November 29, 2015

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First Mediaworks

4/30/01 Is FCC Entering Its Biggest Battle Yet?
I could not believe my ears. Visiting San Diego on a family vacation, I heard a deejay use the word “damn” on the air. How could he get away with it, I wondered? Shouldn’t this man be fined or arrested by the FCC? The year was 1969, my first year in Radio. At that time, the FCC held a heavy hand over the Radio industry. Broadcasters knew their place and had a sense of what was right and wrong on the airwaves. They followed the TV Code; a self-governing code the television industry had developed to appease the FCC. Uttering the seven dirty words could mean loss of the station’s FCC license.

Shock value has always been an effective programming tool, however, and programmers continually tried to top one another with yet another of the seven words you could not utter. Then came Howard Stern, who used words heard on late-night TV but not on Radio. (Was it a double standard, or did regulators realize the power of the Radio medium?) Stern imitators, like Mancow, out-trashed Stern. Shock creates talk, and talk creates ratings. The FCC sat by, gutless and unwilling to test acceptable behavior on the airwaves.

Today, the battle between good taste and free speech is escalating. Weeks ago, new FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced that the Commission would define and enforce the rules of acceptable behavior on the airwaves in daylight hours. This is the boldest FCC move in 20 years. Past administrations lacked the guts to touch this gray area.

Will this test the FCC’s legal right to set and enforce standards? Could the issue polarize America? I predict that, not only could this become a battle between the ACLU and the FCC, the FCC will feel the weight of many large network broadcasters and their lobbies against them. Arguments about loss of free speech will reach fever pitch.

It’s a sad day — not because the FCC has taken this stance — but because things have fallen so far out of control that it must take this position. Self-government by broadcasters is always better than having to test the FCC’s power to set and enforce standards. But broadcasters have only pretended to govern themselves. Once ratings enter the picture and income is affected, the lowest common denominator usually wins, and standards become empty promises.

Many broadcasters are crossing the line of acceptable behavior during daylight hours. Children should be able to listen to Radio without their parents worrying about the children’s exposure to unmonitored words. Parents should be able to trust Radio.

I hate to see the FCC forced into this battle — I fear that, if tested, they may lose their power — but I applaud Michael Powell for having the guts to fight the battle to stop this runaway train. It’s refreshing to see someone willing to put his career on the line and stand behind his principles.

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