Word Wide Web: Hearing Is Believing

Just like your mother told you, or maybe my mother told you, what you say isn't always as important as the way you say it. This is certainly true in the world of marketing, where the greatest brand message won't resonate if an advertiser can't find the right platform(s) to deliver the news. The funniest spot in the world won't work during a commercial break in "Schindler's List." No matter what Buick thinks it can do virally, it might not make the brand cool.

I thought of these things during ye olde media's smackdown by the blogosphere last month, after Disney and ABC Radio slapped a cease-and-desist order on the Web site Spocko's Brain. The site posted recorded segments of San Francisco right-wing radio station KSFO, then contacted advertisers and invited them to the site to listen to the audio, where they heard on-air personalities mock Islam.

When advertisers started exiting the station, Disney/ABC brought out the legal guns on both Spocko's Brain and its ISP, 1&1, citing copyright violations. The company cowered and folded before Disney's formidable legal team, and the site was gone - but back in a few days, after the blogosphere rallied to Spocko's aid and began posting the audio files on sites all across the Internet.

But the interesting point centers on the importance of hearing what was said on KSFO as opposed to reading it. During the period that Disney/ABC was bullying the smaller fish, 1&1 told Spocko that if he pulled the audio clips and instead put up transcripts, they would "most likely" return the site to active status.

Spocko refused. He felt that hearing what the KSFO hosts were saying was crucial to understanding how hateful it was. And if you listen to the material - which is once again online (at least as I write this) on - you immediately realize he's right.

It's one thing to read KSFO host Melanie Morgan complaining that the San Francisco Chronicle is trying to influence a California congressional race by altering a photo of Rep. Richard Pombo so he appears "furtive and dark," but it's another thing entirely to actually listen to the sound bite and hear the way she spits out the word "black" in her comment: "It is shaded to where it looks like he's a black man. ... I think it's just shameful."

The way she says the word, she makes it sound like being black would be the worst thing in the world - because to Melanie Morgan, it probably would be. And it's far more shocking than reading it on the page.

As you listen to the KSFO segments, the hatred in the hosts' voices comes through so much stronger than reading it. There is a truly chilling moment listening to morning talk host Lee Rodgers ruminate: "The day will come when unpleasant things are going to happen to a bunch of stupid liberals. ... It's going to be very amusing to watch."

Reading it is weird enough, but to hear him say it with such ominous seriousness, with the hardly covert underlying promise of violence upon others for amusement is frightening.

Fortunately, many advertisers listened - exiting KSFO faster than Tucker Carlson on "Dancing with the Stars."

Some may come back. But people will be watching. And recording. And posting. Because once your words are out there, there is no going back. That's why I don't think advertisers will be going back to KSFO, either. Because, in the words of journalist and author Allison Hantschel: "If the powerful won't hold themselves to account for what is said and done in their names, some guy with a Web site will do it for them."

Tom Siebert wrote this while editor-at-large at MediaPost. He's now vice president of corporate communications at Initiative North America. (

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