Fearsome Communications Commission
May 26, 2004 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Fear of the FCC forces a college radio station to go to an all-recorded format. That's right, no more live DJ's. All shows are to be taped and then reviewed by station management prior to broadcast. Not because the FCC has fined the station, but because they might.
posted by tommasz (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I recommend The Jerky Boys. Quality pre-recorded entertainment for the whole family.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:16 AM on May 26, 2004

That's insane. The FCC just killed college radio.
posted by mathowie at 11:28 AM on May 26, 2004

no. knee-jerk doofuses killed one particular college radio station.
posted by quonsar at 11:33 AM on May 26, 2004

Finally! Forcing the station management to listen to the crap that passes for programming content on far too many college stations! I have no problem with obscure bands and avant garde music, but far too often, the songs that make the airwaves sound like the worst songs on their respective albums. I hope this spreads.
posted by mischief at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2004

No one expects the PowellQuisition!

"Our weapons are fear!, fear and surprise!......ummm......

...Our three weapons are fear!, surprise, and ruinous lawsuits.....

Our weapons include fear, suprise, ruinous lawsuits, jail time........"
posted by troutfishing at 11:59 AM on May 26, 2004

".....social opprobrium, decapitation, public shaming....."
posted by troutfishing at 12:00 PM on May 26, 2004

I read 'public shaving'. come to think of it, add that to the list.
posted by dabitch at 12:01 PM on May 26, 2004

Seriously, this is dumbass station management. Train your DJs not to swear on the air. Don't _pre-record_ your radio. And, I'll note, it's also an FCC violation to broadcast radio without someone in the studio -- so they'll have to have someone sitting there, hitting the play and pause buttons. So, so stupid.

When I used to DJ at WPRB in New Jersey, they were pretty serious about training DJs to follow FCC regulations, and they went through every record the station received and marked tracks "DNP" for "do not play" if they had content that violate FCC rules. That pretty much took care of the FCC. This seems like silly overreaction to me.
posted by josh at 12:02 PM on May 26, 2004

I read 'public shaving'. come to think of it, add that to the list.

*crosses legs and covers midsection modestly*
posted by quonsar at 12:07 PM on May 26, 2004

Read the article carefully before getting as outraged as you should be if it were a permanent change. It hasn't been determined yet whether it's a permanent change.

WPRB still skates close to the edge.
posted by oaf at 12:24 PM on May 26, 2004

I don't know exactly how College radio in the US compares to what my uni radio was like in the UK, but my uni radio station's peeps distilled into two groups.

1. We're a sparky or a biz-admin student and view radio as a possible career so want to have cv bullet points.
2. We're borderline alcoholics who spend too much money on records and view the radio thing as a bit of a laugh.

I remember the 1's always were trying to set rules and standards for us (the 2's) to follow. It was mostly amicable, but I think this extreme measure would be great on group 1's cv. "Yes Mr. clearchannel I screened 12 hours of radio content a day."
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 12:39 PM on May 26, 2004

My college's radio station, KTEK ("88.7 -- we're not at the bottom of the dial for nothing!"), was closed-circuit, broadcast over the campus cable system. There was quite a bit of bleed, though, so really you could pick it up on any radio near campus. One great benefit to such a scheme: no FCC regulations. I was program director for a good while, and we had plenty of shows that were worth hearing but couldn't have been on an over-the-air station.
posted by ewagoner at 1:01 PM on May 26, 2004

Don't _pre-record_ your radio.

Why not? How can you, the listener, even tell the difference? And if you can't tell the difference, why does it matter? For that matter, isn't this pretty much standard commercial radio practice by now?
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:14 PM on May 26, 2004

As a lame-ass college DJ at one time, I can shed some light on some questions:

>Why not?

Because then the students edit out their mistakes. Which means it's less likely to have fun mistakes on the air. Oh, and you don't learn to speak to a big audience and you never learn to speak live.

>How can you, the listener, even tell the difference?

You can check for mistakes, check the time announced and compare it, wait for the "Big Party Tomorrow" announcements to actually mean "Big Party Tonite". Etc, etc. :-)

>And if you can't tell the difference, why does it matter?

It probably doesn't matter to the listener, but to the broadcaster, they will not get the education they deserve.

>For that matter, isn't this pretty much standard commercial radio practice by now?

It wouldn't surprise me! :-)
posted by shepd at 1:33 PM on May 26, 2004

Mars Saxman: Once upon a time, radio was an interactive medium. If you really liked a song you could tell the DJ or producer to include it in the next show. You could ask, "Hey, what was that you played at the top of the last hour?" For that matter, you could request something to get into the next hour as well. In addition with a good radio station the DJ is not just spinning records, but also presenting urgent news and headlines as they come off the wire.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:10 PM on May 26, 2004

I was a program director at WRBC ("Like Radio, But Different"), Lewiston, Maine's finest, back in the day. Indeed, I imagine most every geek I know was a college DJ like me at one point or another.

In my not very professional opinion, this is a clear case of overreaction. Tell your DJs not to swear during their training. Tell them if they swear, they will be fired. Then, if they swear, fire them. Problem solved.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:20 PM on May 26, 2004

Why not? How can you, the listener, even tell the difference?

As with most stations, the university station I used to be involved with had a phone line and e-mail in the studio, which was heavily used. We provided live outside broadcasts, often of sporting events which would be out-of-date as soon as everyone knew the result. We ran competitions that required interactive participation... it makes a huge difference.
posted by Singular at 2:25 PM on May 26, 2004

Why not?

You kill the spontaneity that can make things fun for djs and listeners.

You kill the informed autonomy of the dj, in favor of the program director.

You destroy meaningful interaction between the audience and the dj. College radio is pretty much the last place where you can call up and actually talk to someone while they are doing a show and convince them to play something totally out of the blue.

As another former WPRB dj, I can say that live radio comes with risks, that can't entirely be controlled, even with good training and station policies. This is one of the main reasons that I am personally opposed to the legislation currently considered by congress that would raise the fines into the five- and six-figure range, without any consideration for the size of the station or whether it is a non-profit or non-commercial station.

The reason that stations like WRUR are freaking out is because while even the $7,000 fines of the current environment can throw a wrench into a small station's finances, a $200,000 fine could easily kill one.

Personally, my biggest problem with the post Boobgate environment is that it lets Powell and the FCC off the hook about the ownership issue of last year, which prompted the unprecedented cooperation of such groups as college radio junkies, liberal corperate media watchers, the ACLU, MoveOn Democrats, and also CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISTS who worried about their local bible stations, as well as others in the right wing. But now, with the legislation proposed, the FCC gets to win back the cultural right wing, while still making it more likely that small stations will fold. Great.

Because I can't find it on the web, here is a really great interview with Ken Friedman of WFMU about this:


Un-Liberating the Airwaves
WFMU's Ken Freedman on the Post-Janet Jackson FCC
Interview by Dave Mandl
Brooklyn Rail (http://brooklynrail.org)

Dave Mandl (Rail): How have things changed for radio broadcasters in
the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance?

Ken Freedman: Things have changed drastically in recent months. As
recently as last fall, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
issued a series of decisions that loosened their language rules
considerably--ruling, for example, that the word "fuck" was
permissible if used non-literally, as an adjective. Things have now
not only reverted to the way they were before, they've become much
more rigid than ever. Although there have not been any new rules
passed into law yet by either the FCC or Congress, it's an entirely
new landscape for TV and radio broadcasters. And as is always the case
with the FCC, there are absolutely no written guidelines or
definitions to help broadcasters determine what is legal speech and
what is illegal speech.

Rail: Does this affect mostly high-profile broadcasters, or is no one
under the FCC's radar any more?

Freedman: It's safe to say that no one is under the FCC's
radar. Although most language fines have been leveled at larger
commercial broadcasters, the FCC has historically fined many small
community and college stations as well. And small non-commercial
stations have (historically) had to pay the same fines as larger
commercial stations. I think it's also safe to say that the FCC's most
inexplicable and unfair language decisions have been leveled at small
non-commercial stations. The best example of this was KBOO's airing of
a Sarah Jones poem called "Your Revolution," which was clearly a
feminist poem, not sexual in nature, but it contained the phrase "blow
job." The FCC gave KBOO (a small, non-commercial, community station in
Portland, Oregon) a $7,000 fine. KBOO spent double that in legal bills
fighting the fine, but they eventually prevailed. Bear in mind that
this case was several years ago, well *before* the current crackdown

Rail: So why now? Is this really just because Janet Jackson flashed a
breast on TV? Are there politics at work here--say, kissing up to the
religious right? Or is this crackdown the kind of thing that some FCC
member was dreaming of already, and Boobgate provided a golden

Freedman: The Super Bowl incident just added momentum to a process
that was already in place. Due to rulings like last October's "Bono"
ruling, TV and radio stations had been getting more and more
adventurous with regard to sexual talk and antics on the air. For
years, one of the FCC's five commissioners (Michael Copps, a Democrat)
had been lobbying for more severe FCC punishments for language
violations. He had been getting ignored until earlier in 2003, when
several highly publicized incidents (including the Opie and Anthony
"sex at St. Patrick's" broadcast, and the Madonna-Britney kiss)
started giving him some traction. Then there was the Bono ruling,
which really started the censorship wheels rolling. And then the Super
Bowl just ignited it all and turned it into a hot political issue in
an election year.

The FCC claims they received 200,000 emails in the days following the
Super Bowl. (They now claim that closer to 800,000 emails and letters
have been received about this.) This put enormous pressure on Michael
Powell (FCC head honcho) to deal with it. Powell took an enormous
public black eye over the FCC's ownership issue last year [when the
FCC relaxed restrictions on the number of stations individual
companies could own]. Up until the Super Bowl, the ownership issue was
the FCC's "most popular" debate ever, and the public came out largely
*against* the FCC's stance on it. Powell couldn't politically afford
to ignore Boobgate after the ownership fiasco. In fact, Powell did a
180-degree about-face on language. Up until the Super Bowl, Powell had
a fairly sane approach to the censorship issue. He used to make public
pronouncements that he didn't want the FCC to become the nation's
nanny, etc. No more.

This crackdown also has to be taken in historical context as yet
another in a series of language crackdowns that the FCC periodically
undertakes. But there's a big difference--during this crackdown, it
looks like there will be new federal laws passed regarding language
and censorship. That's never happened before. So even after this
political storm subsides, broadcasters may have a whole new set of
federal laws on the books that they will have to deal with for years.

Rail: You mentioned the fact that this is happening in an election
year. What's the significance of that? Is there pressure on the FCC
from senators or the White House, for example?

Freedman: There has been a great deal of pressure on the FCC from
senators and congresspeople, over the indecency issue as well as other
issues. But mostly, the indecency issue has simply become a point that
incumbents can point to during the re-election campaigns. They can
tell their constituents that they're cracking down on all the filth on
the airwaves.

Rail: The fines that have been announced recently are enormous--orders
of magnitude higher than anything before. And with the FCC being much
more vigilant, it sounds like there's a very real possibility that
stations (especially smaller ones) may be driven out of business for
relatively minor obscenity violations. How do you think this will play
out in the long run?

Freedman: That is one of many big question marks in all of this. In
the past, the FCC has never had a separate rate structure for
different-size stations, or for non-commercial stations. Since the
basic fines were modest, even a small non-commercial station could
withstand the "starter" fine of $7,000. Now congress is talking about
raising the starter fine to $60,000, which would devastate small and
medium-sized stations, commercial *or* non-commercial. The senate has
talked about tying the size of fines to the size of the station, but
that proposal hasn't even been scheduled for a vote yet. So it's a
fairly worrisome issue. The one thing that gives me solace is that, in
the past, the FCC has acted on less than one percent of the obscenity
complaints it receives. That's mostly because the FCC is so severely
under-funded. Hopefully it stays that way, but if Congress allows the
FCC to keep a portion of these huge new fines to help its enforcement
abilities, then that too could change.

Rail: Now that these obscenity guidelines are being codified as
federal laws, will the FCC finally be forced to at least be more
specific about what is and isn't allowed, or will they continue to
leave stations guessing?

Freedman: They'll most likely keep us all guessing.

In all of the proposed new rules and amendments, there hasn't been a
single congressional request that the FCC define or even clarify their
language rules. In the early nineties, Congress did intruct the FCC to
do this, and it took the FCC ten years to do it. What resulted was an
Orwellian masterpiece, a fifty-page document (released in April 2001)
in which the FCC gave only examples of decisions they had made, but no
clear definitions as to what is permissible and impermissible. And on
nearly every page, they defended their lack of definitions by saying
that they are not allowed to engage in censorship or abridge the first
amendment rights of broadcasters. Michael Powell continues this
doublespeak to this day, saying that for the FCC to issue lists of
illegal words and phrases would have a "chilling effect" on free
speech. In fact, the opposite is true--if stations had clear
guidelines, they would have *more* freedom than they have in the
current climate, where nobody knows what is allowed and what isn't.


Ken Freedman is general manager of WFMU-FM, Jersey City (91.1

posted by jann at 2:29 PM on May 26, 2004

I do believe we have a chilling affect.
posted by drezdn at 2:44 PM on May 26, 2004


If I were a student there, I wouldn't listen to them and would ridicule them to my best ability.
posted by azazello at 3:02 PM on May 26, 2004

what a way to take all the joy out of college radio. half the fun of my show on wmbr is spontaneously playing old records lying around in the station, or getting calls from listeners [all two people listening at 3am, that is] who introduce you to new bands. although i must admit that "just don't swear" is a little bit harder than it sounds, especially for someone like me in whom profanity is an ingrained habit. for that matter, i still don't have a good way to deal with albums like skullflower's "exquisite fucking boredom" or bands like the fucking champs. announcing "the f- uh, the friggin' champs" simply seems wrong.

what really galls me, though, is all the good music that's going unheard because there's a "shit" or "fuck" buried somewhere in the lyrics. most songs put out by smaller labels don't have radio-safe alternate versions, and attempting to bleep on the fly is not necessarily a good idea. most djs at my station considered the time between 10pm and 6am [or thereabouts] "safe" for playing songs that had slightly offensive content. with the loss of that safe zone, and the fact that profanity not meant in an explicit way is no longer permitted, there is no time when edgier stuff can be played. the FCC is effectively telling artists that they can get no publicity [beyond filesharing and word-of-mouth] unless they play nice family-friendly music.

a chilling effect indeed.
posted by ubersturm at 6:51 PM on May 26, 2004

I once said Fuck on college radio. Yeah, that's right Michael Powell. Come and get me.
posted by rusty at 7:00 PM on May 26, 2004

i don't think it's a matter of simply telling your djs not to cuss on the air- it's about playing independent music that hasn't be sanitized for radio. our college radio station checks each cd for profanity as well and marks them with an "o". of course, when you are relying on volunteer labor, things can get missed. i've accidently played one of the 7 deadly words on the air a few times. it's really easy to do, especially if you are playing punk or hip hop. also, our library has been around for 40 years, so what is considered an obscenity has changed over time. unless you know every song in the library by heart, or come in 4 hours before your shift to preview every song, you are bound to make a mistake. it used to be that if you pulled the song off the air in the middle, you could use the "i didn't know" as a defense. no longer. i'm actually leaving the house to go to the radio station for my shift. will i play punk? maybe. will i play rap? probably not. i'm terrified that i'll single handedly take the radio station down, and on top of it, get a fine myself. i just can't take that chance.
posted by mawlymawnster at 7:45 PM on May 26, 2004

Eric Idle presents... The FCC Song (NSFW.)
posted by homunculus at 8:14 PM on May 26, 2004

Ok, I haven't read the article, but it's hard to see this as idiotic over-reaction. It's not hard to remember not to swear on the air, and not to play songs with swearing (or explicit sexual stuff) outside of safe harbor time.

And I thought that someone was required to be in the air studio 24 hours a day? That's how it is at WHPK, I think—ISTR it being cited as a reason for why the people with 4-6am shows actually have to be there and can't prerecord them.
posted by kenko at 10:30 PM on May 26, 2004

kenko - someone is required to be in the studio whenever the station is broadcasting. at WMBR, we aren't quite 24 hours, because we often can't get people to fill the 4-6am slots. the station simply signs off during those hours and stops broadcasting.
posted by ubersturm at 12:32 AM on May 27, 2004

What we used to do back "in the day" was have a music department whose job was to listen to the albums we received and write "warning - strong language - play late night only" or some such on it.

Dude, this is college. There are students at colleges who would love to spend several hours a day just listening to albums for dirty words. We had no shortage of volunteers.

Of course, this was back before file sharing, so this was also their opportunity to tape every conceivable album
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:27 AM on May 27, 2004

Well that's hardly news...remember Howard Stern ? Do a search on mefi threads, you'll see that the "chilling effect" is coming under the guise of economic chilling effect ; he predicted this outcome (hardly a nostradamus prediction, yet true) and it's happening.

Now the question isn't about what is obscene what is not, because the concept of obscenity is a relative one ; the problem is FCC is defining what is obscene instead of you

To be obscene, material must meet a three-prong test:

1.An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
2.The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
3.The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value

Anything sexually related fits under this description of obscenity ; therefore the final power of deciding what is obscene is left to a little group of persons "in charge" of "protecting" you from the "evils of obscenity".

Yet by using this meter for obscenity I could scream "Sig Heil Sig Heil " or "Death to the American Infidel" or "Death to Islam" all the time on the radio and this wouldn't be obscene.

I guess that this set of rules comes handy when you are in election times and your voter base includes a bigot religious one who doesn't want to just tune to another channel.
posted by elpapacito at 8:09 AM on May 27, 2004

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, HK radio host 'quit over threats'.
posted by homunculus at 2:11 PM on May 27, 2004

Just last week I called in to my college radio station and asked the DJ (an effimnate guy playing a lot of retro-synth stuff) to prove that, as the disclaimers state, they really CAN play REALLY offensive stuff after 10pm.

Three songs about anal sex followed, and I was vindicated...
posted by kaibutsu at 5:36 PM on May 27, 2004

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