After FCC Indecency Cases, Stations Are Playing It Safe


Sure, they're concerned about a pair of recent cases in which the Federal Communications Commission fined radio stations for playing allegedly indecent songs. But radio executives in Los Angeles believe they're taking enough precautions to avoid trouble.

Yet that's what the others thought.

Earlier this week, a station in Colorado Springs, Colo., appealed its $7,000 fine for playing "The Real Slim Shady," a former Top 10 song by controversial rapper Eminem. It wasn't the raw album cut, with its graphic sexual references, but a version edited for radio airplay. Nevertheless, a listener complained and the FCC found that the song was still too explicit.

In the other case, a public radio station in Portland, Ore., played a feminist rapper's song in which she used the suggestive and sexist language of other hip-hop tunes to criticize their misogyny. But the FCC said the message didn't matter, that the words should not have been played before the agency's curfew of 10 p.m.--when children might be listening--and fined the station $7,000 in May.

"There are some people who want to push the envelope a little bit," said Nic Harcourt, music director of KCRW-FM (89.7) in Santa Monica. "If the wrong person is listening, they're going to get into trouble. Get ready to be called on it.

"We don't really want to play songs that offend people," he added. "That's not what we're about, and I don't think that's what most stations are about."

Robert Scorpio, program director of the L.A.-based KKBT-FM (100.3), said, "You can't really stop the radio stations from being aggressive on music. But if you follow the rules of the FCC and do your own screening, you shouldn't run into trouble."

"If it's something that really doesn't sound right, we don't have a problem with taking it off," Scorpio said. "We're not trying to put bad messages out there. For the most part, it turns people away."

However, the fine for the "Slim Shady" radio version surprised him. "This is a song that was played thousands and thousands of times. I didn't think there was a problem with it."

Recording Industry Assn. of America President and CEO Hilary Rosen said in the past that the FCC seemed to target racy comments made by disc jockeys or others on the air more often than song lyrics. But the two latest cases seem more a threat to artistic expression and "almost appear to be value judgments on the music."

"We're not asking artists to change their lyrics. We're trying to alert artists to the real threat to their freedom of speech," Rosen said. Of the edited Eminem song played in Colorado Springs, Rosen said, "It's hard to figure out what's so terrible there."

Programmers at KBOO-FM (90.7) in Oregon thought the same thing when they played "Your Revolution," a feminist rap song by artist Sarah Jones. With lyrics that include "The real revolution ain't about bootie size, the Versaces you buys or the Lexus you drives," they insist the tune is an empowering song for women in hip-hop.

"It's not a party song, it's not pandering, it's not gratuitous," said Chris Merrick, station manager at the community-sponsored KBOO. "The words themselves, we thought they were safe. It condemns sexuality and condemns sexism, and that's indecent? Where's the uniform enforcement of indecency?" he asked.

Merrick said standards have stiffened since George W. Bush became president and named a new FCC chairman, Michael K. Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. But an official with the FCC's enforcement division said that nothing has changed and that the agency couldn't initiate a crackdown even if it wanted to. He said the FCC doesn't have the staff or resources to monitor stations for indecency and acts only on listener complaints.

"There's no new effort, there's no targeted group, there's nothing new compared to what we have always done," said the FCC official, who asked not to be named. "We react to complaints and complaints only."

The FCC has cited seven radio stations thus far in 2001, with three months left in the fiscal year. That is up from five "Notices of Apparent Liability" issued for broadcast indecency in each of the previous three years. Nine stations were cited in fiscal 1997.

The only local station fined by the FCC in recent years was KROQ-FM (106.7), dunned $2,000 for playing a song on March 28, 1997, with explicit lyrics about oral sex. The station lost its appeal last March. Repeated calls to the station seeking comment were not returned.

In her four years with the agency, FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani said, she hasn't seen an ebb and flow in enforcement; she simply doesn't think there's been enough, and she believes the agency should be more responsive and ease the requirements for citizen complaints. Right now, to pursue a charge of indecency, FCC regulations require "a full or partial tape or transcript, or significant excerpts of the program; the date and time of the broadcast; and the call sign of the station involved."

"In far too many instances, we don't give the citizen a full hearing," said Tristani, a member of the five-person commission that gives the agency its name and acts as its final arbiter.

The FCC guidelines--spelled out, with examples, on the agency's Web site--prohibit obscene content and restrict what it defines as indecent, containing "sexual or excretory references," to the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"This is primarily there to safeguard children who are impressionable and who very often are a captive audience," said Tristani, who has an 8-year-old son.

Merrick, manager of the Portland station, said he thought the song that got the station in trouble wasn't as much about sex as about sexism and prejudice. "A year ago, I'd say it doesn't concern me," he said. "Today I'd say I don't know; it chills everybody. Now I have to presume that context is not a defense."

He said challenging the fine could cost the station up to $75,000 in court costs and legal fees, and joked, "We're planning a bake sale." If the station doesn't prevail in its fight against the fine, Merrick said, "we'll lose because we're broke, not because we're guilty."

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