HOW 'JERKER' HELPED IGNITE OBSCENITY DEBATE

Times Staff Writer

One recent Sunday morning, gay playwright Robert Chesley and the Rev. Larry Poland were both in church, preaching their own personal gospel on the broadcasting of obscenity on the radio.

The Gospel According to Poland, who preaches every week at the Highland Evangelical Free Church in Redlands: "The argument that you can turn it off if you don't like it is a little like saying you can complain after you've been mugged. If it's on the radio, anyone can listen . . . even children."

The Gospel According to Chesley, who delivered the morning address in the First Unitarian Church at 2936 W. 8th St.: "Prudery kills, on the radio or anywhere else. From the teen-age girl who gets pregnant and takes her own life to the young gay man who is still in the closet and doesn't understand the danger of AIDS, prudery kills. Nobody ever died from being offended by what they hear or see."

The 47-year-old Christian fundamentalist and the 44-year-old Christian gay activist have never met or spoken to each other and they have little in common beyond the most basic religious beliefs.

Nevertheless, they are linked by a year-old Sunday-night KPFK-FM broadcast of a play about AIDS, filled with four-letter words. On April 27 of this year, the Federal Communications Commission warned KPFK that it could lose its license for broadcasting excerpts of Chesley's explicit stage play "Jerker." Last month, the Justice Department announced that it would not prosecute KPFK for playing "Jerker."

And it was Poland, an evangelistic minister, Christian entrepreneur and father of six, who called the broadcast to the FCC's attention.

POLAND AS SPOKESMAN

"When I heard the initial 'F' word and I heard them describing the sex act with male and female, anal and oral intercourse and street language, I frankly didn't care about redeeming social value," Poland told The Times. "It isn't fit for broadcast on radio. It isn't even marginal."

He didn't mean for it to happen, Poland says, but he feels he has become the unofficial spokesman for some 40 million evangelical fundamentalists like himself. When he complained to the FCC about homosexual obscenity on KPFK, he wasn't just speaking for himself.

"KPFK did violence to me and my family," he said. "In a 30-minute radio broadcast, they potentially took away my control of being able to protect my children from learning about certain sexual practices at certain times in their lives."

He never tires of telling how he was driving home from the airport last summer and punched the scan button that automatically leaps from frequency to frequency on the FM dial until the listener hears something he likes. Then, with a second punch of the scan button, the desired station is locked in.

Last Aug. 31, Poland locked in on KPFK. He was the only one in the car, so his children did not hear "Jerker" with him. But, he says, the point is that they could have heard, because radio is a non-selective medium. Unlike movies, where IDs can be checked at the theater, or video rental stores, where X-rated cassettes are off-limits to teen-agers, people of any age can tune in to a radio station at any time.

Poland took notes of the four-letter words he heard and, the following day, sent them off to the FCC along with an angry letter.

"Radio is unique because it isn't narrowcasting," Poland said. "The fact is that most people do change the dial frequently. Small children or older people can tune in at any time."

He is quick to point out that he is not "a Bible-thumping nerd." Poland holds a Ph.D. in theology, started a religious/educational radio station when he was president of Miami Christian University in the early 1970s and now operates a nonprofit corporation called Mastermedia International that ministers "to media leaders, primarily in film and television, and seeks to create awareness of the impact of media on individuals, the family, the Church and society," according to its Statement of Purpose.

For the past two years, Mastermedia has published a newsletter, The Mediator, aimed at impressing Christian values on secular television, radio and motion pictures. The Mediator reports that Hollywood's quota of Christian converts are involved in all aspects of the industry, from producers to stunt men to actors.

Poland is also the author of several pamphlets, including "Profile of a Mediaholic" and "TV: The 'Live-In' Alien."

"I would die for my values and my faith," Poland said. "The KPFK broadcast was an attack on those values. When they attack my values in a culture that is fast losing any values at all, they are attacking me."

PLAYWRIGHT CHESLEY

Chesley lives by himself in an apartment on Buena Vista Street in San Francisco. His only regular income is a stipend that his mother gives him. She is the one who raised him in the Unitarian Church, he said. She still lives in Pasadena and he visits her often. He quotes a passage from George Bernard Shaw, praising mothers for subsidizing the arts by way of sending shillings to their playwright sons.

After earning a music degree from Reed College, Chesley taught for 10 years on the East Coast. That's where he first began to believe it was his calling to spread the word about sex, whether it be defined as indecent, obscene or sublime.

"I don't think indecency has anything to do with sex," Chesley said. "I think it has to do with human behavior. Last week I was in Florida and I saw a city dump where blacks live so they can pick over the garbage. I think that's indecent. Some of the things I hear on the Iran- contra hearings over radio and TV are more indecent than ('Jerker')."

"Jerker" just completed seven months of performances in an Off Broadway theater after two successful runs in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. Chesley has been writing plays since 1980, about gays and their problems, especially AIDS.

"I write in longhand each morning until about noon," he said. "Then I go to the Y and work out, maybe have a light lunch, then write some more."

Two years ago, his first produced play, "Night Sweat," got good reviews, but it wasn't until the Los Angeles debut of "Jerker," directed by Michael Kern, that Chesley finally got a larger forum for his dramatic themes.

"Sex isn't indecent. It's either beautiful or funny or both," he said. "It's dishonesty that is indecent, not words about sex. With the plague of AIDS in the land, parents who will try to keep their kids from knowing about sex will have dead kids."

It is AIDS, the deadly disease that can be transmitted through intimate sexual contact, that is the underlying theme of his plays, Chesley said. Because acquired immune deficiency syndrome discourages physical contact, he explained, "Jerker's" characters talk explicitly, emotionally and ultimately with despair about the sex they cannot share.

DESIGN OF 'JERKER'

Rubbish, said Poland.

"I think (Jerker) is a cleverly designed way of trying to give social value to what is clearly offensive," he said.

The language that so offended him combined sexual and excretory functions into countless imaginative, if obscene, exchanges between the two characters, he said. He cited the language used to describe how one character drinks the urine of a second character as a specific example.

"I try to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes, but I can't find anything redeeming about that," he says.

The play "did communicate the pain of the loss of a lover to AIDS," Poland conceded, but he added, "I could live without the information.

"It might show the depth of feelings, the affection or lust that could develop among gays, but there was certainly no overt message beyond that. Nothing corrective. It was an exercise in titillation. To say that their lust for each other is worth broadcasting is right out of never-never land."

He bristles at the suggestion that his personal objection to homosexuality may have prompted what some KPFK officials view as a partisan attack on the First Amendment.

"I would have been just as uncomfortable if it had been the same language used between a married heterosexual couple," Poland said. "Besides, implicit in their right to proclaim their political and social philosophy is my right to proclaim mine. That clouds the whole issue of obscenity. How am I impinging on their First Amendment rights?

"One thing they don't seem to know and that most people don't know is that obscenity is not now and has never been protected by the First Amendment. The common thread of the argument of the Supreme Court ruling in 1978 was that the freedom to swing your arm ends where someone else's nose begins."

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the repetitive use of the so-called "seven dirty words" in a comedy routine by comedian George Carlin was indecent and not suitable for radio broadcast. But the following year, the FCC enacted guidelines that relaxed the rules after 10 p.m., when children are believed not to be listening.

It was those guidelines that KPFK was following when it broadcast "Jerker."

"I ask, do you have teen-age kids? Are they in bed by 10 p.m.? The FCC must have come to the same conclusion that I did: No longer can you use the hour after 10 p.m. as a safe curfew on indecency," Poland said.

When the FCC agreed with Poland, the commission even went so far as to recommend criminal prosecution of KPFK for excerpting Chesley's re-creation of a telephone sex-fantasy dialogue between two gay lovers on KPFK's late Sunday-night gay/lesbian public-service program, "IMRU" (I Am, Are You?). Poland put out his own press release through Mastermedia International Inc., praising the FCC action as a "great victory for Christians."

"This is a great day for believers all across the nation!" he said in the release. "Finally those of us who have been screaming for relief from an increasing flood of 'porno broadcasting' have been heard!"

But when the Justice Department declined to prosecute last month, Poland was outraged.

H. Robert Showers, executive director of the National ObscenityEnforcement Unit of the Justice Department's criminal division, said that KPFK would not be prosecuted because FCC policy had "indicated that broadcasts after 10 p.m. were immune from prosecution. . . ."

"I was both disappointed and angry that the Justice Department did not choose to prosecute," Poland said. "There is no more impure language than what was in that KPFK broadcast. In other words, if it's obscene and it's in the English language, it was in 'Jerker' and it was on KPFK."

With its April 27 crackdown, the FCC changed its policy and made any obscene or indecent broadcast, before or after 10 p.m., subject to disciplinary measures--including referral to the Justice Department's criminal division. As a result, Showers left the door open for future obscenity prosecution if KPFK ever broadcasts Chesley's plays again.

"The issue isn't finished at this point," said Poland. "There are a number of legal options open to others who feel the Department of Justice was wrong, and to me personally."

Such as the possibility of pursuing a civil lawsuit against KPFK's parent organization, Pacifica Broadcasting?

"I'd rather not say at this point."

PACIFICA'S RESPONSE

Like Chesley, Pacifica's executives have never met Poland.

The nonprofit network of five public-radio stations in Berkeley, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C., as well as in Los Angeles, views Poland as an agent of the religious right and his attack on KPFK as part of a larger plan to defang Pacifica's admittedly left-leaning broadcast policies. Poland flatly denies any conspiracy, taking full blame--or credit--for individually bringing down "Jerker."

Though KPFK's General Manager Tarabu Betserai and Pacifica Foundation President David Salniker are pleased that the Justice Department is not going to prosecute, they are still disgruntled that Poland's FCC complaint has cast a pall over their laissez-faire broadcast policy.

"I'm still disturbed that the Justice Department and the FCC have not come to the conclusion that contemporary performance drama like 'Jerker' cannot be broadcast," Salniker said. "Not all of us can afford theater tickets for Broadway and Off Broadway shows. Not all of us can afford cable. We can't all afford books by avant-garde authors."

Pacifica tried testing the new FCC policies in mid-June by broadcasting some of the racier portions of James Joyce's classic novel "Ulysses" over Pacifica's WBAI-FM in New York, but the FCC remained silent about it.

"Pacifica is still not clearly free to broadcast constitutionally protected speech at an hour after 10 p.m. at night," Salniker said. "We are still being censored. Too bad the Justice Department did not reach further and say that the broadcast of a play is constitutionally protected too."

For his part, Poland is furious that Pacifica would test the new rules by broadcasting Joyce. The difference between "Ulysses" and "Jerker" is the difference between serious literature and filth, he said.

But he is not dwelling on Pacifica these days. He has a new crusade under way: television.

"I just wrote the FCC and KTLA (Channel 5) about a series of teen-age films they broadcast from 8 to 10 p.m., in prime viewing time," Poland said. "One of them was called 'The Last American Virgin' and it showed teen-agers seeking to lose their virginity. At one point in the film, there are three guys soliciting a streetwalker and the 'comedy' revolved around one of the guys winding up with crabs.

"To me, launching that into my living room where my children can see it does violence to me and to my values. I don't want my children to think it's funny to have sex with a hardened streetwalker and get crabs. There's herpes and now there's AIDS too. You don't just get crabs."

CHESLEY PERSISTS

Chesley continues to write plays that repeat that very theme.

"I've written another script subsequent to 'Jerker,' " Chesley said. "It's called 'Pig Man' and it's a portrait of San Francisco about two years ago. It's much more controversial than 'Jerker' because it takes on the New Puritanism within the gay community and it takes on the bureaucracy of the AIDS establishment."

He chuckled at the suggestion that it might ever be broadcast on the radio. Ironically, Chesley didn't even know that "Jerker" had been broadcast until four months after it had happened.

"I didn't even know that it was going to be broadcast," he said. "I mean, I should have known, but I didn't. Nobody ever told me.

"But I do think it shouldn't be banned, of course. Issues of sexual information are important and radio is a way of reaching people who are deep in the closet and who would never dream of picking up a gay publication. Gay radio is a way of reaching gays all across the country. The fact that Pacifica and everyone else is going to be frightened into censoring themselves because of this Larry Poland and the FCC is going to cost lives."

It would be a shame if his work is never broadcast again, Chesley said, but he isn't going to change his themes, style or language just to get on the air.

"As a gay playwright, I'm dealing with our lives," Chesley said. "The language is raw and honest about sex. That isn't going to change."

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday August 20, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 8 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction The name of Michael Kearns, director of the Los Angeles debut of "Jerker," the play cited by the FCC as "patently offensive" when broadcast over KPFK-FM, was misspelled in the second article in this series.
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