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Bye-Bye Babe: A Controversial Contest Goes Nameless

6 min read

The Babe Bracket is now babeless.

KABZ-FM’s embattled radio contest pitting local female newscasters against one another in a March Madness-style bracket has avoided elimination by changing its name.

It will now be The Bracket With No Name, the station announced Wednesday, a play off the “The Show With No Name,” the morning program that ran the contest.

The Buzz, as the Little Rock sports talk station is known, has taken national media flak over the Babe Bracket for weeks, and Program Manager Justin Acri had hinted at a name change, telling Arkansas Business this week that “Babe Bracket” was outdated.

Word of the change came only hours after the station’s general manager, Steve Jonsson, wrote in an email that a decision on the contest’s fate was a week or so away.

An announcement on the station’s website said the bracket’s goal had always been “to let Buzz listeners get to know local TV journalists and celebrities better and allow the contestants to have an open forum to show their personality. It is of the utmost importance to hosts Tommy Smith, David Bazzel, Roger Scott and RJ Hawk that the women who are part of the event are treated with respect and celebrated for all of the things that make them so popular with our listeners and their viewers.”

The station said that in addition to a spa package, this year’s winner will get a $500 donation to the charity of her choice.

Over the past few weeks, The Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Toronto Sun, Slate, HuffPo and Marie Claire have all published Babe Bracket stories, many marveling that The Buzz still holds such a contest after 20 years. All the coverage pointed out that Seductions, a chain of lingerie stores, sponsors the contest.

And while the name change might temper debate over continuing the contest, it’s not likely to vanquish all criticism. Doubters say the contest itself is increasingly out of step in a #MeToo era of greater sensitivity to harassment and sexism. As one critic said, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck … .”

The topic has transcended the media business, with three gubernatorial candidates and hundreds of female journalists weighing in. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson suggested that “everybody enjoys” the contest and mentioned political correctness, then backed off with a statement of non-endorsement. Right-wing challenger Jan Morgan called the contest “senseless and sophomoric,” and Jared Henderson, the Democratic candidate, said the time had come to fight “sexist sentiments” in the workplace and on the radio.

The change came days after local female journalists fueled a viral hashtag, #morethanababe,” and days after the Columbia Journalism Review posted an article with: “The Cost of Reporting While Female.”

KTHV’s Winnie Wright, last year’s runner-up, posted this: “While I’ve worked to bring important stories to the people of Arkansas, I am cat-called, have obscenities yelled at me from cars, have men comment on my appearance in a professional setting, and worse.” 

Acri said that the name had become an impediment to an event that was always strictly a popularity contest, not necessarily based on looks.

“It’s done in a respectful way,” he said. “It’s not like they’re out there comparing hair or eyes, or any other part of the women. Whether or not listeners take looks into account, that’s on them.” He also noted that contestants get a chance to promote their charities and causes.

Here’s how it works: “Show With No Name” hosts take some input from fans, pick 16 local TV women and pair them in eight brackets. Listeners decide who advances. “We just ask which person you like better,” Acri said. “We don’t ask why. It’s not asking which one you think is hotter or a bigger babe.”

He said for that reason alone, the station was considering a name change.

Many contestants have appeared on the morning show, a fact that on-air personalities like David Bazzel, RJ Hawk and Tommy Smith mentioned in defending the contest. Alyse Eady, 2016’s champion, tweeted “hugs” to the morning crew as the controversy was growing. A former Miss Arkansas, she has since moved on to Atlanta’s Fox 5. Others, too, see little or no harm. Last year’s winner was Janelle Lilley of KATV.

The Babe Bracket had drawn questions about once every five years, Acri said, but KARK News Director Austin Kellerman ignited the current uproar early this month with a blog post saying that the contest should end. Part of his argument was that the bracket makes it harder for his reporters to be taken seriously.

Everyone concedes that good looks are important in the TV industry, but many critics pointed out that the Babe Bracket name emphasized appearance. The idea of a men’s bracket, for balance, never generated much enthusiasm, KABZ personalities say.

Critics note that KABZ has no female hosts — some #morethanababe tweets pointed to the nine white men atop the station’s webpage — but Acri said women are frequent contributors at the station, and that talk radio in general is dominated by men. The sales manager and the CFO of Signal Media, which owns the station, are women, he said. 

“We have women in the office that contribute to the conversations; it’s not strictly a bunch of dudes sitting around in a locker room,” Acri said.

TV journalists have no say on being put in the bracket, Acri said in an interview last week, but he estimated that 90 to 95 percent of the contestants “never had any issue with it,” and to his knowledge no one has ever opted out.

“Do we ask public figures if it’s OK for us to talk about them on our radio station? No,” Acri said. “I don’t ask any public figure if it’s OK, any more than I would ask an athlete if it’s OK to talk about something he does, or a political figure. It’s not voluntary; there’s no participation. You put names up and people say I like this person over that person, or this person is my favorite over that one.”

Acri couldn’t say if the bracket makes money for the station. “I don’t know what we clear, if we clear anything. Packages and sponsorships are done in a number of different ways, and past sponsors have been involved with sponsoring more than just the one thing.”

Jonsson, son of Signal Media owner Philip Jonsson and GM of sister stations KPPT-FM and KHLR-FM, said in an email to Arkansas Business that he expected Seductions to keep its sponsorship “because they will not want to give it up.”

He said Signal’s team had found “discussions with local media personalities, our listeners and in the building to be very informative and interesting. We think it is important to hear all sides and respond with an approach that is respectful and fun for everyone involved,” he added. “The bottom line is we are here to serve the community and we always look for the best way to do that.”

PR experts say KABZ faced a tough choice. Listeners would have felt betrayed if the bracket had vanished. On the other hand, media outlets have recently been forced to weigh audience preferences against negative publicity and its repercussions. Think Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Garrison Keillor.

No one has suggested that the Babe Bracket was comparable to real harassment, and critics like Max Brantley of Arkansas Times had predicted the name change. “I guess that they’ll continue it with a new name and drop the curvaceous cutie image from the logo,” he said just hours before Wednesday’s announcement.

Acri said that the station regularly reviews its events and promotions. “We’re constantly evaluating how we can do things better, or differently, or even if something has run its course.”

One former Little Rock TV journalist, Amy Barnes, a public relations professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, offered her perspective before the name change. “Public relations, as it should be practiced, is about messages and whether the messages an organization wants promoted are consistent with its actions; is it walking the same way it’s talking?”

The station faced several questions, she said. “If this isn’t about demeaning or objectifying women as some have charged, why call it the Babe Bracket and limit the competition to women? Why not invite the men of TV to compete? Since some supporters contend that there shouldn’t be criticism because everyone knows these women were hired for their looks, why not let men, also hired for their looks, compete? Don’t the men on TV have a charity they want to promote?”

“At the end of the day, whether or not they want to admit it, this raises the profile of reporters and anchors in the market,” Acri said, suggesting that KARK’s Kellerman may have had ratings in mind when he stoked the controversy. “Obviously if there are those who consider the bracket a negative, I’m not going to be able to change their minds.”

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