Bleep That

The FCC's fining of a Colorado radio station is giving broadcasters headaches from coast to coast.

At first glance, the $7,000 fine the Federal Communications Commission levied on May 31 against Colorado Springs-based KKMG, known as Magic FM, seems inconsequential. But because the station, which is appealing the decision, was punished for playing a so-called radio edit of "The Real Slim Shady," a hit by Eminem whose only obscene words were bleeped, the ruling is causing panicked programmers across the country to reevaluate what they can and can't spin. After all, if "The Real Slim Shady" violates FCC standards, 80 percent of what's played on most hip-hop stations and plenty of rock hits from today and yesterday might, too.

What may be most surprising about this story, though, is how it started -- with a single complaint from Liz Pipes, a Colorado Springs woman who couldn't be happier about how things have turned out.

"You don't think one person can make a difference," Pipes says. "But I guess they can."

Pipes, 48, the married mother of a twelve-year-old boy, began her career as a world-shaker innocently enough. Last year, she decided to take a stroll around her neighborhood, and after grabbing her Walkman, she says, "I flipped around the dial trying to find something kind of fast-paced." Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady," which she soon chanced upon, certainly qualified, but according to Pipes, "I was shocked by the language."

She isn't the only one. Although the rapper (given name: Marshall Mathers) has been showered with critical praise, he's also been charged with trafficking in lyrical homophobia and misogyny; the controversy over his rhymes was ostensibly responsible for him falling short in the Best Album category at the 2000 Grammy awards ceremony. (The prize was ultimately won by Steely Dan, a band named for a dildo in a William Burroughs novel.) However, "The Real Slim Shady" is mild by Eminem's standards, proffering only moderately risqué witticisms: "It's cool for Tom Green to hump a dead moose," "My bum is on your lips," and so on. But, as documented in the "Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture" that the FCC sent to Magic FM, the tune also includes two lines in which a word was covered up for airplay: "And expect them not to know what a woman's BLEEP is" and "Pinching nurses' asses when I'm BLEEP or jerkin'."

In Pipes's view, these edits didn't adequately mask the words in question ("They bleeped the bare minimum, so you could still get the gist of it"), nor did they make the song's themes more acceptable. But she says that when she called Magic FM to express her concern, she was dismissed out of hand: "They told me the song was very popular, and they were going to keep playing it -- and if I didn't like it, I could find another station." (Magic FM general manager Brenda Goodrich did not return several calls seeking comment.) Angry, Pipes located the FCC's Web site (fcc.gov) to learn how to issue a complaint, then tracked down the lyrics to "The Real Slim Shady," which she included in a package to the commission postmarked July 18, 2000.

When Pipes wasn't phoned by an FCC investigator, she feared her gripes had fallen on deaf ears. But six months after sending the complaint, she received a letter from the FCC informing her that Magic FM had denied playing indecent material because the version of the Eminem song it had aired was a radio edit. The correspondence also requested a response from Pipes, who had one at the ready: "I thought there was no mystery to what he was saying, and it was still offensive." After she'd sent these thoughts back to the FCC, more silence ensued. "I didn't hear anything more until I saw it in the newspapers," she says.

The Magic FM fine was remarkable in many respects, not the least of which was its targeting of such a popular song: Figures provided by Washington, D.C., attorney Kathleen Kirby, representing Magic FM, show that "The Real Slim Shady" was broadcast by the station 125,072 times as of June 25 without generating any complaint to the FCC other than Pipes's. But the Denver dailies gave the Magic FM fine relatively short shrift. As Rocky Mountain News columnist Dave Kopel accurately pointed out in a July 1 piece, they were too busy spilling oceans of ink about the impending visit of Marilyn Manson, an increasingly passé performer who was no doubt thrilled by the unearned attention he received. Still, plenty of other news organizations picked up the slack. Last week, Magic FM program director Jason Hillery turned up on The Daily Beat, a New York City television program, adding to a media-appearance list that includes Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, MTV and MTVnews.com.

That's heady stuff for a 24-year-old working at a station officially licensed in Pueblo, but Hillery wishes the attention had come for other reasons. "I'm really worried about the domino effect," he says. "And it's already started. This one complaint has changed the face of our station and all our stations across the country."

Hillery isn't exaggerating. Magic FM is one of approximately 200 signals owned by Citadel Communications Corp., a Las Vegas outfit swallowed up last month by New York's Forstmann Little & Co. As soon as the fine came down, these stations were ordered by corporate headquarters to pull Eminem from their playlists. This wasn't a problem in the case of "The Real Slim Shady," which had already run its course. But the edict prevents Hillery and his colleagues from featuring "Purple Hills," the edited version of the pharmaceutical-praising "Purple Pills" by the Eminem group D12, which the July 28 issue of Billboard lists as the number-one rap single in the U.S. "It's the most-requested song in the Springs, and we've had to pass on it," Hillery says. Moreover, Hillery's been asked to pull ribald songs by other artists as well, which is why Magic FM listeners can no longer hear the Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch," a curse-free novelty whose key couplet is, "You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals/So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."

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