Obscene and Heard

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

Hayes says he's much stricter about profanity when it's used by one of his DJs. "There are certain words," he says, "that are recognized as okay and are used quite often anymore: hell, damn, bastard. But I discourage using the harder words, because I think it knocks us down a little bit in terms of intellect." But his sentiment is not universally shared, particularly by some of the jocks in town who are known for pushing the envelope's edge. Alice's Jamie White says, "I think radio is so behind the times. If you look at all the female magazines on the newsstand--'890 Ways to Give Your Man an Orgasm,' or whatever--that's perfectly fine. But if you say it on the radio, it's horrible. That's one of my biggest pet peeves. I mean, parents can choose to turn us off if they want to, but when you're standing in the checkout line and the new Cosmo is right at your kid's eye level, there's nothing you can do about it. And I love Cosmo. When I was twelve, I used to read my mom's Cosmo in the closet and masturbate. But if it's okay for them to have the word 'penis' on the cover, why shouldn't it be okay for us to say it?"

KHOW's Jay Marvin is equally militant about restrictions against speech. "Knowledge is power, and bad taste is power--and I don't think suppressing it is the answer, because you have the ability to ignore it. But we never want to give the free market a chance. We never want to give the Jay Marvins or whatever we object to the chance to fall under their own weight. We want to push these people off the dial and we want to make sure these people lose their jobs. And I laugh at that."

Marvin says he has not personally run afoul of the FCC during his broadcast career, but he has gotten called on the carpet by management. "I once told a woman that I'd slept with her daughter, and she said, 'How do you know?' And I said, 'Because she wasn't any good and it still cost me ten dollars.' And I accidentally said 'Fuck you' on the air. I didn't know the light was up; it was an innocent mistake, but I got busted for it big-time." With the FCC becoming less strict, he expects that the stations themselves will be the primary censors of the future. He sings the praises of Jacor, the Cincinnati corporation that owns KHOW, KBPI and numerous other Denver-area outlets, but he suspects that the Walt Disney Company's purchase of ABC will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression at its radio assets. "I worked at an ABC affiliate in Chicago before coming here--WLS--and I'm glad I'm out of there, because Disney is going through the stations, toning things down and leaning on air personalities to cut down on the language and the quote-unquote abusive behavior. And that's awful."

While the timidity of some corporations may slow the advancement of radio profanity, however, profits are likely to have the opposite impact. For all the complaints that Alice's Cassidy gets about his station's morning team, the show is doing so well in the ratings that it may soon be moved lock, stock and genitalia jokes to Los Angeles, one of the nation's most lucrative radio markets. Risque morning shows at KBPI and KRFX are also performing strongly locally--and the FCC seems more than willing to let them continue on their current paths without interference. Contrary to popular belief, the commission says, it has never had staffers monitoring broadcasts; instead, it relies almost entirely on listeners to serve as its ears. But the FCC doesn't make it easy for the average person to make his voice heard. Individuals with complaints are asked to submit a package that includes "a tape, transcript or significant excerpt" from a questionable program--and since most people listen to the radio in their cars, such evidence can be problematic to obtain. And while the anonymous FCC spokesman swears that there's been no diminution in the commission's activity as a result of the deregulation that's revolutionized the radio industry in the Nineties, many area broadcasters seem to believe that it has become a paper tiger.

Right now, then, it's largely up to each station, and in some cases each DJ, to decide what can be said and what should remain unspoken. Since that's hardly a recipe for consensus, it comes as no surprise that Kerns, White and Marvin have disparate opinions on the issue. Of the three, Kerns is the most willing to say that more profanity does not necessarily make for better radio. "I think I way overreacted to the freedom that I didn't realize existed when I came here," he says. "I still say cusswords on the air sometimes, but I've since learned that it's not that exciting to do it all the time. I'm a grown man. I don't have to do that."

White goes further: "I think the FCC should worry more if telephone towers are giving kids who live under them cancer than whether I'm saying 'masturbation' on the air."

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