For 10 months, members of the Federal Communications Commission have waged a quiet war against broadcast indecency--a war that shows no signs of ending soon.
On April 16, FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick issued his declaration of war in the form of a press conference at which three radio stations were cited for broadcasting obscene or indecent material. One of those stations--KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles--was referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
Though the Justice Department declined to prosecute KPFK, and though the two other stations (KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara and WYSP-FM in Philadelphia) received only written reprimands, a chill rippled through the broadcast industry.
By June, a coalition of 16 media organizations, led by the 6,000-member National Assn. of Broadcasters, petitioned the FCC to more clearly define what it meant by "indecency." In a separate action, the nonprofit foundation that operates KPFK-FM sued for a clearer definition of indecency in federal court.
But the regulatory agency refused to budge from its newly adopted position that it has the right and obligation to decide, on a case-by-case basis, what is or is not indecent, based on the broad language of a 10-year-old Supreme Court definition of broadcast indecency, obscenity and profanity.
That definition forbids language or pictures of sexual or excretory acts or organs in a manner that is "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."
On Jan. 15, the FCC escalated its war on indecency to include television by launching an investigation into the broadcast of an allegedly indecent movie over Kansas City's KZKC-TV.
Two weeks later, the NAB-media coalition sued the FCC in federal court in Washington for a better definition of indecency, charging that the commission is violating First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
At issue is whether the FCC has the right to decide what is indecent programming on the nation's 10,046 radio and 1,285 television stations.
For several years, conservative media watchdog organizations have accused the FCC of pursuing a policy of benign neglect in enforcing broadcast indecency standards.
Former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler oversaw a general policy of deregulation that deferred judgment to broadcasters and marketplace forces on a wide range of issues, including indecency.
Outside of a ban on the use of the so-called "seven dirty words" that comedian George Carlin used in a monologue broadcast over New York's WBAI-FM in 1973, the FCC had done little to regulate the content of what could be broadcast over public airwaves.
When Fowler handed over the chairmanship to Dennis Patrick last April, the FCC's laissez-faire policy on indecency changed abruptly.
"After 10 years of non-enforcement, they've finally put the squeeze on any radio or television station that wants to be a little raunchy," said Paul McGeady, general counsel for New York-based Morality in Media.
Along with the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn. (formerly known as the National Federation for Decency), McGeady's organization has been in the vanguard of the crusade against broadcast indecency. They contend that the regulatory agency has not only the right but also the responsibility to keep public airwaves free of indecent programming.
But far from applauding the FCC's new-found militancy, McGeady and American Family Assn. officials say the commission has not gone far enough.
"I don't think (the FCC) is going to do anything about it," said Treva Burk, an officer in the Kansas City chapter of the American Family Assn. "I think they'll slap them on the wrist and forget about it. They ought to yank their license." Burk wrote the letter to the FCC that launched the current indecency investigation of KZKC-TV.
From the beginning, broadcasters have conceded that the FCC has the right to prohibit obscenity, particularly during hours when children are likely to be among the listening or viewing audience.
But threatening reprimands, fines or even the revocation of the broadcast license of a radio or TV station without detailing what is indecent constitutes censorship, broadcasters say.
"What they are saying is that we can go ahead and broadcast anything we want, but they'll decide after the fact whether it was indecent or not . . . and punish us if they decide that it was (indecent)," said David Salinker, executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which operates KPFK-FM.
Several months before the NAB coalition sued for a better definition of indecency, Pacifica joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union in a federal lawsuit to force the FCC to be more specific. That suit, which cost Pacifica more than $50,000 to pursue and which the foundation dropped last month, helped to get one significant concession from the commission.