Monday, June 30, 2008

Is Radio Still Controversial?

George Carlin's passing last week has forced me to reflect on radio's controversial history, in particular with respect to free speech. For those that don't know, George Carlin recorded a now legendary stand-up piece on what you cannot say on the radio. Seven Dirty Words poked fun at our uptight and puritanical values. This bit was played by WBAI (a Pacifica Foudation member station), and led to a formal complaint to the FCC by John Douglas who was unhappy his son had heard it. What are these seven dirty words? They are:

  1. Shit
  2. Piss
  3. Fuck
  4. Cunt
  5. Cocksucker
  6. Motherfucker
  7. Tits
To this day you cannot say these words on radio air in the USA. To be fair, a big part of the reasoning for this argument (on the government's side) is that there is a scarce supply of frequencies, and sooner or later children would tune into a station and hear this foul language. Keep in mind that the crux of this argument is frequency scarcity. Since satellite and Internet radio don't have this limitation, all bets are off, and these media are not restricted in the same way. In fact, when it comes to television, this argument is all but meaningless since most Americans watch television through satellite and cable now. This point was raised again during Janet Jackson's famous wardrobe malfunction at the Superbowl. And let us not forget about Howard Stern's standing fine for having said the word "masturbation" on air.

But are dirty words and nudity still controversial, even though it's still illegal to say them on the air? Maybe, but it's basically a resolved issue. We know there's an arbitrary rule that prevents it on public airwaves and that's that.

But here's the good news: Foul language is nothing more than a distraction. The really really dangerous ideas and controversial topics are not only still out there, and legal to discuss, but they are just heating up. Some may think I'm referring to Don Imus' "colour" comments. Actually, I'm thinking more along the lines of Rafe Mair who recently prevailed in a 9-0 Supreme Court of Canada decision to uphold his right to use hyperbole when criticizing Kari Sampson and her decision to uphold the banning of three books depicting same-sex parents (the books were banned within a Surrey school-board's purview). This decision is good news for free speech and radio!

For those of you who remember the 80s, Talk Radio was at the time a relatively new format. In Toronto, I used to listen to Pat Burns. Like most Talk Radio personalities at the time, he was pretty right-wing and loved to talk about the death penalty. Back then, Talk Radio was exhilirating. Some of you might even remember Oliver Stone's film Talk Radio (IMO one of Stone's best movies), whose protaginast Barry Champlain (played by Eric Bogosion) was inspired by the late Alan Berg, who was brutally murdered by an angry caller. Berg never used any of Carlin's seven words. His style was provocative for sure, but the topics themselves were even more provactive.

I pray that nothing like this ever happens again (and to my knowledge it has only happened once), but I do hope radio continues to push boundaries and remain controversial. Carlin's seven words are just hand grenades. Current and future hosts are still building up their stockpiles of ICBMs in the battle of ideas. We ain't seen nothing yet.

Stay TUN3D.

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