KPFK WATCHING ITS LANGUAGE NOW
The neat, blue signs in the Macintosh typeface tell the whole--if misspelled--story: ALL PROGRAMMERS--THERE HAS BEEN A DRAMATIC SHIFT IN FCC POLICY .. ..
The warnings paper the walls, windows and bulletin boards throughout the worn and tattered North Hollywood studio of KPFK-FM.
To the nonprofit radio station’s cadre of staffers--five full timers, six part timers and 120 volunteers--the signs are a reminder of the censorship that journalists and broadcasters the world over know: Say something the government doesn’t like, and you face going to jail.
“We have to be very careful right now,” said Blair Zarubick, KPFK’s acting program director. “Under these circumstances, I have to question ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ I don’t think we could read that on the air right now.”
The station’s staff has been in legal limbo since the Federal Communications Commission’s nationwide crackdown on “indecent” radio broadcasts two weeks ago. Although most of the attention surrounding the FCC decision has focused on “shock-radio” disc jockeys like New York’s Howard Stern, KPFK faces the severest punishment of the three stations cited by the FCC: possible criminal obscenity charges that carry penalties of up to two years in jail and $10,000 in fines. (Stations in Philadephia and Santa Barbara were also cited.)
“Yeah, I’m angry,” said station news director Don Rush. He said that since the FCC decision, KPFK reporters have been told not to report potentially objectionable public comments by public figures.
Coverage of a police roundup of homeless people in downtown Los Angeles was sanitized, Rush said, because some of the people who were arrested used vulgarities. “The reporter’s judgment call was, ‘We don’t use it,’ ” Rush said.
He said he is wondering how he will cover a public figure’s comments about AIDS that refer to anal sex. “Is it OK for us to broadcast it?” he asked. “The ruling is so vague that we’re not sure what it means.”
KPFK was cited for its August, 1986, broadcast of “Jerker,” a play about homosexuality and AIDS that, the FCC said, “included descriptions of sexual encounters between two men (and) described sexual and excretory activities and organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards of the broadcast medium.”
Only Wednesday did the FCC issue a written warning to the station, notifying it that the agency had referred the “Jerker” broadcast to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.
But the FCC has not formally laid out its specific objections to KPFK’s programming or issued specific guidelines proscribing what it considers indecent broadcasting. Nor does the agency intend to.
“We have nothing to tell them--that ‘This is OK’ and ‘This is not OK,’ ” FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball said. “Basically, we’re going to react to programming when there’s a complaint, (and each situation) will be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
So no one at KPFK is sure what is acceptable. Programmers run material by general manager Tarabu Betserai, who, in turn, takes his questions to the station’s lawyers.
Volunteer on-air personality Mario Cassetta, who runs a two-hour ethnic-music program, said his morning show was unaffected by the FCC action. Nonetheless, he said, staff members were surprised that the station received such a strong rebuke while the FCC “would let off with just a warning so-called ‘raunchy radio.’ ”
“We’re being extra-extra-sensitive to what we put on the air,” said Mary Fowler, business manager. “Anything that has sensitive material is totally out.”
For now, she said, that means no broadcasts of speeches with potentially troublesome language by the likes of anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott or black activist Dick Gregory.
Plans for a Watergate special in June are being re-evaluated because the staff doesn’t know whether the station can legally broadcast President Nixon’s undeleted expletives on the White House tapes.
Fowler displayed a tape by Southern California psychologist Carl Farber called “The Sexual Wars: A Weary Man Talks.” KPFK has aired the 1982 talk four times over the years, always after midnight. But now, because the talk includes two curse words, the station has withdrawn it from its list of acceptable material, she said.
The station is also reviewing other materials that were once approved for broadcast but may not be suitable now. Poetry by Allen Ginsberg and prose by William F. Burroughs are now considered “questionable programming,” Zarubick said.
Even classics, such as some of the more bawdy passages of Shakespeare, are being reconsidered.
“I’m going to have to run Mercutio’s speech to the nurse (from ‘Romeo and Juliet’) past the general manager,” Zarubick said. “He might tell us to cut all of Mercutio’s lines. . . . Right now, we’re programming a lot of old radio from the ‘40s.
“We figure that’s pretty safe.”
(One program selected on the morning that Zarubick was interviewed was an old CBS Radio drama of Aldous Huxley’s, “Brave New World.”)
Safety has not traditionally been a criterion at KPFK, founded 28 years ago by the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation as the second public-radio station in the country. The foundation’s KPFA-FM in Berkeley was the first. Pacifica also owns stations in New York and Houston.
In marked contrast to commercial broadcasters and other public broadcasters, Pacifica long ago set aside the traditional arts and cultural mainstays of nonprofit radio and adopted politics--most often left-wing politics--as its programming cornerstone.
The foundation was established in 1949 by the late Lewis Hall, a pacifist and World War II conscientious objector.
KPFK, founded in 1959, quickly made an independent mark for itself in Los Angeles. In 1963, the U.S. Senate conducted hearings to determine whether the station was under communist influence because it carried commentaries by the Southern California leader of the U.S. Communist Party.
In 1970, a member of the Ku Klux Klan was charged with the bombing of Pacifica’s Houston station and convicted of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles and Berkeley stations. In 1972, the foundation’s president went to jail in New York for refusing to hand over taped statements recorded by a Pacifica reporter covering a jail riot. In 1974, the general manager of KPFK also went to jail rather than release a tape made by the Symbionese Liberation Army, best known for the kidnaping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
The Los Angeles station took a legal fight to the U.S. Supreme Court that eventually won for all non-commercial broadcasters the right to editorialize on the air.
And, indeed, most shock-radio deejays owe the basis of their on-air shticks to Pacifica, which pushed the bounds of broadcast acceptability to their limits with a 1978 case over comedian George Carlin’s “seven dirty words.” Until the FCC’s newest decision, the Carlin case had set the standard for program acceptability.
“KPFK was singled out by the FCC,” said news director Rush. “Our intention was far different from shock radio,” which, he said, uses questionable language principally as a way of boosting ratings.
“KPFK’s intention was to clarify, to educate,” Rush said, “not gratuitous use of language.”