Time to open up a can of worms.
Firstly, for those who don’t know, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government agency in charge of regulating all communication in the United States. They’re also responsible for monitoring explicit language, content, and images in public broadcasting. Despite having much less power over cable and satellite radio, they’re the reason why daytime TV doesn’t “usually” allow blatant cursing, why Janet Jackson can’t flash her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, and why commercial radio stations only play the edited version of popular songs that would otherwise be not so “radio-friendly”.
According to the FCC, the broadcast of obscene, indecent and profane material can be unlawful. Broadcasters, including radio stations and TV networks, may be violating their public interest obligation by playing music which promotes explicit sex acts, drug use, rape, and other disturbing behaviors.
So why the hell are most popular radio stations and TV networks in the nation allowed to play music that does nothing but promote sex, drugs, violence and crime? Is there an ulterior agenda?
Here’s a section from the FCC’s website regarding the difference between obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts:
Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be broadcast at any time. The Supreme Court has established that, to be obscene, material must meet a three-pronged test:
1. An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.
2. The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law.
3. The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Indecent Broadcast Restrictions:
The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as “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.” Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.
The courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. It may, however, be restricted in order to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.
Consistent with a federal indecency statute and federal court decisions interpreting the statute, the Commission adopted a rule that broadcasts — both on television and radio — that fit within the indecency definition and that are aired between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. are prohibited and subject to indecency enforcement action.
Profane Broadcast Restrictions:
The FCC has defined profanity as “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Amazing! Pretty much every song on the radio played between 6 am and 10 pm falls under the “obscene” category. The most laughable part is the third point of this three-pronged test which states that the material in question must lack “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”. When was the last time you heard your local commercial radio station play a song that possesses literary, artistic, political or scientific value? Was it Rick Ross? What about YG? Maybe some Chief Keef or 2 Chainz? How about Beyonce’s Drunk in Love where she talks about riding “the surfboard” and drinking “watermelon”, two little known sexual innuendos that younger audiences are now quite aware of.
According to the FCC, it’s up to the public to file an official complaint regarding obscene, indecent, or profane material. After an investigation, the FCC may find a broadcaster in violation of the law and issue a warning, a fine or revoke the station’s license.
Correct me if I’m wrong but haven’t most U.S. stations, including the top two urban stations in the nation, Power 106 in Los Angeles and Hot 97 in New York, violated these laws a million times since their existence? Haven’t countless campaigns been waged against the broadcast of explicit material? Late last year, the Clear the Airwaves Project based out of Chicago met with representatives of Power 92.3 and WGCI to address the on-going broadcast of obscene, indecent, and profane music and its impact on young listeners. Unfortunately, nothing came of it. Again, this campaign was one of hundreds of organized efforts to address the matter. Yet nothing ever changes. Are we to believe that these grievances were indeed reviewed by the FCC and ultimately considered invalid? Why are years of complaints and public protests continuously ignored? Does the material being protested not meet the FCC’s three-pronged test?
So what’s really going on? If radio stations and TV networks risk paying fines or losing their broadcasting licenses by playing obscene, indecent, or profane material, why are so many broadcasters disregarding FCC laws? And let’s be honest. While the radio-edited version of a song does indeed censor explicit language, it doesn’t change the nature of a song whose overall obscene message is quite clear according to “contemporary community standards”. After all, isn’t that the very reason why they play it in the first place; because everyone knows what the song is really about no matter how many words are edited?
However, in a disturbing twist of events, the following songs were considered inappropriate and censored by the industry itself without the filing of a public complaint like the FCC claims to require in order to rectify the matter.
* In the 1994 song “Juicy”, Biggie says, “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade”. Of course, he was referring to the first 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center which took place 8 years before the 9/11 disaster. After 9/11, and 4 years after Biggie’s death, the words “World Trade” were edited from all versions out of respect for those who lost their lives in the tragedy.
* In the 1997 song “It’s All About the Benjamins”, Jadakiss raps, “You should do what we do, stack chips like Hebrews”. The word “Hebrews” was deemed insensitive and edited for radio. Later, in 2004, Jadakiss was again the subject of censorship when his song “Why” accused President Bush of being responsible for 9/11. The word “Bush” was eventually edited out of the song.
* In the 2003 song “Rooster” by Outkast, Big Boi says, “Like a candle in the wind, she was my friend, like Princess Di before she died”. This line was taken out even on the explicit version of the album.
* In the 2004 song “All Falls Down”, Kanye West says, “Drug dealers buy Jordans, crack heads buy crack and the white man gets paid off of all that.” The label censored the words “white man” from the song and video because it was deemed offensive.
* Although not rap, but in the 1996 song “They Don’t Care About Us”, Micheal Jackson sings about the pain that racism and discrimination causes and uses various racial epithet to illustrate the point. Along many ethnic slurs listed in the song, one of them is considered anti-semitic and offensive to the Jewish community. Michael apologized and explained that the song was against discrimination but was eventually forced to re-record the song without the offensive terms.
There are too many other similar examples to list here.
What is it about these songs that were deemed more obscene, indecent, or profane than the rest of the music we hear everyday? Why the double standard? After all, the FCC claims to care enough about the impact of inappropriate material to have laws that restrict the broadcast of such material “during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience”? Is the glorification of misogyny, drugs, violence, and explicit sex acts not as obscene, indecent, or profane as lyrics that refer to 9/11, former president Bush, Princess Di, and white people? Is the FCC more invested in protecting the ears of “certain groups of people” over Black listeners to the point where they’ll actually enforce their laws without the supposedly required filing of a public complaint like so many Black organizations have done for years with no success?
Of course, FCC laws have two loopholes they can stand behind:
- 1. In making obscenity, indecency and profanity determinations, context is key. The FCC staff must analyze what was actually aired, the meaning of what was aired and the context in which it was aired.
- An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.
Context can be a challenging factor to establish for someone who doesn’t understand the very real impact the music in question has on impressionable listeners. As well, the extremely vague concept of “contemporary community standards” can change according to the community being affected. In this case, years of community protest, outrage, and campaigning haven’t made a difference. Unfortunately, it seems the community standards the law was referring to doesn’t apply to the communities most affected. Why?
I’ve been told time and time again that the entertainment industry is a business whose only responsibility is to make money, not raise children or solve social problems. While I understand a corporation’s bottom line is profit and that parents are in charge of raising their own kids, if the industry isn’t expected to uphold certain morals and values, why does the FCC have laws to safeguard children from explicit broadcast? Why do CD’s still have parental warning stickers? Why does the film industry rate movies based on content and age appropriateness?
Just who are these rules meant to protect?
Now, I’m not suggesting that an artist’s freedom of speech be banned. Some of my favorite artists who create meaningful albeit controversial content would be affected as a result. As a writer, my own freedom of expression would be impacted. What I am pointing out is that there appears to be a blatant double standard when it comes to how FCC laws are enforced. Such overt disregard for these laws gives me the uneasy feeling that something fishy is going on…and I suspect RACE may have something to do with it. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.
FCC, we need answers. This is your opportunity to clear the air. The ball is in your court. We’re waiting.