The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently fined a community radio station for airing a political rap song that attacks sexual exploitation and degrading lyrics in popular music. Far from clarifying the FCC guidelines, the Jones case reveals how unqualified the FCC is to determine the bounds of decency. Much of what might be considered “indecent” in the song are references to the sexism in the songs Jones is criticizing.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently fined a community radio station for airing a political rap song that attacks sexual exploitation and degrading lyrics in popular music.
On May 17, the FCC issued a $7,000 fine to Portland, Oregon’s KBOO, a listener-sponsored station, charging that Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution” violated the Commission’s decency standards, which were revised in April. The song, which challenges the sexualization of women in rap, asserts that “your revolution will not happen between these thighs.”
The FCC ruled that “Your Revolution” contained “unmistakable patently offensive sexual references” that “appear to be designed to pander and shock.” This ruling came after the FCC issued an order, nearly seven years in the making, to “provide guidance to broadcast licensees regarding compliance with the Commission’s indecency regulations.”
The FCC’s indecency rules define indecent speech as “language that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs.”
Far from clarifying the FCC guidelines, the Jones case reveals how unqualified the FCC is to determine the bounds of decency. Much of what might be considered “indecent” in the song are references to the sexism in the songs Jones is criticizing.
The Jones case received less attention than the FCC’s June 1 decision to impose a fine– also $7,000– on commercial radio station KKMG in Colorado Springs, Colorado for airing an edited version of “The Real Slim Shady,” a song by rap artist Eminem. The FCC determined that the song violated its indecency standards, despite the fact that expletives had been bleeped out or removed. Ironically, “The Real Slim Shady” also includes an anti-censorship message, pointing out what Eminem sees as double standards about what kinds of speech are considered acceptable in popular culture.
The FCC’s new “get tough” policy stands in sharp contrast to Powell’s earlier statements about indecency. As Salon pointed out (6/13/01), Powell expressed skepticism about taking action on decency at his first press conference as FCC chair: “I don’t want the government as my nanny. I still have never understood why something as simple as turning it off is not part of the answer.” His changed may be due to pressure from conservative groups. ”This is probably a result of pressure from this organization,” Morality in Media’s Paul McGeady said of the Eminem decision (Village Voice, 6/19/01).
While cracking down on “indecency,” the FCC’s interest in regulating corporate control of the public airwaves seems to be at an all-time low. FCC Chair Michael Powell has advocated a deregulatory strategy that would likely remove the remaining legal limits on media consolidation.
By penalizing KBOO, the government is punishing an attempt to respond to offensive speech with more speech. Sarah Jones’ critique is likely to be a more effective response than censorship to the cultural violence and misogyny represented by Eminem– but if the FCC fails to uphold its mandate of maintaining a diversity of voices on the public airwaves, there will be fewer and fewer places where such a critique is likely to be heard.
ACTION: Please contact the Federal Communications Commission about its attempts to define “decency” for the public. You might encourage the FCC to focus its attention on media consolidation instead, which has a much broader and more lasting impact on the content of the nation’s airwaves.
Michael Powell, FCC Chair
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th St. S.W.
Washington, DC 20554
For more background on the Jones case, please read:
News Service: Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting