The Federal Communications Commission has pulled a stun gun on shock jocks, releasing unprecedented indecency guidelines for broadcasters.
In other words: Howard Stern, the government has just given the public a big bar of soap to wash out your mouth.
Order, released late Friday, refers to several examples of morning radio banter — as well as songs — in spelling out what might be lewd and patently offensive to the listening public.
“Understandably, the public is outraged by the increasingly coarse content aired on radio and television at all hours of the day, including times when children are most likely to be listening or watching,” Democratic FCC commish Susan Ness said. “The flood of letters and email we receive reflects a high degree of anger. Despite an onslaught of on-air smut, the commission necessarily walks a delicate line when addressing content issues, and must be careful not to tread on the First Amendment — the constitutional bulwark of our free society.”
Indecency has long been defined by the FCC as broadcast programming that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities. New parameters are designed to make it easier for everyone involved to figure out what’s not acceptable. A main thrust of the guidelines is premeditation and intent.
The FCC has not and will not monitor the airwaves; rather, it will be the average citizen who brings a complaint.
If a broadcaster is cited for airing indecent content, the FCC can revoke a station’s license, impose a fine or give a warning.
The FCC is allowed to take complaints from the public on indecent material and act upon them, albeit with restrictions, as it’s still protected speech under the First Amendment.
Ban on patently offensive broadcasts runs only from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the hours when kids are most likely to be tuning in.
Issuance of the document is a defining moment for new FCC chair Michael Powell, a Republican appointed to the top slot by President Bush.
In 1994, a court directed the FCC to clarify what’s patently offensive, the longtime standard. It has taken the FCC until now to do so, with Powell the first chairman apparently willing to tackle the matter.
Powell did not release an accompanying statement to the order, as did his colleagues Ness, commish Harold Furchtgott-Roth and commish Gloria Tristani.
Here are factors the FCC will consider when processing indecency complaints:
- The explicitness and graphic nature of the broadcast. The more explicit the language, the greater the likelihood of indecency. To illustrate the point, the FCC referred to several Howard Stern comments, including “Have you ever had sex with an animal? Well, don’t knock it. I was sodomized by Lambchop.”
- The extent to which sexual innuendo is repeated. The FCC referred to a segment of KLOL-FM’s “Stevens and Pruett Show” in Houston, in which the shock jocks talked about size.
The more fleeting the reference, the less likely it will be judged indecent. Conversely, persistent references to sexual or excretory organs or activities may get a broadcaster into trouble. FCC cited the song “Bubba, the Love Sponge” as indecent, for its repeated reference to a sexual act.
The FCC, however, deemed that a newscaster on KPRL-AM/KDDB-FM in Paso Robles, Calif., was not indecent for the expletive “Oops, fucked that one up,” since it was a fleeting and isolated statement.
FCC cautioned that even a fleeting reference may be indecent if it describes, let’s say, sex with a minor.
Audibility also plays a factor. A garbled track may be off the hook, even if explicit.
- The extent to which a broadcast panders, titillates or possesses intentional shock value. The purpose of the broadcast weighs heavily in determining whether it’s indecent.
The FCC referred again to the following transcript of the “Stevens & Pruett Show”: “Sex survey lines are open. Today’s question, it’s a strange question and we hope we have a lot of strange answers. What makes your hiney parts tingle?”
Just because explicit language is used doesn’t make it indecent. For instance, a bona fide news report using such language is probably in the clear.
Context plays a critical role. In the past, the FCC has ruled that a radio talk show discussing sex education and teens was not indecent. Same went for an “Oprah” segment addressing how to have better sex with a partner. Likewise for “Schindler’s List,” which pictured frontal nudity.
Democratic FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani, a longtime champion of citizens’ filing indecency complaints, said the regulatory agency didn’t go far enough, and more rigorous enforcement rules are needed.
She said the guidelines will “likely become instead a ‘how-to’ manual for those licensees who wish to tread the line drawn by our cases.”
Ness said it is time for the broadcast industry to take responsibility and institute a voluntary code of conduct.
“Release of this policy statement alone will not solve the festering problem of indecency on the airwaves. However, it is entirely within the power of broadcasters to address it –and to do so without government intrusion,” Ness said. “I encourage broadcasters, the Bush administration and Congress swiftly to resolve any antitrust impediments to such action and move ahead.”