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1970 revisited: The FCC vs. rock 'n' roll

Inside the First Amendment

By Kenneth A. Paulson
Senior vice president, the Freedom Forum
Executive director, First Amendment Center

07.15.01

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News that the Federal Communications Commission has fined a Colorado radio station $7,000 for playing a "clean" version of an Eminem song left me awash in nostalgia.

Yes, I know I should have been outraged or at least filled with consternation, but I couldn't help but flash back to 1973 and my job as program director at KCOU, a student-owned radio station at the University of Missouri.

Part of my job was to listen to new records and decide whether they were appropriate for airplay. KCOU was a new licensee, and we were uneasy about possible FCC fines for playing songs with profanity or drug references.

This was no small concern. Just three years earlier, Vice President Spiro Agnew had lashed out at the recording industry for promoting the "drug culture."

"I may be accused of advocating 'song censorship' for pointing this out, but have you really heard the words of some of these songs?" he said.

Agnew singled out "With a Little Help From My Friends," the now-classic Beatles song, as a coded message: "It's a catchy tune, but until it was pointed out to me, I never realized that the 'friends' were assorted drugs with such nicknames as 'Mary Jane,' 'Speed' and 'Benny,' " he said.

For those who think they may have misheard the lyrics all these years, "Friends" contains no specific references to marijuana or illicit pills. Yet as misinformed as Agnew sounds today, it was no laughing matter in 1970. The FCC followed Agnew's speech with a memo to radio stations cautioning them that their licenses could be endangered if they played songs glorifying drug use. "Puff, The Magic Dragon" never sounded quite the same again.

As it turned out, our self-censoring at KCOU didn't amount to much. Sure, we labeled some cuts on the George Carlin albums "not for airplay," but otherwise we stocked the playlist with popular records and hoped for the best. Besides, we figured the FCC would have no idea what a 19-year-old was playing at 3 a.m.

Times have changed. Today there are watchdog groups out there, both listening and taping radio content, relaying questionable songs and conversation to the FCC for possible action.

While FCC fines for offensive content are actually fairly rare, the recent fine for playing the edited version of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" — along with new written guidelines on "indecent" content — suggest a dramatic shift in FCC policy. It may be 1970 all over again.

FCC rules outlaw "indecent programming" between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m, hours during which children may have access to the radio.

With those rules in mind, radio stations and record companies have embraced self-censorship. Record companies issue edited versions of potentially offensive songs, bleeping out profanity and overt sexual and drug references.

The record companies get their songs played; radio stations play the hits; and the FCC imposes fines against radio stations that played the unedited versions of adult-oriented songs.

For better or worse, that approach has fundamentally worked. Until now.

The FCC, acting on a year-old complaint, said it levied the fine because KKMG-FM in Colorado Springs played lyrics from Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady" that contained "sexual references in conjunction with sexual expletives that appear intended to pander and shock."

Sample lyrics: "And that's the message we deliver to little kids/And expect them not to know what a woman's bleep is/Of course, they're gonna know what intercourse is by the time they hit fourth grade/They got the Discovery Channel, don't they?"

The FCC's fine is being appealed, but there's little question that the rules of radio have just changed. Those radio stations that rely blindly on record companies' edits of songs will have to listen more carefully to what they put on the air. And that may be a good thing.

What is not a good thing, however, is for the FCC to single out one of literally thousands of radio stations, levy a fine and then pretend that they're not changing the standards. And it's never in the public interest to put government in charge of auditing ideas.

Broadcast stations have less First Amendment protection than newspapers because they're licensed by the government. The theory is that because the airwaves are limited, radio stations have a duty to operate in the public interest.

That same duty extends to the FCC itself. The non-profane, edited version of "The Real Slim Shady" is far from the most salacious song on daytime radio. Why would the agency decide to target Eminem, a Grammy Award-winning artist, and his most popular song?

Two possible explanations come to mind.

It's possible that the FCC, demonstrating all the hipness of Spiro Agnew in 1970, simply didn't have a clue they were levying a fine for one of the most widely played and, yes, critically acclaimed hits of the year. This wasn't a single station playing an objectionable song; this was the entertainment industry virtually adopting it as an anthem.

The alternative is that the FCC knew exactly what it was doing, having decided that a little chilling effect goes a long way.

It's important to remember that the marketplace of ideas is literally also a marketplace. If we're offended by what we hear, we can take prompt and effective action by turning the dial. If a station loses listeners, it changes its format. The real power to affect airplay rests with the public — and that's where it should stay.

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is:
Ken Paulson
First Amendment Center
1207 18th Ave. S
Nashville, TN 37212

Related

FCC drops fine over Eminem song
Agency says it lifted $7,000 penalty against Colorado radio station after deciding edited version of 'Real Slim Shady' didn't violate indecency guidelines.  01.09.02

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