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You Can Say That--and Worse

Outrageous, lewd talk has become the norm on radio. So who's going to stop it-the FCC? Don't count on it.

April 08, 2001|PHIL DAVIS | Phil Davis is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

It's 8 a.m., radio's prime time. Another morning. Another rude awakening.

Across the nation, radio stations are locked in a fierce battle for listeners, and the weapon of choice is a steady barrage of jokes about body parts and bodily functions that sound more like a live feed from a high school boys' locker room than the central component of a widespread corporate strategy.

The prevailing voice of morning radio is wicked, crude and unfiltered-and it has the blessing of radio's bosses.

Unlike movies, television and even CDs, radio comes straight at listeners without warning. There are federal laws intended to curb crude broadcasts, especially in the mornings when children are likely to be listening, but a quick spin across the dial on any given morning exposes little fear of government sanctions.

The dialogue is frequently explicit and deliberately shocking. If this were a movie, a television show or a CD, what follows would be labeled with an advisory for coarse language and sexual situations that may be unsuitable for children. A typical morning in Los Angeles for radio listeners-one morning, one hour-yields this:

A correspondent on KROQ-FM's Kevin & Bean morning show expresses frustration at his inability to persuade women to expose themselves for Mardi Gras beads. The station (106.7) bleeps his crude reference to female anatomy but, in the same sentence, broadcasts a common female slur.

Down the dial on KYSR-FM (98.7), Jamie White tells morning show co-host Danny Bonaduce that she flashed a man in Beverly Hills for no reason. They break away from the familiar terrain of White's "boobage" to riff on male crotch odor in Russia.

On KLSX-FM (97.1), Howard Stern delivers his syndicated rude and risque rant. Admiring a guest's posterior, he muses, "It's a shame you're not into anal, because some man would enjoy that."

"There are times I'll hear things and go, 'I could never have gotten away with that.' And that was a scant 10 years ago," said Sky Daniels, a former Los Angeles DJ who is now general manager at Radio & Records magazine. "I'm not saying that for years on end there hasn't been titillation and sensationalism and all sorts of outrageous behavior, but the degree of base profanity ... and descriptive assessment of certain acts-most of them sexual-is commonplace.

"It's every day, every dial," he continued. "What is it going to take?"

The answer is elusive at best. By most measures, no one is listening closely to what has become the pervasive language of radio.

The Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating what's on the airwaves, characterizes its efforts as on the rise. Yet FCC officials are unable to provide records of how often they've taken action against radio stations before November 1999, when the enforcement bureau began a meaningful effort to track complaints. (The bureau polices everything from broadcast indecency to improper rate charges by telephone companies.)

Here is the current status: Since November 1999, the FCC has received 144 indecency complaints and started inquiries into 9 cases, and found enough evidence in three to proceed with legal action. Seventy-five complaints were dismissed, and 60 have not been reviewed. Two stations have admitted violations and paid fines totaling $14,000. In January, the agency filed its first action of the year against a Wisconsin station that played an unedited version of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady."

"We're coming from an almost hand system," offered John Winston, an assistant bureau chief in enforcement. "Now, we're much faster, more efficient and flexible. Our actions are fairly swift. Look at the 12 in one year, you may not have seen that many in three or four years."

What the FCC is monitoring is labeled "indecency," which the agency defines as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive ... sexual or excretory activities or organs." The law allows radio to broadcast such content but requires it to be contained from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., hours when children are least likely to be tuned in.

The FCC can-and has-levied huge fines against stations that get crude outside the so-called "safe harbor." But radio broadcasters today risk little by pushing the limits of indecent speech.

The law has traditionally been selectively and unevenly enforced, often at the whim of an FCC chairman or a politician seeking the moral high ground. Only a decade after the agency crusaded against Stern by imposing an unprecedented $2.1-million fine for crude broadcasts, one FCC commissioner calls enforcement of indecency today "virtually nonexistent."

Stern agrees: "I have spawned a new race of Howard Stern impostors," he boasted on a recent show. "I've started a whole wave of bad radio."

Industry experts expect little change under President Bush. Newly appointed FCC Chairman Michael Powell sent a strong signal he's taking a hands-off approach when he declined to be the national "nanny" regulating broadcast content.

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