Obscene and Heard

What can you get in trouble for saying on the radio these days? Not much.

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On KBPI-FM/106.7, morning DJs Rick Kerns and Kerry Gray are trying to determine why Kerns is having such a tough time getting "laid." A caller suggests, "Because he's an asshole?" Gray is exultant at having received a correct response: "That's right! Because he's an asshole!"

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On KHOW-AM/630, Jay Marvin, during the afternoon talk show he hosts, discusses the legal difficulties of Bob Enyart, a minor TV personality who had been charged in Jefferson County with misdemeanor child abuse for disciplining his young stepson with a belt. Marvin makes his attitude about Enyart clear by repeatedly referring to him as "Bob Enya-Fart."

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On KALC-FM/105.9 (Alice), morning teammates Frosty Stillwell, Frank Kramer and Jamie White try but fail to answer the philosophical question "How does a blind man know when he's done wiping his ass?" They follow with an explicit description of the most sexually titillating moments in the erotic film Nine 1/2 Weeks. Then, after chewing the fat with a woman whose mother is dying of liver disease (prompting one of the men to ask if her mom liked liver and onions prior to her affliction), they spin an Adam Sandler song that includes the lyric "My brother likes to masturbate using baby oil."

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As recently as a decade ago, any or all of the bits cited above might have raised the hackles of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency charged with overseeing the public airwaves. At present, however, raunchiness can be found from one end of the dial to the other at any time of the day or night. Entire programs are built around such material, including "Vibro Thursday," a weekly feature on KRFX-FM/103.5 (The Fox) put together by veteran shockers Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax. Typical is a segment in which the jocks encouraged a caller to share with them the details of how she gave oral sex to a date in the meat department of an area supermarket.

Occasionally, a routine is widely regarded as having been more repugnant than riotous. For instance, Stillwell, Kramer and White were briefly suspended by KALC-FM in July for remarks made about a Fort Collins man who suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned in clear view of his two children, ages 4 and 6. (Stillwell reportedly suggested that the kids could have made a "seizure salad" had they been armed with some lettuce.) But the FCC seldom gets involved in such matters, leaving listeners to mete out adequate revenge. The agency still makes the news on occasion, especially when levying fines against nationally syndicated DJ Howard Stern. (In September 1995, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which owned the rights to Stern's broadcasts at the time, paid a fine of $1.715 million to settle dozens of FCC rulings over several years.) But it has been mostly silent in regard to the Stern-like gags that can be heard daily in Denver and dozens of other major cities.

Why? There are plenty of hypotheses offered up by Denver radio professionals about how far is too far, but no concrete answers. That's true, also, of the FCC, which insists that there's been no watering-down of guidelines over the past decade even as it acknowledges that material that was previously impermissible may currently be unobjectionable from its viewpoint.

This contradictory message apparently has made the FCC rather skittish. A representative in the Complaints and Political Programming branch of the Washington, D.C.-based commission offers responses on this topic to Westword only after requesting that his name not appear in print. He then quotes a release titled "Obscenity and Indecency in Broadcasting" in an attempt to explain where the FCC stands today. According to the document, U.S. courts "have found that, under the First Amendment, the government may 'channel' the broadcast by radio of indecent speech to times of day when children are not likely to be in the audience." Hence, Congress has given the FCC power to supervise programming heard between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Conversely, the eight hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. are designated as a "safe harbor"--a period when so-called indecent programming can be aired. Shows heard in the latter slot are still subject to rules in regard to obscenity, which is not protected by the First Amendment. But if a broadcaster could prove that his material was not wholly lacking in "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value" (one of the three keys to the obscenity judgment handed down by the Supreme Court in the 1973 case Miller v. California), he could conceivably put on a program called The Motherfucker Hour and the bureaucrats at the FCC wouldn't bat an eye.

The FCC source specifically denies that his organization has turned a blind eye to its principles during the Nineties. Indecency, he says, continues to be defined as "language or material that, in context, describes or depicts, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual, excretory activities or organs"--and this definition has not been altered in recent memory. But while "there's no change in policy," he declares that "what has changed are community standards."

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