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."

To put it another way, media sources such as television, film and the Internet so regularly expose people to profanities that many words that previously seemed lewd have become acceptable. (Witness the evolution of the word "suck," a onetime vulgarity that's now a staple in the conversations of grade-schoolers.) Since the FCC does not specify which terms are off limits and which are allowable, individual stations are left to interpret community standards by their own criteria. Predictably, many of them use benchmarks that are on the liberal side.

"The FCC policy is vague at best, and it's very difficult to make a black-and-white rule," says Bob Richards, program director for KBPI. "There is no specific, set list of what can be said. It's up to community standards as to what's acceptable and what isn't." He adds, "We encourage our DJs to take the intelligent risk. We don't want to be a kind of bland, vanilla radio station. We want to hook in with the audience, and we want to do that by talking to them in their language."

Greg Cassidy, KALC's program director, concurs. "I was recently at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in New Orleans, and the FCC had a panel where this came up," he says. "And they're just as confused as other people are. I'm not putting them down for that. It's just that they, too, are having a hard time finding the line. The FCC left it pretty much at community standards, and that's where I think it belongs."

When it comes to defining the standards of the community that they are serving, though, both Cassidy and Richards narrow their scope from the potential listenership as a whole to the audiences upon which they are focusing. Cassidy calls Alice "an adult station," while Richards classifies KBPI as "a male 18-34 targeted radio station." As such, they remove children, many of whom have easy access to their morning shows, from the equation. Reality, of course, is not nearly so tidy--but when they get complaints from parents whose kids have been exposed to programming they find disagreeable, they place the blame not on themselves, but on the folks doing the griping.

"I listen to parents who have objections, and I take what they say into consideration," Cassidy insists. "But the morning show is not programmed for young adults. Besides, parents have to take responsibility for their kids. They made the babies, so if they haven't taken the time to instill in them the same values that they have, then they're not taking their job as a parent seriously."

Richards, who says that he won't let his own children listen to the KBPI morning show, pulls even fewer punches. "Basically," he says, "what I tell parents is that we make no bones about our humor, and we have ads that include alcohol and bars and all kinds of stuff that perhaps your kids shouldn't listen to. So don't make me babysit your kids. It's your job to decide whether or not they can listen to this radio station. Don't tell me I can't broadcast it."

By the same token, Richards contends that KBPI does not have an anything-goes approach--and the station's Rick Kerns confirms this claim. "On the road as a comedian," says Kerns, "I could see the faces of the people in the audience. And I could tell where the line was; I could tell if I was going too far, or if I needed to pull back. And radio doesn't have that. So we had a staff meeting, and Bob says, 'All right, look, I'm getting tired of the very few and irregular complaints that I get. I'm going to state some words out loud, and I want you to raise your hand if you think it's okay to say them on the air.' And he went through an amazing litany of foul language, and I found that there were some that we could use that I didn't think we could and vice versa."

When asked to share this list, Richards, after justifying the occasional utterance of "chickenshit," declines. But Kerry Gray shrugs off the mention of "asshole." He asks, "You know that song by Bush? That big hit they had a few years ago ['Everything Zen'] that says, 'Find my asshole brother'? That was a huge hit that was played all over the place. And that's when I first realized that things were changing a little bit."

Indeed, programmers nationwide have begun to allow rough words that would have been expunged or bleeped earlier in the decade. KTCL-FM/93.3 program director John Hayes, whose station plays Romeo Void's "Never Say Never" and the Nails' "88 Lines About 44 Women," both of which include "fuck" in their lyrics, admits, "I've been tending to look the other way when those words are part of the art of the song." There are exceptions to this doctrine; Hayes stopped spinning "Date Rape," by Sublime, because of criticism by listeners who didn't understand that the tune is actually an anti-date-rape anthem. But for the most part, he says, "If that's the way the artist intended the song to be, I would prefer it to be that way. I think our type of listener is intelligent enough or discriminating enough to say, 'Hey, it's just a word in a song that the artist wrote.'"

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."

And Marvin? "I don't think there should be any rules or regulations about this at all," he says. "I'm not offended when I hear people say 'asshole' or 'ass' or 'fuck' or any of those things. The bottom line ought to be the dial, the button, the knob. Turn it off if you don't like it.

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