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For Cat Collins, program director of hip-hop heavy KS-107.5, figuring out which words his station can air isn't as easy as it used to be. "The line is gray," he says, "and it moves around."
Maybe so, but ever since singer Janet Jackson suffered a wardrobe malfunction that revealed a partially unsheathed nipple to millions of Super Bowl watchers this past February, the decency limitations imposed on broadcasters have become much more restrictive. With the Federal Communications Commission set to give Viacom, Inc., owner of Super Bowl network CBS, a brutal $550,000 slap for its role in exposing Ms. Jackson's mammary, radio reps in particular are taking extra care to make sure they don't wind up in a fine mess themselves. "I believe some of this stuff is ridiculous and wouldn't hold up under scrutiny," Collins concedes. "But my job is to get ratings and protect our license, and I'm very focused on that. So from my standpoint as a program director, I'm going to blow with the wind."
Mike O'Connor, vice president of programming for Clear Channel properties in the Rocky Mountain region, echoes these sentiments. "The government has done such a good job of putting broadcasters on notice that the industry will continue to police itself at an extreme level," he says. "That's because the downside is license revocation, which could put hundreds of millions of dollars of publicly invested shares at risk."
The hazards are arguably even greater for modest-sized stations, such as Radio 1190, a signal affiliated with CU-Boulder. "A lot of those fines are bigger than our annual budget," says John Quigley, Radio 1190's general manager. "But these are the times we live in, and that's the way it's going to be. It might change, but for now, we've got to adjust and adapt."
A decision made by WRUR-FM, a part of New York's University of Rochester, shows how seriously the FCC is being taken. In May, university overseers announced that throughout the summer, and perhaps indefinitely, live programming at WRUR will be scotched in favor of pre-recorded shows, all of which must be previewed before they're aired. "It's basically a response to the heightened sensitivities and the broadcast climate," the school's dean, William Scott Green, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "This is a way to make sure we're careful."
Although Quigley sees no reason to make such a move at Radio 1190, he understands the anxiety that's at the heart of Green's statement. "We're trying not to overreact," he says, "but there are potential dangers. Whereas commercial stations may have three or four professional DJs to keep track of, we have fifty or sixty volunteers -- and that's not counting the guest DJs we have on our hip-hop shows and drum-and-bass shows. They're used to deejaying in clubs, where they don't have to deal with FCC issues, so they don't know where the line is. That's why the guys who host those programs have been instructed to really prep their guests before letting them go on the air as to what they can and can't play."
More and more, such choices are straying into silliness. A recent censorship roundup published by Entertainment Weekly revealed that Hot 97, New York City's most popular hip-hop purveyor, removed the sitcom-friendly word "ass" from the Ludacris cut "Blow It Out." Meanwhile, MTV attempted to reduce the minor naughtiness in a couplet from Avril Lavigne's "Don't Tell Me" -- "Don't tell me that your charm...will get you in my pants/I'll have to kick your ass" -- by retaining "ass" but cutting "pants."
Really. I swear.
Far from laughing at these examples of self-censorship, KS-107.5's Collins, whose station doesn't play either tune, believes that they make a twisted kind of sense. The latest FCC dictates forbid the broadcasting of material that mentions "sexual or excretory organs or activities" between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. In Collins' view, Ludacris's repeated exhortations to "blow it out your ass" could be interpreted as being excretory in nature. "Now, if you're going to call someone an 'ass,' it might be okay in that context," he speculates. "But the FCC has clearly said you have to stay away from excretory functions." As for the Lavigne song, Collins feels that "ass" is acceptable because it isn't being used in either an excretory or sexual manner. "Get you in my pants" is another story. "If she had said, 'Nice pants,' that would probably be all right," he believes. "But 'get you in my pants,' well, the FCC could see that as titillating."
"Slow Motion," by Juvenile, presents much more obvious challenges for programmers. Because it's among the top selling singles in the U.S. of A., KS-107.5 and a Clear Channel outlet, KISS-FM, are spinning it vigorously. Nevertheless, the unexpurgated lyrics sport a passel of obviously verboten words, and removing all of them leaves a trail of destruction through several sections of the song that greatly disrupts its flow. For instance, the original rhymes "I got four or five bad married bitches at home/One of my bitches fell in love with that outside dick/ That outside dick keeps them hos sick" are transformed in a radio edit provided to stations by Juvenile's imprint, Cash Money, to read, "I got four or five married ----- at home/One of my ----- fell in love with that outside ----/That outside ---- keeps them hos sick." That's four bleeps in three lines, and there would have been more if someone at the record label hadn't decided that "hos" would pass muster with FCC officials. Especially the ones into gardening.