On Feb. 6, newly appointed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell insisted that he was not going to be the nation's "nanny" when it came to objectionable programming. So why, all of a sudden, is the FCC micromanaging the playlist of a pop station in Colorado Springs, Colo.?
For years the FCC has neglected its oversight role concerning radio content. But on June 1, citing its newly revised indecency guidelines, the FCC fined KKMG $7,000 for airing a "clean" version of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady," a song that, according to the FCC's ruling, "contains unmistakable offensive sexual references in conjunction with expletives that appear intended to pander and shock."
The station has until July 1 to appeal the fine. The station's lawyers will likely note that the original complaint was filed by a listener nearly one year ago -- predating the FCC's current indecency guidelines. This means that not only did it take the FCC 11 months to determine that a song was indecent (shouldn't that take, at most, a day or two?), but also that during the investigation the rules were changed mid-game.
Time is rarely of the essence for the FCC -- after all, the commission spent nearly seven years coming up with its new indecency standards, which stress offending "material must describe or depict sexual or excretory organs or activities."
"Slim Shady" boasts such material in spades. But for years station programmers assumed that if they aired clean, or edited, versions of raunchy songs provided to them by record companies, stations would not have to fear FCC punishment. (Earlier this year, the commission fined a Wisconsin station for mistakenly airing an unedited version of the same Eminem song.)
The working assumption has been that virtually any song was suitable for airplay as long as the profanity was bleeped out. And with artists getting more and more blunt, the bleeps have been flying fast and furious. But now the bleeps won't cut it (the FCC considers the entire context, not just individual words, when deciding indecency today) and programmers suddenly must figure out if the FCC is just sending a warning shot, or playing for keeps.
Then again, programmers are probably getting what they deserve for letting record executives, of all people, help them set decency standards. It's pure folly -- major record companies are in the business of selling as many records as possible, period, regardless of how raunchy or profane. That was signaled a few years ago when Atlantic Records actually released rapper L'il Kim's "Queen Bitch" as a radio single ("Murder-scene bitch/Clean bitch/Disease-free bitch"), shipping out an edited copy that seemed to have as many bleeps as actual lyrics. More recently, give a listen to rapper Mystikal's ode to sex, "Shake Ya Ass," a hit on radio. The song's first unedited verse? "I came here with my dick in my hand/Don't make me leave here with my foot in your ass."
So it was not all that surprising that when Interscope execs first listened to "The Real Slim Shady" -- as Eminem rapped about Pamela Anderson getting her ass whupped, Chistina Aguilera giving blowjobs and then giving Eminem V.D., told Will Smith to go fuck himself, mentioned women's clitorises and fantasized about pinching asses, jerking off with Jergens hand cream and humping dead mooses -- they figured they had a hit for pop radio on their hands.
But the Real Slim Shady may now have to look over his shoulder. There's a new regime in power in Washington. The new administration's priorities are clear: If you want a deregulated environment in which you can boost profits by any means necessary at the expensive of broadcast quality and employee job security, that's fine. But if you want to push at the edge of the free-speech envelope, that's out of the question.
Record company lobbyists are up in arms over the KKMG fine, crying censorship. "It would be a disgrace if the FCC were to impose a violation on a radio station because they didn't like the 'suggestive' nature of a song," Hillary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, told Daily Variety last week. "That goes right to the heart of idea-based censorship."
The only problem with that argument is that the FCC's right to fine stations over suggestive and indecent programming has been upheld in court time and time again.
The FCC itself does not monitor radio or seek out examples of indecent programming. Rather it receives complaints from listeners and then investigates. In the landmark Pacifica case in 1978, a federal appeals court upheld the FCC's authority to regulate indecent speech on the airwaves. Through later court action, it was determined the FCC could regulate indecency during the so-called "safe harbor" between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are more likely to be listening. The FCC also regulates obscene programming, which is forbidden during any hour of the day.
But a record of inaction has earned the FCC a well-deserved reputation as a toothless tiger; it has dismissed, or failed to act on, 95 percent of listener indecency complaints since 1999. The primary reason is that complaints must be accompanied by an audio recording or transcript of the content in question. How many people really listen to the radio with one finger on the "record" button?
So when a listener in Alabama recently complained to the FCC about morning jocks who told her on the air she needed a "stick up her ass," and hoped she "gets killed on her way to work," the FCC dismissed the complaint.
The approval of the new indecency guidelines may signal a new attitude, however. In her vote to approve, Susan Ness, one of the FCC's five commissioners, wrote, "We all are part of a National Community. As stewards of the airwaves, broadcasters play a vital leadership role in setting the cultural tone of our society. They can choose to raise the standard or to lower it. I hope that broadcasters will rise to the occasion by reaffirming the unique role of broadcasting as a family friendly medium. The public deserves no less."
Broadcasters choosing to raise the standard? Does Ness even listen to commercial radio?
Longtime radio consultant Guy Zapoleon, for one, cheers the FCC's latest move. "I'm amazed at how far the line that marks what's indecent has moved. I think the industry needs to be very aware of its obligations to the community and to not broadcast lewd talk or music (even if these rules aren't strictly enforced). Don't we have a moral obligation to revisit the indecency laws and make them more stringent for our own good and the well being of society in general?"
Apparently not. The sad fact is that broadcasters seem to be in a race toward the indecency gutter, particularly as shock jock shows, following Howard Stern's lead, become awash in crude talk about lesbian sex, porn-star interviews and endless locker room banter about bodily functions.
To better understand the FCC's recent ruling, it helps to view things from a purely political perspective. Powell was handpicked by President Bush to chair the FCC, and his primary mission has been to lay out a strong deregulatory agenda, with broadcasters at almost every turn getting the benefit of the doubt, and government oversight being cut back. Asked about indecent programming at his first press conference as FCC head, Powell answered, "I don't want the government as my nanny. I still have never understood why something as simple as turning it off is not part of the answer."
For broadcasters, the message seemed perfectly clear: Please don't air indecent programming, but if you do we'll look the other way or blame parents for not monitoring what their children watch and listen to.
So where did Powell's sudden interest in indecency come from? The White House appears to be the most likely culprit. As has become increasingly clear over the past six months, Bush is more of an ideologue than his father and seems committed to sending messages to his culturally conservative constituents that he too is troubled by today's pop culture and that whenever possible he will use the power of the federal government to clean it up.
Conservative activists, led by the Moral Majority, have been publicly urging the FCC this year to take a stand against indecency.
But can Powell have it both ways? On the one hand he seems to view the FCC as an economic development operation and wants the agency to get off broadcasters' backs by basically scrapping any limits on ownership. If that means, as it has since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed and consolidation became rampant, that broadcasters clog the airwaves with a record number of commercials, strip their news departments down to the bone, fire thousands of local DJs in order to pipe in virtual jocks from a central location to save money, and all but eliminate any form of public service, that's fine.
Just don't play an edited version of a hit song from a crossover rap artist.
The FCC's hypocrisy is matched only by record companies that cry censorship when peddling R-rated songs to top 40 radio, and broadcasters that pay lip service to community standards. Clearly, the FCC, station owners and record labels deserve one another.