Obscenely Stupid

I'm being very careful about what I say on the radio these days, and I'm not the only one. The Federal Communications Commission is in the midst of a massive crackdown on obscenity and indecent content on the air, a crackdown likely only to intensify with the appointment last month of Kevin J. Martin as the new chairman of the FCC, replacing Michael Powell.

As a Republican FCC commissioner over the past four years, Martin earned a reputation as an occasional maverick, but on the issue of regulating broadcast content he is very much in league with social conservatives who've been all worked up about the increasingly potty-mouthed commercial media in recent years. With pressure from Congress, Martin was a leading force behind enormous fines that have been levied in the past year against some of the biggest broadcast companies in America. Martin's appointment as FCC chairman is red meat to those conservatives.

Now, I should say right here that I'm no fan of some of the truly nauseating material that passes for humor on some of Seattle's sexually over-amped morning shows. Listening to some middle-aged morning jock egg on a 14-year-old girl who called in to describe her fellatio experiences is not only unentertaining, it's sickening. But there are more than a few problems with setting up the FCC as some sort of cultural nanny, deciding what is and isn't fit for society's sensitive ears to hear.

The first and most obvious problem is that the FCC can regulate radio and television broadcasts only because those broadcasts require use of the airwaves, a publicly owned resource that broadcast companies essentially get to use for free. Once upon a time, this meant that stations had to demonstrate a certain level of public service in their programming to earn their license. All that is gone, victim to Reagan-era deregulation, and so it's more than a little absurd that a station can be recklessly irresponsible in its broadcasts—as in, for example, certain brands of hate-mongering talk radio—and that's just fine. The FCC could not care less. But slip up and say one of those words you're never supposed to say and the FCC will be on you like a ton of bricks.

The FCC, particularly the new regime under Martin, has got it exactly backward. Cable TV and print publications trade in naughty words and salacious content all the time, and the republic has not ground to a halt; if audience members don't like what they're seeing or hearing, they simply tune out. Nobody's really all that harmed if some rap song drops an F-bomb, or Janet Jackson exposes a nipple for three milliseconds. One could even argue—as some lawyers have, unsuccessfully—that broadcast-content bans are an abrogation of free speech.

Obscenity might raise blood pressure in some, but in the end it harms no one. Society is harmed when corporate ownership acts as a gatekeeper, shutting out certain types of music, culture, or political ideas because they don't appeal to advertisers or to the "right" type of audience. The truly interesting, creative stuff these days is on the Web, or on cable TV, where programmers aren't averse to taking risks and don't have bluenose federal regulators to answer to. Sadly, in today's media climate, treating the audience as though it has some intelligence, carrying programming that doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator, is considered to be taking a risk.

Martin's crackdown, and the whole notion of regulating broadcast content so that it doesn't offend anyone, tends to result in programming that's so stupid it's offensive. We don't need to be protected from words most 10-year-olds know quite well. We don't need to be protected from anything. But we do need to restore the notion that broadcasters have a responsibility to the public. And that responsibility should be measured by what a station does to contribute to the greater good—in music, in talk, in TV shows.

The unworthiness of a media outlet shouldn't hinge simply on whether a naughty word was uttered when the FCC was listening.


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