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 us all.
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.
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