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Bleep That

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

Citadel stations aren't the only ones affected by the increasing scrutiny of lyrics. Cat Collins, program director for KS-107.5, Denver's most successful hip-hop/R&B outlet, concedes that since the fine, "I am listening more carefully to every word, every inference." Collins even insisted on making additional alterations to the original radio edit of "Purple Hills" -- a move that helped inspire Interscope, D12's label, to issue another, cleaner edit that met KS-107.5's standards. Collins did so, he says, because "first and foremost, it's my job to protect our license and represent the best interest of the company."

Brian Michel, program director at Estes Park's KXUU/102.1, says virtually the same thing, but he's in a more difficult position. KXUU, which also focuses on hip-hop, is attempting to differentiate itself from KS-107.5 by emphasizing its harder edge. As a result, Michel says, he generally chooses "clean," rather than "super-clean," edits, which tend to leave descriptives like "ho" and "bitch" unbleeped. "We're in a competitive situation," Michel explains. But at the same time, he recognizes that even one blunder can lead to trouble. Since the station first went on the air last year, Michel says that to his knowledge there's only been one such gaffe: A DJ accidentally played the album version of "Lap Dance" by N*E*R*D, which occasionally puts the word "fuck" in the spotlight. "I did get calls about that," Michel recalls, "but I told them that it was an accident, and that it wouldn't happen again, and thank goodness it never went any further."

Today, the vast majority of songs played by KXUU are recorded onto a hard drive, which not only allows for a more technically seamless broadcast, but prevents mistakes that might provoke the FCC's wrath. But this option isn't available to KVCU, aka Radio 1190, the station affiliated with the University of Colorado-Boulder. As station manager John Quigley admits, "We play CDs and vinyl, and for our hip-hop shows, a lot of our DJs bring in their own material. So we're having to rely on their good judgment. But we've let them know that we have to be really, really careful and that we need to preview everything to make sure there aren't any problems."

Indeed, Quigley already feels that Radio 1190 has dodged one bullet, because his station previously played "Your Revolution," a reworking of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by poet Sarah Jones that recently resulted in a $7,000 FCC fine against Portland, Oregon's KBOO-FM. Jones's offering sports no major profanities (although there is mention of a "six-foot blow-job machine"), and its timely message is one of female empowerment: She ridicules the objectification of women in hip-hop by way of declarations such as "Your revolution won't knock me up and produce li'l future MCs/Because that revolution will not happen between these thighs." But even though Jones has been invited to perform the song in high schools, the FCC lowered the boom anyway. KBOO is appealing.

These sorts of actions have even gotten the attention of Clear Channel, the nation's largest owner of radio stations. Mike O'Connor, director of FM programming for Clear Channel-Denver, points out that super-clean radio edits are nothing new: In 1987, he worked for Cook Inlet Broadcasting, an Alaska-based company whose refusal to play the George Michael hit "I Want Your Sex" prompted Michael's record company to rush out a version called "I Want Your Love." But last year, around the time Senator Joe Lieberman and other elected officials called on the FCC to crack down on broadcast indecency, Clear Channel took additional steps to sanitize everything from fresh smashes to longtime favorites. Even the radio-ready take of the Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" was re-edited. "The version of that song you hear now isn't the same as the one you heard for the fifteen years before," O'Connor says.

How much does politics have to do with the current crackdown? Plenty. After taking office, President George W. Bush appointed Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, to head the FCC. But while Powell eschewed extremism in a June profile in the Washington Post, saying, "It's better to tolerate the abuses on the margins than to invite the government to interfere with the cherished First Amendment," he also gave his blessing to a strange April 6 "policy statement" that attempted to more closely define indecency. In the document, the commission said "Candy Wrapper," a song played by a San Diego station, was indecent thanks to references like "Why don't you just take my Whatchmacallit and slip it up your Bit-O-Honey," but decided that an Indianapolis routine about a "monster car" called "Big Peter" ("Big Peter is coming! Oh my God! It's coming!") was perfectly fine. Meanwhile, FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani, a New Mexico native, has been lobbying to make it easier for listeners to issue complaints by easing requirements for proof of wrongdoing. Some insiders see this as related to her plans to run for New Mexico's U.S. Senate seat on a family-values platform.

It's too soon to tell if such factors will doom Magic FM's appeal of its fine. On July 2, Kathleen Kirby, the station's attorney, filed a twelve-page rebuttal with the FCC that underlines the use of the "Slim Shady" radio edit, the widespread airing of the song, and Eminem's present status as a representative of the cultural mainstream. But even if the FCC, whose final decree is still pending, backs off in this case, the damage may already have been done. As Clear Channel's O'Connor says, "We've been put on notice to be extra careful, and no matter what the ruling is, that's not going to change."

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