Few topics cause as much anxiety on college and community radio stations – let alone a lot of morning commercial radio shows – as broadcast indecency. Since the dawn of broadcast regulation in the United States, there have been legal restrictions on the type of speech that can be broadcast on public airwaves, with particular emphasis on topics of sexual and excretory functions. Yet despite all the worries and worries, for much of history the FCC hasn’t had much action. And even when there were more fines and actions, the actual number was still relatively low.
Professor Christopher Terry of the University of Minnesota joins us in helping unravel this story and setting the record straight. First of all, we need to define what “indecency” is because the specific definition used for law enforcement on television is not necessarily aligned with the definition of common sense, nor the same as “obscenity”, which has its own peculiar legal definition. Just because some might call a word “obscene” does not mean that it is necessarily legally obscene (in fact, it probably is not), nor that it is necessarily legally indecent (it is believed that it could be).
Then Professor Terry walks us through a long uneventful period that ended in the 1970s with the very first indecency fine and Supreme Court decision in Pacifica v. FCC, which launched a forty-year period of increased enforcement and numerous other fines. Yet over the course of these four decades the standard of indecency has changed both due to political pressure and the intervention of the courts. That leads to 2018, when new organizations that were released struggled to report on President Trump referring to certain nations as “full countries,” while remaining compliant.
In the end, in 2021, it’s still true that airing “indecent” shows between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. may get you an FCC fine, but the risks are different from what you might have thought to be true one, two, or three decades. . since.