Radio stations across the country are being cautioned against broadcasting what some well-placed Washington wives have labeled pornographic rock 'n' roll music.
The warning comes from the National Assn. of Broadcasters as sexually explicit and suggestive songs are on the rise, evidenced in part by the ascension of the pop hero Prince, never one to mince words. Ironically, the warning also comes just as the Reagan Administration is driving toward deregulating the broadcasting industry.
Last week, 45 major record companies were asked in a letter from NAB President Eddie Fritts to include the lyrics to all records they send to broadcasters. This would help broadcasters, Fritts wrote, "in making reasoned programming choices." That letter was preceded by an informational letter Fritts sent to the heads of broadcast groups, in which he discussed some of the attacks on "porn rock" and implicitly admonished broadcasters to think twice about songs that might fall into this category.
Two of the songs that have been assailed by an organization of Washington women called the Parents Music Research Group--whose members include the spouses of Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.)--are Prince's "Darling Nikki" and Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls." "Darling Nikki" concerns a woman whom Prince labels a sex fiend; "Sugar Walls," a Top 10 hit, chronicles female sexual arousal.
"Rock music," the women wrote to Fritts, "has become pornographic and sexually explicit, but most parents are unaware of the words their children are listening to, dancing to, doing homework to, falling asleep to."
Their argument is, of course, an old one. In the past, various objections have been raised to such songs as "Let's Spend the Night Together" by the Rolling Stones, "Love to Love You" by Donna Summer, and any number of efforts by Chuck Berry.
But Fritts believes the finger-pointing is legitimate this time around. "I think our involvement," he said of the NAB, "was from meeting with the wives. Their concern has risen to public policy debate. There's a possibility of legislation." And legislation, Fritts told The Times, is exactly what he would prefer to avoid.
"Voluntary action (by broadcasters) would delay a policy decision," he explained.
"We as an industry should be sensitive to local community concern," he added, noting that in this instance the concern was "genuine and high level."
But is sensitivity just another word for thinly disguised censorship?
Fritts insists it isn't--"we're not promoting censorship," he said--but he did acknowledge that the NAB's campaign has "severe" antitrust and First Amendment implications.
Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. records--Prince's label--said he's "bothered" by the NAB request to include lyrics with all records. "It smells of censorship," he said. "Rock 'n' roll over the years has always had these little . . . furors. Radio stations can make their own decisions about what they want to play."
Which is exactly what a representative of one local station, sometime controversial KROQ-FM (106.7), said. "It's freedom of choice," said the representative, who asked not to be named. "The music is the beat; the lyrics come secondary. But if we don't give our listeners our kind of music, who will? We're not going to be a KKHR or a KIIS. We make our money on sex, from A to Z. It's what sells. Look at 'Eye on L.A.,' " she said, referring to the TV show that seems to feature bathing suit fashions at least once a week.
Ron Rodrigues, the operation manager at KMGG-FM (105.9), said Fritts' warning is not the answer and that it "leans toward censorship." "It's hard to believe it would come to a point where the record companies would have to send lyrics," said Rodrigues. "The issue of morality reaches far beyond lyrical content."
Ed Scarborough, program director at KKHR-FM (93.1), said he couldn't think "of any instance where we reject a record because it's lyrically filthy. In 'Sugar Walls,' for example, there are no four-letter words."
Would the inclusion of lyrics be a useful tool for Scarborough? "It couldn't hurt," he said, "but it won't have that much of an impact. The record companies could doctor the lyrics anyway."
Tim Kelly, program director at KLOS-FM (95.5), disagreed, saying that the lyrics would be "most helpful."
It's new-wave Muzak. Or is it synthesized slush? Some call it weird; others call it pretentious. Its makers call it "spacemusic."
No matter what you call it, though, it's coveted. Packaged in a weekly radio show titled "Music From the Hearts of Space"--heard locally on KPFK-FM (90.7) at 6 a.m. Wednesdays--spacemusic is popular across the country. More than 100 public radio stations in 37 states carry the program.
What is it? Here's what one of spacemusic's composers, Kevin Braheny, has to say:
"This music is intended as a caress, carried on the wind like the soft brushstrokes of an autumn sunset. It is a reminder of the dream dance from which we've come, and the longing my heart feels for the smile of home. As my spirit breathes, my heart shall journey to where my soul dwells."
The music is mostly a cyclical composite of synthesizers on Valium. The style is both classical and modern, ranging from jazz to Middle-Eastern. Vocals are usually taboo, jarring dramatic shifts definitely out. The pace is decidely slow. The total effect: relaxing white noise with rhythm. As in the rhythm of an oscillating fan.
"We can find examples of spacemusic in many cultures and in many time periods," explained Stephen Hill, who co-produces "Music From the Hearts of Space" from San Francisco. "The need for it has increased as our pace has increased. It deals with the pressure that we all feel. People are very, very stressed by their environment."
While Hill hesitates to label the music "cathartic" or "meditative," he does admit that one of its primary uses is introspective. "You can look at it as a psychological expander," he said. "People whose heads are full of all kinds of things need something to clean it out. It's a reconnecting with things we may have lost touch with. But what one person will meditate to another person will wash dishes to."
In any case, there is a large audience for it--Hill says he receives 1,000 letters from listeners a month--and the audience is growing.
"Music From the Hearts of Space" was initiated by Hill at KPFA in Berkeley in 1973. Ten years later, with the assistance of a grant from National Public Radio, an hourlong collection was available on satellite. In just a year's time, "Music From the Hearts of Space" was in steady orbit.