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.
Then again, quite a few other sexually suggestive "Slow Motion" lines are allowed to remain intact, including "Hop on top and start jiggy-jiggy jerking" and "If you're loving my bark, let me bury my bone." Considering what happened to Avril Lavigne's "pants," such quips seem likely to stir the FCC's ire, but Collins thinks they're okay because "they're all double entendres, and how you take them depends on what your point of view is. When he talks about 'Hop on top and start jiggy-jiggy jerking,' that could be someone getting on top of a table and dancing.
"Somebody who wants to interpret that sexually can," Collins continues. "But it's an interpretation, and last time I checked, it's still America, and none of the words is indecent. You can be as liberal with your interpretations as you want, but if you are, break out the thought police -- in which case we're all in trouble."
Another illustration of morality regulation run amok involves the tidying up of songs that have been broadcast for decades without causing any noticeable societal decay. At the Fox, Clear Channel's classic-rock station in Denver, Roger Daltrey's accusatory scream "Who the fuck are you?" has been altered on the Who ditty "Who Are You," and Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" skips any mention of "funky shit." No one on the staff pretends that these moves makes sense. "Lewis and Floorwax comply with the FCC," says Clear Channel exec O'Connor, name-checking the station's morning team, "but they've gone out of their way to show how arcane these standards are if they're only now being applied to songs that have been aired for twenty or thirty years."
The technical aspects of these most painful eliminations are changing, too. O'Connor notes that modern-rocking KTCL, another of Clear Channel's local properties, has always covered the word "fuck" in the phrase "I want to fuck you like an animal," from the Nine Inch Nails hit "Closer." In the past, however, the beginning "f"-sound or the concluding "k" lingered a bit -- so technicians went back into the file and blotted out the entire word. O'Connor likens the approach to one that's turning up on reality-TV shows: When a personality unleashes an expletive, the area over his mouth is digitally distorted, in a pointless attempt to protect vulnerable lip-readers.
KTCL did an even more thorough job on "Scooby Snacks," by Fun Lovin' Criminals. The cut starts off with a snippet from Pulp Fiction in which a character portrayed by Amanda Plummer shouts, "Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of you!" In the past, the "-ing" from the first profanity, and the "mother" from the second one could be heard, but no more. KTCL recently stripped Plummer's contribution from the song entirely.
New artists are receiving similar treatment. When KTCL received a copy of "Kiss the Girl," by Get Set Go, a new power-punk band, station personnel felt the song was too dicey to put in rotation; for one thing, it starts with the announcement, "I start to fuck it up as soon as I've started." The combo's label, TSR Records, responded by coming up with a purified edit. KS-107.5's Collins prompted a similar move back in 2001, when he made additional trims to the supposedly airworthy "Purple Hills," formerly "Purple Pills," by the Eminem side project D12. Interscope, D12's label, soon followed Collins's lead, issuing a new version that mirrored his. Caution like this was rare pre-Janet, but Collins says, "I've always felt that our format would be a target for conservative groups, so we've tried to be vigilant."
The feds' fervor may wane after the election, but at present, passions are running hot; on July 28, FCC commissioner Michael Copps announced another politically correct campaign, this time targeting television violence. As a result, broadcasters must continue to go through some frequently absurd motions. Radio 1190's Quigley admits that "sometimes we'll do an edit on a song, and at the end of it, we'll look at each other and go, 'We know exactly what they're saying. Who are we trying to kid?'"
The answer to this question, in Collins's mind, involves a very select audience. He says he only gets "about four or five" complaints about lyrics per year, usually from parents who had no idea that KS-107.5 was their child's favorite station, but the small number of gripers doesn't reassure him. "Arbitron says we have about 350,000 listeners in the metro area," he reveals, "and if 349,999 love what we're doing and one doesn't, it could still be a problem. It's not a let's-put-song-lyrics-up-for-a-vote issue, and then the majority of people win."
He's right -- because in this case, there are plenty of losers.
Get a move on: In the June 17 edition of this column, Channel 9 president and general manager Roger Ogden seemed to brush aside the theory that well-liked morning sportscaster Drew Soicher would be moved to afternoons and evenings as a replacement for Tony Zarrella, who left the station several months ago under rumor-fueling circumstances. "Drew has a very particular set of skills, and a talent that lends itself to the morning program, which is number one in the country in the top 25 markets," Ogden said. "We are reluctant to change that formula."
The reluctance has been overcome. In late July, word leaked out that Soicher is being promoted to main sports anchor. He's scheduled to start working the new shift on August 8.
Why the reversal? One reason might be that, with new anchor Bob Kendrick failing to connect with audiences, the later programs needed a wild card like Soicher. But Ogden doesn't go there. "Drew didn't have a lot of interest in the job to begin with," he maintains. "At least initially, he wanted to stay in the mornings. But as we went along, he expressed interest we didn't know was there."
Soicher's apt to succeed in his latest role, yet his departure from the morning show shakes one of the station's most lucrative productions. Ogden now must replace both Soicher and forecaster Kathy Sabine, who preceded Soicher to prime time several weeks ago. Even so, Ogden expresses optimism. "I think the basic strength that we have in the morning remains in place," he declares.
The Denver Post's Adam Schefter, who's done commentary on Channel 9 for several years in conjunction with his role as Denver Broncos beat writer, isn't in the running to replace Soicher, because he's taken another position. The NFL Network hired him for a gig that's still being defined. "I guess I'm the only moron in the country who would take a jump at a job where I don't know exactly what I'll be doing," he says.
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Plenty of people have come and gone from the Post in the last year or so, and the process is continuing. The news side recently lost science specialist Diedtra Henderson, who joined the Associated Press to cover the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C.; she didn't respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Also outta there is Trent Seibert, who provided plenty of fodder for yours truly when, in 2002, a trio of his stories had Colorado officials charging him with inaccuracy. After digging himself out of that hole with some highly regarded stories about the state lottery, Seibert began to look seriously at other newsroom positions. When he was offered the chance to become the city editor at Alabama's Tuscaloosa News, he gladly accepted. "It's a region of the country that's produced great journalism and great writers, and it was sort of mysterious for me," says Seibert, a New Jersey native. "It's a great opportunity to explore and grow."
For his part, Schefter is leaving hot on the heels of Post sports columnist Woody Paige, who's signed on for a one-year jolt with ESPN. Two such high-profile departures will certainly impact the paper's sports department, but Schefter, who'll keep his home in Denver, says his bosses there were encouraging and supportive. At this point, the NFL Network is only on a handful of cable systems (its primary distributor is the Dish Network), but Schefter is confident that will soon change. He's also excited about the newfound access to players and coaches he'll have because of the NFL's imprimatur. Critics have long accused him of being too closely aligned with the Broncos to be journalistically objective; he co-wrote books with running back Terrell Davis and coach Mike Shanahan while covering them for the Post. Now, because he's essentially going to be on the league's payroll, such charges are moot.
"The Post bent over backwards to keep me, and they've been nice enough to say that if things don't work out, they'll take me back the next day," Schefter says. "But I'm not doing this to fail."