Thu. Feb 26, 2004
Stern Words – Twenty years ago, I did the morning radio show at a rock station in Macon, Georgia. Since I was also the station’s Program Director, I was able to ”take liberties” with what I played during my show, and I would occasionally lead into a song by playing a comedy bit from National Lampoon or Monty Python.
One Saturday night, I hear the part time DJ on the air play a comedy bit from one of those albums. He wasn’t supposed to, but it was a mistake of enthusiasm, so I just made a mental note to talk to him about it.
Then I heard the ”F” word, within the prerecorded comedy bit. I sighed, and put on my coat. I knew that if just one Middle Georgia preacher had heard that and filed a complaint, the station could be in trouble. And the first thing that would be asked is, ”what action did you take to correct the situation.” I went immediately to the station, fired the guy, and took over the air shift. He was a kid who truly meant no harm, but he had not previewed the bit he played. He was quite upset that it had gone over the air … and he knew what the result would be. He expected me.
Because he knew that if I didn’t fire him, my boss would be wondering if he should fire me. Because if the owner ended up having to fight an FCC fine, the owner was going to fire my boss. The ol’ trickle down.
There was never any doubt that it was the only course of action, not expressed by myself, my boss, or even the part time DJ. It was the only responsible action that could be taken by a radio station with a government license to ”operate in the public interest.” And no one thought of saying, even as a joke, ”this is censorship!”
My how times have changed.
Yesterday, Clear Channel, a division of Conglomerates-’R-Us that owns over 1200 radio stations, dumped Howard Stern’s syndicated show from six of their stations. Why? Howard was having a delicate artistic discussion with the director of the ”Paris Hilton Sex Tape”: ”Stern asked Salomon if he engaged in anal sex and referred to the size of his penis. Using a racist term, a caller to the show asked Solomon if he had ever had sex with any famous black women.”
Clear Channel didn’t really ”fire” him, as many are saying, as they don’t really ”employ” him. His show is syndicated on dozens of stations, and the six that Clear Channel owns have ”suspended” his show.
But you’d think Clear Channel had wrapped Stern’s head in duct tape and locked him in the closet with his pink slip, never to be heard from again, judging by Jeff Jarvis: ”Clear Channel has cut off Howard Stern. When Janet Jackson’s outfit opened, it opened a door not on her breast but on censorship.”
I know, that may seem a bit hard to follow. Jeff seems to believe that the Super Bowl Halftime Fiasco triggered a right wing censorship frenzy, field marshalled by Michael Powell of the FCC, and now trickling down on the head of Poor Oppressed Howard. It’s government censorship afoot here, and you’re next!
First of all, when Jeff says ”Janet Jackson’s outfit opened,” gosh, that sounds so … innocent, doesn’t it? Reading that, one could almost imagine that Janet simply twirled while dancing, and a breeze accidently blew open her blouse, rather than the tightly choreographed and deliberate unmasking of a bejeweled breast, in the name of generating publicity.
Back when people were complaining about the publishing of pictures of the ”WTC jumpers,” it was pointed out that you might want to direct your anger away from the photographers and publishers, and towards those who forced people to make that horrible death-by-fire or death-by-impact choice. If you want to blame an after-effect on a triggering event, finger those that caused the event, not those that reacted to it.
If you want to blame someone for what your perceive as an environment of censorship as a result of the Super Bowl, I think you’ve got to go to the source: Janet and Justin. But it appears Jeff is mad at our collective outrage, not the act of two people.
And in his view, that collective outrage has now translated to government censorship: ”Government censorship will grow until, at long last, libertarians and Republicans and Democrats wake up and realize that this is not the role they want for government, this is not the America they envision. But in the meantime, they will have destroyed a medium or two.”
Destroy radio? Too late, Sparky. Way too late. I first went on the air in 1974 when I was 16 years old. I’ve got a wee bit of historical perspective on this business. And in terms of ”on air content,” today’s environment is about ten times more permissive than 30 years ago. The FCC was a serious watchdog back then, not the comparative toothless wonder it has become today due to deregulation. In that regard, broadcast radio has exceeded the ”standards” of broadcast TV during that same time.
What destroyed radio was the deregulation that moved the industry from individual owners to conglomerates. From local orientation and programming to national syndication and satellite feeds. From the guy who owned the radio station I worked at in Macon, and six other stations, to the massive conglomerate that owns it now, along with 1,999 others.
”The more I think about this, the more enraged I get. One tit flopped out and the government—the Bush administration—can’t wait to play to its far-right fringe and censor speech and intimidate speech and chill speech. How dare they?”
Live by the tit, die by the tit. Howard’s is a show focused on breasts, strippers, lesbians, and whatever else gives Howard a juvenile rise. Say the word ”but” and a flatulence sound effect will be applied. It is as low brow as brows get. But in Howard’s defense, it’s not like he just ”went gross” on Clear Channel in the past couple of weeks. This has been his shtick for decades; they knew what they were getting when they signed on. They’ve just now come to realize that it may no longer be profitable.
You see, Howard’s got a history. And … gasp ... it predates the
right wing conspiracy Bush administration. From the Washington Post: ”In the 1990s, Stern’s broadcasts resulted in a settlement between the FCC and Infinity for more than $1 million. Infinity was also fined more recently for indecent broadcasts, including one in which New York-based shock jocks Opie & Anthony broadcast a couple who claimed to be having sex in a church.”
And, by the way, Howard didn’t stand up to defend Opie and Anthony as victims of censorship and government oppression. He merely gloated gleefully about the demise of another competitor. But these conglomerates have decided, ”you know, a $755,000 dollar fine here and a million dollar settlement there, and before you know it, you’re talkin’ real money!”
So they let it be known: ”’Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it,’ said John Hogan, president and CEO of Clear Channel Radio in the press release issued Wednesday.”
”Viacom’s Karmazin issued an order last week, saying, ’Any station airing programming that has any sexual or excretory content needs to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that the programming in not even arguably indecent.’ Karmazin said anyone refusing to comply with the directive would be ’fired for cause.’”
Now, if your boss passed down such an edict, would it be clear to you?
It’s a business decision. And trust me, thirty years ago, there would have been no choice, no hesitation, and no questions. Only in today’s far more permissive environment do you hear calls of ”censorship”: ”I don’t give a damn whether you like or despise Howard Stern; that’s beside the point. If you’re American, you cherish free speech and you should be appalled at what is happening to it. This is not coming from media consolidation. This is coming from government intimidation.”
Wow. I had no idea that Howard Stern has been completely and forcibly silenced by the government. Because that is what ”censorship of free speech” is. No one has the ”right” to a syndicated radio show. It’s a ”job.” If you are fired from your job because of controversial statements, you are not silenced! You may continue to spout the very same statements in multiple other forums. By writing letters to the editor, or your representatives. By protesting outside the offending organization. By writing in a weblog that can be accessed by anyone with a computer. Dozens of ways.
Your boss just isn’t going to pay you for it anymore. That’s not censorship. That just puts Howard on the same level as the rest of us (that is, other than the forty or more radio stations that still carry his show).
”F Michael Powell. F the FCC. F Clear Channel.”
This really gets me. Jeff shortens the word he really wants to use to ”F”. As is his right on his site. He also has been known to delete comments from others that spell out the ”F” word. As is his right on his site. But those acts imply that there are certain lines you just don’t cross, when you are speaking to the public. Not out of worry about fines or ”censorship,” but out of decency. And on his site, they are lines that are enforceable, free speech or not.
Yet in an update, Jeff adds: ”I abhor this culture of offense. We are becoming ruled by what offends a few of us. If it’s offends somebody, then it must be wrong and it must be shut up. Well, I don’t need anyone—government or corporate nanny—to protect me from that which might offend me.”
Then why not just spell out the ”F” word when you write, Jeff? Why do you delete the comments of others that use the word? Because your son might read the site, and it’s not appropriate content for him? Well, a lot of people feel the same way about their morning radio.
There are lines in society, undrawn and often unregulated. When someone crosses one of those lines, and is slapped down because of it, that’s not censorship. That’s freedom of speech! Your right to express yourself any damn way you please, and any damn where you want, does not preclude my right to criticize, condemn, and protest your thoughts.
And sometimes, it is codified. Get a job in corporate America. Try to go about your work while not curbing your propensity for sexual innuendo, cursing like a sailor, and making fart sounds when other people say ”but.” You’ll find your ”butt” on the street in no time.
And it won’t be because you’ve been ”censored.”
Those who get into radio do so knowing they are entering a business that is government regulated. During the time I was in the business, it was far tighter than today. But it was true then, and it’s true today: if you want to spend all your time pushing the edge of the envelope, sometimes you get dumped on the floor.
Radio has always been a cruel business, one that changes with the whims of the moment. Howard has arguably been more successful at negotiating it than most anyone. But it’s not like this is the first time he’s been fired for the things that come out of his mouth. Nor is it likely to be the last. So I find it very hard to shed a tear for poor oppressed Howard. This is the way he’s job-hopped to salary increases much of his career.
I also find it hard to get worked up about anything resembling censorship, either in this specific situation, or the more generalized environment Jeff thinks he sees in the aftermath of the Super Bowl. Various elements of our society are always pushing at the edges, trying to break new ground, or see what they can get away with. Sometimes it works. And sometimes society pushes back.
Even looking at the Big Picture of this year so far, it would appear that society’s ”loss” is that we can no longer expect to see breasts exposed at random moments on broadcast TV, and we can’t listen to Howard on six stations where he failed to meet the standards of his employer.
I can live with that. And that simply means I must be a part of the conspiracy.
Jeff closes with, ”Defend Howard Stern. Or lose your own rights to say what you want where and when you want to say it.”
Jeff, I want to spell out the ”F” word (”what I want to say”) in the comments on your web site (”when I want to say it”). In fact, I want to make a comment that is nothing but that word repeated over and over, as a political protest in favor of free speech. Or performance art, whichever I can get away with calling it.
Will you censor me?
If so, is it because you think your readers need a ”nanny”? Or is it to ensure that likely visitors (like your son, or church members) are not offended by what they find? And why would you think corporations wouldn’t feel that same obligation, especially as it impacts their bottom line?
What we’re seeing here, in this individual instance and in the greater ”post Super Bowl” world, isn’t censorship. It is pure capitalism, an exemplification of Rule One: ”The Marketplace Will Dictate.” And the dividends on breast exposure and shock jocks are way down.