Music News

Obscene and Heard

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To put it another way, media sources such as television, film and the Internet so regularly expose people to profanities that many words that previously seemed lewd have become acceptable. (Witness the evolution of the word "suck," a onetime vulgarity that's now a staple in the conversations of grade-schoolers.) Since the FCC does not specify which terms are off limits and which are allowable, individual stations are left to interpret community standards by their own criteria. Predictably, many of them use benchmarks that are on the liberal side.

"The FCC policy is vague at best, and it's very difficult to make a black-and-white rule," says Bob Richards, program director for KBPI. "There is no specific, set list of what can be said. It's up to community standards as to what's acceptable and what isn't." He adds, "We encourage our DJs to take the intelligent risk. We don't want to be a kind of bland, vanilla radio station. We want to hook in with the audience, and we want to do that by talking to them in their language."

Greg Cassidy, KALC's program director, concurs. "I was recently at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in New Orleans, and the FCC had a panel where this came up," he says. "And they're just as confused as other people are. I'm not putting them down for that. It's just that they, too, are having a hard time finding the line. The FCC left it pretty much at community standards, and that's where I think it belongs."

When it comes to defining the standards of the community that they are serving, though, both Cassidy and Richards narrow their scope from the potential listenership as a whole to the audiences upon which they are focusing. Cassidy calls Alice "an adult station," while Richards classifies KBPI as "a male 18-34 targeted radio station." As such, they remove children, many of whom have easy access to their morning shows, from the equation. Reality, of course, is not nearly so tidy--but when they get complaints from parents whose kids have been exposed to programming they find disagreeable, they place the blame not on themselves, but on the folks doing the griping.

"I listen to parents who have objections, and I take what they say into consideration," Cassidy insists. "But the morning show is not programmed for young adults. Besides, parents have to take responsibility for their kids. They made the babies, so if they haven't taken the time to instill in them the same values that they have, then they're not taking their job as a parent seriously."

Richards, who says that he won't let his own children listen to the KBPI morning show, pulls even fewer punches. "Basically," he says, "what I tell parents is that we make no bones about our humor, and we have ads that include alcohol and bars and all kinds of stuff that perhaps your kids shouldn't listen to. So don't make me babysit your kids. It's your job to decide whether or not they can listen to this radio station. Don't tell me I can't broadcast it."

By the same token, Richards contends that KBPI does not have an anything-goes approach--and the station's Rick Kerns confirms this claim. "On the road as a comedian," says Kerns, "I could see the faces of the people in the audience. And I could tell where the line was; I could tell if I was going too far, or if I needed to pull back. And radio doesn't have that. So we had a staff meeting, and Bob says, 'All right, look, I'm getting tired of the very few and irregular complaints that I get. I'm going to state some words out loud, and I want you to raise your hand if you think it's okay to say them on the air.' And he went through an amazing litany of foul language, and I found that there were some that we could use that I didn't think we could and vice versa."

When asked to share this list, Richards, after justifying the occasional utterance of "chickenshit," declines. But Kerry Gray shrugs off the mention of "asshole." He asks, "You know that song by Bush? That big hit they had a few years ago ['Everything Zen'] that says, 'Find my asshole brother'? That was a huge hit that was played all over the place. And that's when I first realized that things were changing a little bit."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts