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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."

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."

To everyone from hip-hop boosters to free-speech advocates, this is bad news. But Liz Pipes, the woman who set this chain of events into motion, likes the sound of it just fine. "We're just inundated with offensive material every day," she says, "so I hope this sends a wake-up call to radio -- and to television and movies, too."

The McDonald franchise: On July 12, during this column's summer break, former Channel 31 executive Scott McDonald was indicted by a grand jury on eighteen counts, including securities fraud and forgery, in relation to a series of "business deals" that ended with numerous high-profile media and public-relations figures losing thousands of dollars ("OutFoxed," May 10). But this number would have been much higher had more of McDonald's partners sworn out complaints against him. Channel 9 anchor Adele Arakawa was peeved enough at McDonald, who admits to a gambling addiction, to tell her tale of woe to the Denver Post, but she's not listed in the indictment, nor are many others who anonymously confirmed to Westword that McDonald owes them money. For that reason, the roster of people cooperating with the Denver district attorney's office is a bit light on star power: It includes Joseph Sucharda, a onetime McDonald associate not involved with the media, and Jason Maggard, McDonald's second cousin. I'm guessing the next McDonald family reunion may be a bit tense.

That leaves Channel 31 troubleshooter Tom Martino as the biggest name in the D.A.'s corner -- but he wasn't content to sit back and let Bill Ritter do the heavy lifting. On July 19, Martino finally filed a promised civil suit against McDonald, and although he's not yet added Channel 31 to this document, he says "right now it's more likely than not that I will." He adds, "It's not going to be easy if I do it, because I like those guys a lot. However, I truly believe that they had serious responsibility in this case. They let this go on through a lack of supervision or by turning their heads, and either one isn't good, because a lot of people got hurt."

Martino says he offered to let numerous people join his civil suit, but "no one took me up on it. No one wants to do anything. They just want to talk, so the heck with them." These folks are missing out on an opportunity, he believes, because "the people without the nerve to come forward won't be part of the reimbursement order. And if I get a civil judgment for fraud against him, I'll be ahead of everybody in the indictment. I'll be able to garnish 25 percent of whatever he makes for the rest of his life until he pays me back -- and that's before reimbursement." Nevertheless, Martino insists, "I don't hate Scott McDonald. But what I'd really like him to do is for him to make his victims whole and for him to get help. There's always a vindictive part of everyone that goes, 'I'd like to see him really punished,' but I don't think in the long run that would do any good."

McDonald, meanwhile, is trying to keep a low profile -- a difficult task when even his work as a waiter at a Denver restaurant makes the Rocky Mountain News. He shies away from discussing his case because of pending litigation; his first court appearance is slated for July 26. But he does confirm a report from a reliable source that, despite his membership in Gamblers Anonymous, he visited the casinos in Black Hawk after being indicted. "I had a slipup recently," he says, after noting that he arrived in the gambling town with $100, and left once it was gone. "When you're an addict, you fight the battle every day. And on that day, unfortunately, I lost it."

A buyer's market: Most folks in the journalism business weren't impressed by the modest buyout offer the Boulder Daily Camera made to employees over fifty ("Out With the Old," June 7) and predicted that few would take it. Guess again: Ten staffers signed up, including five editorial types with a lot of years under their caps: Features writer Karen Mitchell (she started working at the Camera in 1987), news assistant Roberta Childers (1983), managing editor Thad Keyes (1977), sportswriter Craig Harper (1971), and sports editor Dan Creedon, who's departing one year short of his fortieth anniversary with the paper. Add to that next month's retirement of Barrie Hartman, a columnist and editor of the editorial page, and you've got an experience drain of sizable proportions.

The ever-grindin' rumor mill suggests that the proposal was so popular because E.W. Scripps, the Cincinnati company that owns the Camera and the Rocky Mountain News, made it clear that if the buyout failed to generate enough savings, layoffs would be next. But Camera editor/publisher Colleen Conant, who'll be handling the managing-editor duties as well until a new M.E. is found, describes such comments as unsubstantiated gossip and believes that the paper will maintain its quality despite losing so many longtimers. "That's the challenge we face every day," she says. "I don't think that's changed."

Conant doesn't anticipate further job cuts, but other attempts to save dough are in progress. The physical size of the Camera's pages shrank last month, and a redesign combined some sections and cut the size of another: The allotment for op-ed during the week was sliced from one page plus two columns to just one page. This last move generated so many howls from subscribers that it was modified: The smaller section remains in place on Mondays and Tuesdays, while an extra column will appear on a facing page Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. "We tried to listen," Conant says, "and gave back as much as we could."

As for the Colorado Daily, the Camera's primary competitor, it responded to the op-ed shrinkage by increasing the space it dedicates to such items -- an indication that the battle could be heating up. Since new owner Randy Miller took over, the Daily has also concentrated more than ever on local coverage, and that's likely to continue under the supervision of a new managing editor, expected to be named next week.

A newspaper war in Boulder? That would be welcome news -- because the one in Denver is definitely losing steam...

What a bunch of crap: When Patrick Murphy, a Boulder man devoted to making dog owners clean up after their pets, was cleared of harassment charges on July 18, headline-writing punsters at the dailies were poised and ready. The next day, the Denver Post showed comparative restraint with the moderately clever "Neighborhood Pooper Snooper Acquitted," although things deteriorated further with "Pile on Praise for Poop Snoop," the label stuck to a July 20 column by Chuck Green, who apparently will write about anything associated with dogs, even if it stinks to high heaven. But the Rocky Mountain News foisted upon us the tortured, deeply embarrassing "Dog Doo-Doo Gooder to Be Allowed to Rejoin Puppy-Poop Paparazzi," which was accompanied by the almost-as-noxious jump headline "Chart Diagrams Piles of Dog Poop."

I'd say that these cringers should be declared endangered feces, but then I'd have to ridicule myself.

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