You can't say shit on the radio, right?
December 8, 2013 12:29 PM   Subscribe

What rules/laws/regulations actually come into play when deciding which words are allowed on broadcast radio/TV in the US?

My, admittedly vague, understanding on expletives is that George Carlin's bit about words you can't say on TV was later used by the FCC as a basis for actually regulating what's allowed to be broadcast. But on classic rock radio I've noticed a couple commonly played songs with no censorship whatsoever: Pink Floyd's "Money" ( goody good bullshit) and ZZ Top's "Legs" (shit, I got to have her). And then on pop stations I sometimes hear lines being censored (mentioning drug use or whatever) that don't actually contain "swear" words. So obviously it's not as hard and fast as I thought. Is it all arbitrary and self-regulated (like on cable TV) or are there actual rules broadcasters are supposed to follow?
posted by fishmasta to Law & Government (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It is fairly arbitrary. But the crux of it is that if nobody complains, nothing happens.

As for the specifics of classic rock versus pop, pop is more youth oriented and the various busybody organizations will make waves if they hear bad words. The classic rock stations are meant for adults, so the rules aren't enforced as tightly.

The other, other thing is that it is almost all about advertisers. They can do anything they want on cable, and the FCC has legally mandated safe harbor hours on broadcast stations, but almost nobody uses it. Because advertisers aren't going to pay for things they think people will object to.
posted by gjc at 12:38 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think "shit" might be an edge case, and possibly even a case where it's being considered less taboo in American culture.

I remember a few Mad Men episodes where someone says "bullshit", for instance.

Now, it's possible that Mad Men just pays the fine -- and I suppose there might be some radio stations that do the same for some songs?

On the other hand, I've heard the line "Let's roll another joint" censored in the Tom Petty song "You Don't Know How It Feels", so I think at this point what specific words should be allowed vs. forbidden is highly convoluted and has more to do with self-censorship and each individual venue's "broadcast standards" than anything handed down from the FCC.

I can definitely say from experience working in TV that there's a lot more than FCC fines that gets considered in terms of what one can say or do on any given television show. And it really does vary by show, network, larger over-arching media empire, etc. I remember working on a Disney show at one point where teenagers could not be shown doing shots, but they could be shown drinking from those ubiquitous red party cups. Pretty sure the FCC doesn't weigh in on that sort of thing.
posted by Sara C. at 12:44 PM on December 8, 2013

In terms of broadcast music, I'd also imagine that a word in the chorus or title of a song is going to attract a lot more attention than a word buried in the verses somewhere. Which again might affect a somewhat edge case word like "shit".

Media institutions definitely take things like target market into account when they decide what and how to self-censor.
posted by Sara C. at 12:46 PM on December 8, 2013

I feel like it really varies. One of the radio stations here in Los Angeles used to play the classic Third Eye Blind jam "Semi-Charmed Line" uncensored, then they bleeped out the words "crystal meth" for YEARS (despite the fact that the whole song is about drugs) and now that same station is playing it uncensored again.

I myself once worked on a show where we had to bleep the word "asshole," but they left it up to us whether to bleep "ass" or "hole," and then we had to blur people's mouths when they swore -- this was ALL from the network. And I worked on a show for the same network a year or two later and we didn't have to blur mouths at all. I think it's possible that lot of it depends on WHO in Standards and Practices is looking at the show in question.

I believe Mad Men can say "bullshit" without getting fined because the rules are different for cable than network. There was a whole discussion of this very topic on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast a couple of weeks ago that might answer a lot of your questions. (You would at least find it interesting!)
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:53 PM on December 8, 2013

With music on the radio, the label will often provide two versions of a song - the 'album' version, and a 'censored for radio' version where they have blanked out whatever might be offensive to a large portion of people. I suspect you're more likely to see the censored versions being played as a matter of policy by larger national networks on the radio since they might set policy for the least common denominator rather than specific local tastes.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:54 PM on December 8, 2013

To be clear, the FCC does not have jurisdiction over content on cable or satellite. They only have jurisdiction over over-the-air, public broadcasts.

I forgot another subtlety. There are a lot of edge cases where the context of the use of the word makes difference. I'm not aware of the current specifics of the rules, but as of a few years ago, the big difference between OK and obscene was bodily functions. So a program could say things like:
"Oh, crap, I forgot my keys"
"Your opinion is bullshit."
"Fucking awesome!" (I believe Bono recently said this)
"I hope he doesn't get pissed off."

But not:
"I'm going to crap my pants."
"Look at that pile of bull shit."
"I am awesome at fucking."
"I hope he doesn't get pissed on."
posted by gjc at 12:57 PM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I DJ a college radio show. The short version I was told was basically no piss/shit/fuck/sex specific. A lot of that is body specific (just as gjc suggests)
I think there is a safe harbor time where the rules are slightly less strict and thou can get away with bit more.
posted by edgeways at 1:00 PM on December 8, 2013

It also depends on what time you're listening to the radio. Between 10 PM and 6 AM indecent and profane speech are allowed. Obscene speech is never allowed. So you might hear an uncensored song at night, but the censored version during the day. More from the FCC here.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 1:06 PM on December 8, 2013

Even if the FCC has more lax laws when it comes to cable, I've noticed that when a particular episode of The Golden Girls is rerun either on the Lifetime or Hallmark channels, they mute the word "ass" when Blanche remarks on a "I Lost My Ass in Vegas" T-shirt when the gang is having a yard sale. Interestingly enough, the line was aired in its entirety during the original network broadcast. Go figure.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:14 PM on December 8, 2013

well there is FCC censorship and self censorship: Dollars to donuts Lifetime decided to bleep the ass rather than the FCC
posted by edgeways at 1:38 PM on December 8, 2013

Even if the FCC has more lax laws when it comes to cable ...

Dollars to donuts Lifetime decided to bleep the ass rather than the FCC ...

One more time: the FCC does not regulate speech on cable channels. They do not have the authority. Lifetime has the First Amendment right to call an ass an ass.

As far as what's regulated over the broadcast airwaves, it is to some degree in flux. Until very recently, there had been no fines for indecency under the Obama Administration, although that changed recently when a $110,000 settlement was reached over some programming that aired on KRCA in Los Angeles. There is a new FCC chairman, and (according to the linked article) we're still waiting to see what his take on enforcement is.

The broad picture is that the government is not allowed to regulate non-obscene speech except in the case of the broadcast airwaves. The idea is that, because the public broadcast spectrum is a finite resource, it is in the public interest that the government ensures that those who are allowed to use that resource treat it responsibly. That's why the FCC has no jurisdiction over cable TV — you pay for cable programming, the spectrum isn't as scarce, etc. The government can no more regulate the appearance of fucks in a cable TV broadcast than it can keep them out of a Stephen King book. You can read up on the Pacifica decision, which originally upheld the FCC's ability to regulate indecent speech by broadcasters, and the FCC has a page about its indecency and profanity policy on its website.

And keep in mind the political climate continues to change. The religious right runs mail-in campaigns urging the FCC to take action over every little thing, but the Supreme Court suggested last year that the FCC had been acting overzealously in going after "fleeting" profane utterances. The Supreme Court kind of punted, though — some observers had been hoping for a ruling that would consider whether the FCC still had the authority to regulate indecency on broadcast channels, but the Supremes instead said the FCC's standards are too vague, leaving the question of whether they're constitutional for a later court date.

In reality, the industry is pretty aggressive in censoring itself, largely for the reasons gjc cites — channels don't want to do anything that will spook advertisers. The "standards and practices" departments at the networks are the folks who decide what is and isn't fit to air, and the FCC guidelines are only one of the yardsticks they measure by. As far as I can recall, nobody has ever gotten into trouble with the FCC for a drug reference, although those are widely bleeped. And for now, unless the FCC gets feisty again when it comes to profanity, it seems really unlikely that a rock radio station takes a risk by playing "Money" unedited.
posted by Mothlight at 2:19 PM on December 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

I assume there's a lot of self-censorship going on depending on the S&P department at the broadcaster, too. I've heard at least three or four different edited versions of Everlast's What it's Like on various different radio stations in different markets, for instance. The difference is in the last verse. Depending on the station and the year, I've heard it completely uncensored, just "shit" censored the line about pulling out a chrome '45 (pistol) + "shit" fuzzed, and at least one edit where the whole verse is basically fuzzed, I guess because it plainly talks about drug dealing. I've noticed the same thing with other songs, but for some reason the variability in "What it's like" stands out to me.
posted by Alterscape at 3:40 PM on December 8, 2013

Mothlight has a lot of great links, among them this FCC page.

Obscene is never OK. (Obscene = 1. average person applying community standards would find it purient, 2. it must depict sexual conduct, and 3. taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value)

Indecent is OK from 10:00 PM - 6:00 AM (AKA post-watershed) but not otherwise. (Indecent = "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”)

The watershed applies to Profane stuff as well (Profane = “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”)

So saying "fuck this shit" meaning "I'm pissed off about what's happening" is probably not obscene or indecent (though may be profane). But if you meant "Have sex with that pile of excrement" you'd be on thin ice.

As others have said, most of the censorship that goes on isn't really compelled by the Government but by fear of advertisers/sponsors. You can talk about drugs (or violence or anything but sex) all day from the FCC's standpoint, but references to meth or joints or sometimes guns are regularly bleeped for this reason.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:03 PM on December 8, 2013

Something that's compounding this is that the process is based on complaints, and ostensibly judged by the community standards of the audience. So, there isn't a consistent standard and things tend to be adjudicated case-by-case, which makes broadcasters extra jumpy about that unpredictability; they often censor more than they could get away with.
posted by klangklangston at 1:33 PM on December 9, 2013

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