Three Dirty Letters
Forget the Seven Dirty Words: Radio's newest obscenity is "FCC."
BY DAN STRACHOTA
Who would've thought that Janet Jackson's boob could bring about the end of
broadcasting as we know it? It seems one Super Bowl halftime show nipple is
catastrophic enough to intimidate media giants, cow stations into altering
broadcasting processes, and toss the suffocating cloak of censorship upon
Okay, so Ms. Nasty had some help. The new age of media McCarthyism can also
be laid at the feet of Bono, guilty of calling the Golden Globes "fucking
brilliant" during a live January 2003 telecast. But these two incidents
were enough to inspire the House of Representatives to pass the Broadcast
Decency Enforcement Act in April: This frightening piece of legislation
gives the FCC the power to decimate the broadcast world, fining the small
fry out of existence and sanitizing the big companies beyond belief. (In
case you needed another reason to slap a "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me" bumper
sticker on your car, she was one of only 22 representatives to vote against
the bill, along with San Jose's Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda. Minority leader
Nancy Pelosi voted for it.)
Two weeks ago, the Senate voted 99-1 in favor of a similar measure,
although the politicians hadn't bothered to debate its merits for even one
minute -- the item had quietly sneaked into a huge military spending bill.
According to the Associated Press, the lone dissenter (Senator John Breaux,
D-LA) voted against the bill because "It deals with communications and
media issues, and should not have been attached to a national security and
defense bill." Apparently his peers had no such qualms.
Is this legislation really so bad? Well, consider this: The House act would
raise the maximum penalty from $27,500 to $500,000 per obscenity,
profanity, or indecent remark, while the Senate bill would boost the fine
to $275,000 per instance, with a max of $3 million dollars. (An obscenity
is defined as patently offensive and sexual, such as comedian George
Carlin's notorious seven dirty words (fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker,
motherfucker, and tits); an indecency depicts sex or excretory functions
that aren't quite obscene; and a profanity is -- or until recently was --
blasphemous. Obscenities are forbidden, while profanities and indecencies
are allowed only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.)
As Lisa Yimm, program director for KUSF-FM, points out, "One fine could
wipe out our entire station." Unfortunately, it gets worse. In the past,
one song with twelve "fucks" in it was equal to one offense; now, that tune
can be considered twelve infractions, and twelve would be nine too many,
since, according to the bill, the FCC would follow a new three-strikes
system, in which it could revoke a station's license after three
violations. So if KFJC-FM bleeped only twelve of the fifteen obscenities in
Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," the station could get fined $1.5 million and
be shut down. (The ultimate irony here is that the FCC's early-'90s
deregulation policies created huge companies that could afford to pay these
smaller fines, therefore necessitating the larger penalties.)
The FCC, under pressure to act as though it is cleaning up the airwaves,
has increased its watchfulness, announcing that it will no longer look the
other way if a DJ removes an obscene song midway through, partially bleeps
a bad word, or unsuccessfully cautions a guest against uttering profanity.
And following Bono's Golden Globes utterance, the FCC decided to change its
view of the word "fuck," making all uses -- even adverbial ones -- profane
and therefore actionable. (While some may view the Golden Globes as
blasphemous, most wouldn't view the singer's outburst as such.) The FCC
also stepped up its aggressiveness, issuing a far larger number of fines:
$755,000 for a slew of stations that aired an episode of Bubba the Love
Sponge's radio show in which Scooby Doo and George Jetson discussed sexual
activities, and $4,000 to WXDJ-FM in Miami for talking to Fidel Castro
without revealing he was being recorded.
Then there are the two large fines for Howard Stern: one featuring a
discussion of anal sex and a new back-door-cleaning product, and another
including vivid definitions of colloquial sex terms like "blumpkin." (The
latter fine caused the most brouhaha, especially when Stern pointed out
that Oprah Winfrey discussed similar terms on her show the very same day.)
"It's just so nebulous," says Harrison Chastang, news director for SF
community station KPOO-FM. "Almost anything can be considered objectionable
or obscene by someone."
One recent case shows that even the FCC isn't sure where it stands on
indecency. Back in 2001, Portland's tiny KBOO-FM was fined by the agency
for playing Sarah Jones' "Your Revolution," a feminist reworking of rap
lyrics that features a large amount of graphic sexual language. Then, in
early 2003, the FCC overturned its ruling, noting that "the sexual
descriptions in the song are not sufficiently graphic." The singer also had
been asked to perform the song at high school assemblies. But if KBOO had
played the tune a week after Bono's utterance, it wouldn't have mattered if
Jones had been asked to play Bush's Texas ranch -- timing is twice as
important as context, it seems.
"With the last administration, the laws were so amorphous that they
couldn't make anything stick," KUSF's Yimm says. "With this administration,
it's so amorphous they can make it stick no matter what."
How has the industry reacted to this hullabaloo? With more fear than a
Broncos fan at a Raiders game. KCRW-FM in Santa Monica fired bland yuppie
commentator Sandra Tsing Loh following an unbleeped utterance of "fuck"
during one of her monologues. WRUR-FM in Rochester deep-sixed all its live
programming. Some stations stopped playing Prince's "Erotic City," even
though he sings I want to funk you up; others have reportedly edited
long-tolerated classic rock nuggets such as Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner."
Elsewhere, an Indianapolis station has started self-censoring broadcasts,
beeping seemingly innocuous words like "urinate," "damn," and "orgy."
Meanwhile, Clear Channel, which has strong ties to the Bush administration,
dropped Stern and Bubba from its affiliates. Then the company agreed to pay
the FCC a record $1.75 million in fees and admit it aired indecent
material. The latter admission could do the most damage, as other companies
have used the defense that such language isn't indecent at all.
Last month, Stern's boss and champion at Infinity Broadcasting, Mel
Karmazin, resigned, causing speculation that Stern would be next to get the
axe, even though he has a weekly audience of eight million. (Salon.com's
Eric Boehlert suggested recently that Stern's followers could have a larger
impact on the presidential election than Ralph Nader's, as Stern has taken
to publicly slamming Bush at every opportunity.)
When asked about the current radio environment, Steve Dinardo -- general
manager for Live 105, which broadcasts Stern locally -- declined to
comment, pointing instead to Karen Mateo, New York-based spokesperson for
Infinity. She also refused to speak about the FCC, the legislation, or
Stern, instead referencing Karmazin's February congressional testimony, in
which he said that Infinity employees would be harshly chastised for
allowing indecencies on the air.
Other local nonchain stations were more forthcoming. KPOO's Chastang
pointed to the "Your Revolution" incident as a way the FCC is financially
censoring radio, pointing out that small stations don't have the money to
fight fines. He also suggests that the rulings will cut down on the amount
of community awareness: KPOO, for instance, is considering giving up live
broadcasts of city meetings, as the station would rather not take a chance
that Joe O'Donohue or some excitable petitioner will start cursing at the
top of his or her lungs.
"The climate we're in is so wacky that nothing fazes me anymore," Yimm
says. "It just blows my mind."
So if everything is potentially prurient and actionable now, artists might
as well make it really prurient and actionable if they're screwed anyway.
As for Congress, instead of raising the fines to intimidate huge
conglomerates, perhaps legislators ought to toughen the monopoly laws so
companies can't calculate huge fines into their budgets.
In the end, though, perhaps we should leave it to Monty Python alum Eric
Idle to put this mess into perspective. Here's a few lines from a song he
wrote recently, available at PythOnline.com: Fuck you very much, the
FCC/Fuck you very much for fining me/5,000 [sic] bucks a fuck/So I'm really
out of luck/That's more than Heidi Fleiss was charging me/So fuck you very
much, the FCC/For proving that free speech just isn't free.