The Bigger Picture: When Content Costs You

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “The Bigger Picture” series, written by Charese Fruge on April 5, 2022 

We are all still talking about it. The world is still talking about it. The incident when Will Smith walked up on to the Oscar stage and slapped Chris Rock in the middle of his presentation after Rock made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Despite a war in Ukraine, an increasingly intense investigation into the January 6th, 2021, attack on the U.S. capitol, and hearings for a new Supreme Court Justice Judge, this was the top story in the news for at least a week. According to The Hill, the incident at the 2022 Academy Awards Ceremony resulted in at least sixty-six complaints to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The complaints mostly condemned Smith and his display of violence on a show where millions of parents were watching with their children. Many of the complaints called on the FCC to not allow the program to air anymore, or to penalize the CBS Network/Oscars for violation of Code of Conduct rules.

This surprised me somewhat considering most of the violence we see on TV is considerably worse than what happened that night. I guess because the incident was live, real, and quite baffling for the average person, and many people had to explain to their kids what was going on. But apparently it triggered people enough to reach out to the FCC and complain.

So, I did some research, because as a seasoned programmer, I have often had to explain to (mostly) morning shows (and sometimes sales reps), that some content is not necessary, can only cause tune out, and is subject to the rules governed by the FCC, who at any moment could receive a complaint from a listener and threaten the license of a radio station. Here is the rule: Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.

Let’s explore indecent and/or profane further:

  • Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment. For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
  • Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.
  • Profane content includes “grossly offensive” language that is considered a public nuisance. That includes the “Seven Dirty Words.” You all know what they are.

The reason I mention this is because the day after the Oscars, I was driving around Vegas in my car listening to one of my favorite stations. I was sitting through the commercials because the jock got me good with a tease for the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto coming up next. As I am driving and listening, a commercial for one of the infamous law firms in Vegas came on, and the copy was an old school style skit, which included one of the “actors” using the words “F*cking A-hole.” It was slightly bleeped out, but clear as day. When I heard this, I almost drove off the road. And I am not easily offended. Why was this necessary in this commercial for radio? The points and copy could have easily included less offensive ways to prove a point. Why would any radio station allow this kind of content on

the air? It doesn’t matter how much the client likes it. It’s not their license or listenership at stake, and a point could be made that it’s extremely bad for the client as well. It may get people’s attention, but not the kind of attention the client is looking for. If it causes tune out for the radio station, then where is the benefit for the client?

This is a “no brainer.” Not only is this kind of content offensive and a tune out, but it’s possible that if the listener is waiting to hear “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” they are listening with a child in the car. Then a parent has to explain to their child that this kind of language is not okay, or they have to reinforce that it’s unacceptable to use this kind of language in everyday conversations. If it causes tune out or frustration for a listener, then they will hold it against both the listener and the client.

Not only is this a “no brainer,” but it’s also not a new issue for radio, but with the evolution of cancel culture being MORE focused on politics and social issues these days, not to mention the new generation of talent who come from social media and the digital world not knowing the rules of the FCC, it is easy to forget that traditional radio’s purpose is to serve the public and the community and it is governed by an agency who can strip that freedom from you at any moment if you give them cause.

The three biggest offenders are examples like the above, where obscene language is used, or when morning shows (or talent) talk about excretory organs or activities (bodily fluids or functions), and one other that is not necessarily an FCC thing but can be financially painful and or/detrimental to one’s career, is the use of a trademarked phrase or names like “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble,” or “The Super Bowl.” And believe me when I tell you that Michael Buffer has people whose job it is to just sift through broadcast media to find people using his phrase in anyway so he can send you a minimum of and $18k bill for doing so. The NFL, I am sure has hundreds of thousands of people doing the same for any use of their trademarked words or phrases.

I’ll ask the question again. Why is it even necessary to use any of this kind of content in radio? You are only shooting yourself in the foot. Being creative with both your content and delivery of it is a part of the job, being obscene or offensive is not. Your goal is to increase both listenership and time spent listening. Not to intentionally, immediately cause tune out. That impacts both ratings and revenue, and if a client is involved, it has a financial impact on the client as well.

You can be challenging and get people’s attention with words, but it’s not necessary to cross the line of what is acceptable with a free platform. If people have a desire to hear obscene or profane content, they will go to a place and time where it is appropriate and most likely pay for it. Don’t put yourself in a place where you make the wrong content choice that will most likely get you not only cancelled, but also put you in a position where it will cost you financially as well.