRTC regulations prevented the monopolizing of radio stations by media conglomerates (Belanger, 2006). However, according to Stuparyk (2004), in 1998, pressure from large corporations led to the CRTC's decision to relax regulations about ownership. Since this decision, "three media giants have swallowed up almost all of the high profile stations, and a significant chunk--22 percent--of the 668 independent commercial radio stations in Canada: Corus Entertainment owns 52, Standard Broadcasting 51, and Rogers Media Inc. 43" (Stuparyk, 2004). Nylund (2004) linked these sorts of developments with the rise of conservative talk radio formats that "contain public expression within corporate, capitalist ideologies that reinforce dominant social relations" (p. 138). In a similar way, the corporatization of radio is linked to the increased tendency among media producers to engage in niche marketing, creating programming targeted at specific demographics within audiences. In the case of (sport) talk radio stations like MOJO, the White middle-class man between 24 and 55 years of age, an extremely desirable audience niche, is the target. With this in mind, the following discussion of MOJO-produced radio messages should be understood in a social and cultural context where conservative definitions of what it means to be a man are offered as part of a corporate project to sell an audience to advertisers.

Additionally, this study's focus on messages contained in...

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