For a while there it looked as if the Federal Communications Commission, under Chairman Mark Fowler, was going to be the only federal agency in the Reagan administration to engage in some genuine deregulation. Fowler had questioned and slightly liberalized the federal licensing procedures for broadcast media, criticized the misnamed Fairness Doctrine, and generally preached the gospel that the success or failure of a TV or radio station ought to be determined by viewers or listeners out there in the marketplace rather than by bureaucrats in the corridors of Washington, D.C. Good for two cheers, at least.
But then the pesky marketplace started showing some unfortunate proclivities. "Shock radio, " featuring morning disk jockeys with few inhibitions about marginally dirty words and downright suggestive innuendos about—you know—do I have to come right out and say it?—all right, S-E-X—started to infest the airwaves. So on April 16 (yup, the day after Tax Doomsday, but well before Tax Freedom Day when we're finished paying our more-than-a-tithe) the FCC announced that broadcasters will have to wash out their dirty mouths with government-approved (presumably OSHA-inspected) soap.
Specifically, the FCC announced that its standard of what constitutes obscenity will be broader and vaguer than it has been in the recent past. Since George Carlin's hysterically funny monologue about the "seven words you can't say on television" was broadcast in 1975 and led to a 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding a decency standard for the airwaves, the FCC has pretty much limited itself to a narrow definition of obscenity. Stations that avoided George's seven words could feel reasonably sure that the FCC wouldn't come after them.
Now the FCC has reached back into that Supreme Court decision and resurrected broader language in order to proscribe "language or material that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs." There's an irony here that few have noted.
The FCC, by warning but not prosecuting New York and Philadelphia shock-jock Howard Stern by name, made it clear what sort of broadcasting it intended to control. Stern's ratings (and income) have soared since he started talking dirty and insulting people. In Dallas, James "Moby" Carney went from 15th place to first after switching to a format in which "I pick on gays. I pick on fat white guys, rednecks, and foreigners."
In Houston, KLOL's shock format moved the station from third to first in the marketplace, and ad rates increased from $200 to $275 per minute. Carolyn Fox, on WHJY-FM in Providence, Rhode Island, doubled the 18-to-24-year-old male audience share to a whopping 40.1 percent in two years.
That should tell you something about what is or isn't "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium" in cities that have shock jocks. The people seem to have spoken (at least for the moment—radio is notoriously faddish), and not many of them have the sort of refined sensibilities and tastes our bluenoses might prefer.
If the shock jocks hadn't become so popular—indicating that community standards are in reality something other than what Jerry Falwell might have hoped—would the FCC have moved to impose a "community standard" so markedly different from that expressed by real people through the marketplace?
An interesting question. The FCC also took action against KPFK-FM, a listener sponsored Pacifica Foundation station in Los Angeles with a miniscule audience able to tolerate its hard-core nostalgic leftism. KPFK had broadcast a play about homosexuality whose allegedly graphic descriptions "may have crossed the line" to obscenity. Much of KPFK's audience would no doubt love to believe that the FCC action represents Reaganite political censorship.
Whether it's puritanism or political repression, however, the real question is why the electronic media and their audience continue to tolerate government restraint in a country where "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press"? The historical answer is that Congress decided in the 1920s that radio was not simply the press with new technology but something new under the sun that required a declaration that "the people" owned the airwaves and the government would have to allocate them. Perhaps the real answer is inertia: We've always done it that way—why rock the boat?
Will people rise up and support the abolition of the FCC to protect their right to listen to raunch 'n' roll? Not likely, but stay tuned.
Alan W. Bock is senior columnist for the Orange County, California, Register.