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The Nipple Effect

L.A. Theater Works’ recorded-play series, The Play’s the Thing, is the latest casualty in a national cabal against dirty words.

On February 13, KPCC 89.3 FM pulled the series because of the words “fuck” and “shit” spoken by characters in a February 7 rebroadcast of Oliver Goldstick’s off-Broadway hit, Dinah Was (about singer Dinah Washington). In October, president of Southern California Public Radio Bill Davis warned L.A. Theater Works Producing Director Susan Loewenberg that the station would drop the broadcasts “immediately and permanently if LATW persists in delivering programs to KPCC with obscene or indecent language.” Loewenberg says she repeatedly sought clarification of policy from the station over whether potentially offensive plays should run with a listener advisory or be bleeped. She says she never heard back and that Dinah Was ran twice in two years with the listener advisory.

Whether coincidentally or not, this all seems to have started after the Super Bowl halftime televised appearance of Janet Jackson’s breast. “Enough!” proclaimed FCC chair Michael Powell, puffing around the Senate like a rooster and trying to prove that he can stand beak to beak with any media conglomerate, even as the number of merging national media voices shrinks to six — is that now five? — with his endorsement. Shortly after Powell’s Senate appearance, Clear Channel banned Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge for offensive language, and on March 1, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to approve legislation raising the maximum indecency fine for a broadcaster or on-air personality to $500,000 per violation. That same day, KCRW axed Sandra Tsing Loh for slipping “fuck” into one of her monologues. (Loh insisted it was a mistake and that she had asked the station engineer to bleep it, but station manager Ruth Seymour said the decision was irrevocable.)

Craig Curtis, program director of KPCC’s parent network, Minnesota Public Radio, describes the pulling of the theater series as coincidental. “This would have happened regardless of Janet Jackson or Sandra Tsing Loh,” says Curtis. “This issue was being discussed for months.”

The KPCC decision is particularly troubling because it applies the “Seven Dirty Words” standard (used by broadcasters since a 1974 Supreme Court decision told comedian George Carlin to wash out his mouth with soap) to works of literature. L.A. Theater Works issues plays that have been produced on the American stage. But Curtis says, “Prevailing standards of decency in the theater and on the radio are different.”

The banning of such recordings on grounds of obscenity hearkens back to the Anthony Comstock era of the 1880s, and the later banning of Ulysses. In 1933, Judge John Woolsey lifted the 11-year ban on the book, saying that the dissemination of works of literature can’t be restricted to those appropriate only for children. Yet that’s exactly where we are again on public radio. Which replaces the question “What is the purpose of art?” with the larger, more immediate question, “What is the purpose of Michael Powell?”

And though $500,000 is not a chunk of change any public radio station wishes to lose on a curse, Davis says KPCC’s decision is not so much about the potential fine as the jeopardy to the station’s existence. Explains Davis, “The first rule of broadcasting is, you don’t lose your license.”

Hoping the station will reconsider its decision (and Davis says it just might), Loewenberg argues, “We’ve done 100 broadcasts for KPCC, for a listenership of at least 5,000, and for all of that, there have been only three complaints that I know of.”

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