Bill Virgin's Radio Beat March 20, 2008

Includes archive of Bill Virgin's columns fromJ une 2006 - March 2009

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat March 20, 2008

Postby radiofan » Wed Mar 19, 2008 10:20 pm

On Radio: What words can you say on radio, TV?
Broadcasters hope Supreme Court will clarify rules


Comedians have gotten a lot of mileage over the years from language censorship on the radio.

Decades before anyone thought of the concept of "politically correct," Stan Freberg lampooned the censors with a sketch in which a singer is compelled to change the objectionable parts of "Ol' Man River." The new version: "Elderly Man River."

More recently, Monty Python's Eric Idle sang "I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio," in which various sound effects obscure words that might raise censors' hackles. And, of course, there is the now-classic George Carlin routine of the seven words that cannot be said on television (which was before the rise of cable TV programming, on which some of those words could not only be said but constituted much of the dialogue).

Broadcasters haven't been laughing much in recent years, though, as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission threaten to come down hard, in the form of hefty fines, on broadcasters who allow one of the seven deadly words or other content deemed improper over the airwaves.

Broadcasters have complained that they're dealing with shifting -- and sometimes conflicting -- standards and rules, which makes it difficult to answer such questions as: Just what can you say on the radio? And in what context?

Is a fleeting expletive unleashed by a celebrity at a live event the same as a remark made by a program host? What about remarks made by callers?

The industry is hoping to get some clarity on the issue, now that the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case involving one of the banned words uttered during TV broadcasts of awards shows. The FCC ruled that those events constituted a violation of its policies on profanity. An appeals court overruled the FCC, citing First Amendment considerations.

Both the industry and several FCC commissioners said they were pleased that the court is taking up the case. The National Association of Broadcasters said a ruling will "provide badly needed clarity."

While lawyers, judges and industry groups wrangle over the issue, it's up to broadcasters at the operating level to figure out how to stay out of trouble with whatever the standards are.

Call-in shows represent a particular challenge, hence the use of the seven-second delay on live local shows at KVI-AM/ 570, says Dennis Kelly, AM group program director for Fisher Radio Seattle. The station doesn't run a delay on syndicated programs because they're already operating with one, he added. KOMO-AM/ 1000 doesn't use a delay except for its Mariners call-in show.

All of Clear Channel's local outlets, including music stations, operate on a seven- to 10- second delay, depending on the station, says Michele Grosenick, regional vice president and market manager. "We never don't have the delay on," she says. "It's just being prudent about it."

In years past, there might have been a list of forbidden words, says Grosenick, but in recent years, the issue of what constitutes indecent material has become broad and murky.

Clear Channel has in place a training program called the Responsible Broadcasting Initiative that on-air personnel and producers, among others, are required to take and pass annually.

That effort was prompted in part by a $1.75 million settlement with the FCC in 2004 to resolve various complaints.

Fisher doesn't have a posted list of don't-use words for its own on-air staff, says Jim Clayton, vice president and general manager of Fisher's Seattle TV and radio stations. Instead it relies on their judgment to know what's acceptable for broadcast. "If our employees aren't smart enough to know that, they shouldn't be working here, anyway," he says.

In other radio notes:

Chris Sheridan, who had been the evening weekday host at KMTT-FM/103.7, has moved to KEXP-FM/90.3 as a producer. Laura Palmer will be the evening host on The Mountain.

The Metropolitan Opera performs Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at 9:30 a.m. Saturday on KING-FM/98.1.

Don Riggs' guests on "Introspect Northwest" at 6 a.m. Sunday on KMPS-FM/94.1 and 9 a.m. Sunday on KTK-AM/ 1090 include Samantha Power, the former Barack Obama adviser.

Jim Wilke's "Jazz Northwest" at 1 p.m. Sunday on KPLU-FM/88.5 features a recent performance by the Joe Doria Trio.

Tristan Prettyman performs live on "Mountain Music Lounge" at 3:15 p.m. Tuesday on KMTT-FM.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat, Thursdays in the Seattle P-I
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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