Arts | Entertainment

Social Media Meltdowns Highlight The Power Of The Audience

NPR | July 9, 2014 9:57 a.m. | Updated: July 9, 2014 12:43 p.m.

Contributed By:

Eric Deggans

At first glance, Adam Richman and Anthony Cumia might not seem to have much in common.

True enough, they are media stars who took a hard fall thanks to untoward comments on social media. Richman, a host on the Travel Channel, saw the debut of his new show delayed indefinitely after an online spat led him to suggest one critic commit suicide.

Cumia, half of the infamous Opie & Anthony shock jock radio duo, was dumped by SiriusXM after using the c-word on Twitter to describe a black woman he said punched him. The shock jock said she objected to being included in pictures he was taking.

He then spent a lot of time on social media talking about “savage violent animal(s)” who “prey on white people,” noting “she’s lucky I was a white legal gun owner,” and that “there’s a deep seeded [sic] problem with violence in the black community.” Later, he insisted he was not saying anything racist; Gawker saved the posts so you can see for yourself (warning: It’s seriously NSFW).

For some, this is the story of how a Twitter fight can get out of control. But I say both Richman and Cumia were kneecapped by the new reality of modern media:

The audience has more control than anyone realizes.

When you think about how social media works, this makes perfect sense. Online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram take authority from the gatekeepers of media, which once controlled access to large audiences — newspapers, TV networks, cable channels and radio stations. Instead, that power is handed to anyone who can create compelling content.

I found this out when I tweeted a message about the music CBS This Morning played toward the end of a segment on Nelson Mandela’s death. I posted a quick jibe about the use of Toto’s hit “Africa” as a brief observation. But the Twitterverse decided it meant more, sparking enough stories in places like Slate and The Huffington Post that a co-founder of the band eventually weighed in (in my favor, I might add).

In the old media days, an individual’s impact was limited, unless they could get the gatekeepers involved — get a story on the local news, a letter in the newspaper or a call into the local radio station. No more.

When Richman began responding to critics who said his hashtag #thinspiration referenced a phrase popular with anorexics, he eventually suggested one “grab a razor blade and draw a bath. I doubt anyone will miss you.” Amid the controversy, Travel Channel executives delayed the planned debut of his new show, Man Finds Food, which in turn put a crimp in Richman’s plans to showcase his return to TV hosting after losing more than 70 pounds. (He has since released an apology calling his remarks “inexcusable.”)

This isn’t so much about hurt feelings as it is about marketing and branding. The real value of a media personality like Richman or Cumia is the fan loyalty they inspire, which can then be transferred onto other TV shows or products. So when the host’s brand gets damaged in the public space, their value drops.

Shock jock Cumia faces a different media issue. Radio personalities in his line of work walk a thin line: pushing boundaries enough to satisfy their audience, but facing the risk of widespread public rejection if their offensive shtick becomes widely known by too many people outside the fan circle.

Cumia forgot that his way of talking about such stuff might be acceptable to his regular fans — people inside the closed loop of his satellite radio show and regular Twitter followers. But once his words spilled out into the general public, he found another reaction (just ask Don Imus how painful that can be).

One other thing both Cumia and Richman have in common: Both their social media meltdowns occurred outside their regular jobs. This, of course, is something even the Kardashians learned long ago: Celebrity is a brand that reaches beyond whatever you do for a living into the rest of your life.

And since social media turns everyone into a brand anyway, every interaction there affects a star’s brand — and their possible employment — regardless of whether it happens on the clock or not.

Evidence of the audience’s new power ranges beyond Cumia and Richman. Successful Kickstarter campaigns for the Veronica Mars movie and Reading Rainbow kids TV series have given fans the ability to vote with their wallets to save dead shows. Moves by Netflix and Yahoo to resurrect Fox’s Arrested Development and NBC’s Community also shows the power of a vocal niche audience to push programmers into action.

My hunch is that both men will be fine. Travel Channel is probably just waiting for the dust to settle before launching Richman’s new show. More than 21,000 people already have signed a Change.org petition to get Cumia his job back as he plans a new show from his home. In fact, there’s a drive to cancel Sirius subscriptions in support of Cumia that’s building — where else? — on Twitter.

Still, everyone in this new media universe should learn from Cumia and Richman’s example.

Power is shifting to the audience. Stars who ignore that change do so at their own peril.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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