Are You Decent?
Dudley & Bob and the foot soldiers in the FCC's war on pop culture
In KLBJ-FM's crowded production booth on a chilly Friday morning, the crusade against smut on the airwaves is colliding with pee jokes. Dale Dudley, leader of the Dudley and Bob morning show, is nervously eyeing comedian Todd Glass, who is off on a rant, working through his material, as the show bounces from a discussion of newswoman Lesley Stahl's legs to Dudley's idea for a reality show called Who Stuck It in Ya?
With Glass machine-gunning his lines, Dudley warily stands near the cutoff switch for Glass' microphone. But he doesn't reach for the button until Glass asks, for no apparent reason, "Ever pee after eating asparagus?" Dudley cuts him off. "You can't say that," Dudley implores Glass, who looks slightly incredulous. "You can't say anything to do with excrement," Dudley says, trying to explain the new rules. During a commercial break, he pleads with Glass. "You can't even say fuck off the air," Dudley says as Glass walks out of the booth.
A few minutes later, Glass returns to the studio. "Sorry I was late," he says into the microphone. "I was urinating." Dudley groans.
Welcome to the front lines of the government crackdown on indecency. Here in the windowless radio booth, with the phone lines blinking and the caffeine-riddled comedian eager to rap, the excremental nuances of a pee joke are serious business. Dudley and Bob is consistently among the top-rated morning shows in Austin. But after 17 years at KLBJ, Dudley is not sure if one bad joke could cost him his job.
"The broadcast industry said to the FCC that we will have a zero tolerance policy, but we don't know where the line is, so use your best judgment," Dudley said later, after signing off for the day. Dudley has no idea where the line is these days. But he knows if he crosses it, he's toast. "The industry has taken talent and hung them out to dry," Dudley said.
Baby Butt, Bastards, and Lesbian Bunnies
Broadcasters are scared. Their existence is completely dependent on the whims of the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses over-the-air stations. The FCC can fine them, yank their license, and, in general, make broadcast executives get on all fours and bark like dogs, if they choose. For broadcasters, the commission's new zeal for smiting smut strikes to the core of their industry.
Technically, nothing has changed in the rules regulating what broadcasters can and cannot say and do not a single word. Famously vague, FCC rules define indecent material as anything that violates "community standards," appeals to "prurient interests," and in a "patently offensive way" describes sexual conduct or excretory function without any redeeming "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Considering that just about any good dick joke has some sort of literary or artistic value not to mention any idle considerations of the concept of free speech it has been understood for some time that proving something is legally indecent is practically impossible.
The only thing that has changed is the FCC's willingness to slap down broadcasters, in many cases for stunts that never drew a response in the past. The recent institutional history suggests the commissioners had never actually listened to Howard Stern before 2001. In 2000, the FCC levied $48,000 in fines for "indecent" broadcasting; in 2004 it hit up broadcasters for $7.9 million. The number of formal citizen complaints zoomed from 111 in 2000, to 1.1 million in 2004, thanks in large part to the efforts of nationally organized and ideologically driven groups targeting what they feel is inappropriate material for the airwaves.
While Janet Jackson's nipple at last year's Super Bowl has gotten all the pub, two other developments sent chills into the souls of Austin TV and radio executives. First was the so-called Bono decision, the result of the U2 singer spontaneously blurting "fucking brilliant" during the telecast of the 2003 Golden Globe Awards broadcast. Following traditional guidelines, the FCC's staff ruled that Bono hadn't broken the rules. He clearly wasn't using the word to describe a sexual act, and by no stretch of the imagination was he speaking for "prurient" reasons. But the commission voted to overrule its own staff, emphasizing "that all broadcast licensees are on clear notice that similar broadcasts in the future will lead to forfeitures and potential license revocation, if appropriate." In other words, if a guest ad-libs something Bono-esque it's the broadcaster's ass that is on the line.
That got the attention of local broadcasters. So did the FCC's decision to directly fine network affiliates for airing network shows, such as Jackson's Super Bowl flash. In the past it was always assumed that the networks were responsible for the network's programming, and the affiliates were just the messengers. "That was a big wake-up call," said Patti Smith, general manager and president of KVUE-TV, Austin's ABC affiliate.
Smith has stayed on high alert. Last Veteran's Day, KVUE was one of 66 ABC affiliates around the country that chose not to broadcast the World War II film epic Saving Private Ryan, even though Steven Spielberg's Oscar winner had aired on ABC in the past without any overt signs of widespread moral decay or public outrage. "Legally, I must protect the station," Smith said.
And she's hardly alone. Trying to guess what may anger the FCC, radio and television executives are aggressively censoring themselves, making pre-emptive strikes against their own programming. Moves have ranged from news programs cutting away from a funeral service for war hero Pat Tillman out of fear someone might use a bad word, to PBS pulling a children's show with lesbian bunnies. "We pixelated animated butt," Fox entertainment president Gail Berman told reporters a few weeks ago, after the network decided to blur an image of baby Stewie's rear end in the cartoon show Family Guy. A few months ago, out of fear of complaints, several Austin radio stations pulled an ad for a wine called "Fat Bastard."
"They're rolling over," said John Dunbar, media project manager for the Center for Public Integrity, which researches public policy issues. "When something as important as free speech and censorship is involved, most people think there should be a healthy public debate. The scary thing is we're not having that debate."
Instead, almost all the major broadcasters have announced some form of zero tolerance policy for indecency and promised to toe the imaginary line, desperately hoping to stave off the anti-smut zealots.
Full Nipple Alert
Robert Flores is Austin's own poster child for the indecency crackdown. Last August he was working as the lead sports anchor for the local CBS affiliate, KEYE-TV, when he made what seemed like a fairly minor boo-boo. He was recording his sports segment for the next morning's newscast when someone dropped a piece of equipment in the studio. He yelled "Cut!," then muttered, "Fuck." He re-recorded the segment and didn't give it a second thought. The next morning, Flores' recorded sports segment aired without incident.
But on Thursday two days later a production staffer on the morning show inserted the wrong tape into the playback machine. Flores' blooper from Monday night's recording session aired, complete with f-bomb, at 5:45am. That morning, when he returned from covering UT football practice, Flores was called into the general manager's office and fired.
"I felt bad for Robert Flores," said KEYE general manager Mike Reed, who had only been with the station for three days. "I hated to see him put in that position. But zero tolerance means zero tolerance."
KEYE didn't receive a single complaint from viewers when the tape aired, Flores says. In some ways, he was less to blame than the production staffer, who was also fired. Flores had no record of problems at the station. And, by traditional standards, there was little in Flores' blooper that would suggest he was breaking the FCC's indecency rules it was clearly an accident, not done for prurient reasons, and it aired in what the FCC dubs a "safe harbor," when few people are watching. It didn't matter. "He should have gone back to the edit booth and said, 'I need that tape,'" Reed said. "He should have destroyed it. The fact that it was left in circulation was a comedy of errors."
Seven months later, Flores is still looking for a new job, although he's done some fill-in work for the local ESPN radio affiliate. All things considered, he displays a remarkable lack of bitterness. "I take responsibility for saying the word," said Flores, who had to explain why Daddy was fired to his 10-year-old son. "I told him straight up what happened and the word I used," Flores said. But Flores also feels a lowly sports anchor was seen as expendable. "If it happened to one of the other anchors, would the same thing have happened to them? Probably not," Flores said. "Is that fair? Probably not. Is that life? Yeah."
If nothing else, "I found out it's a cutthroat business," Flores said. He still has unanswered questions. "If I had said 'damn,' or just the s-word, would that have been enough to save my job?" he asks. At worst, he thought he might be suspended and required to apologize. But he recognizes that the industry is trying to take a stand. "I just wish that people in charge would take a step back and use some common sense," Flores said.
Discussions about indecency are a daily occurrence at KEYE these days, Reed said. Most of the station's employees were recently required to take online tests on the indecency guidelines. A few months ago a KEYE production staffer taping the network feed of a rerun of CSI spotted the image of a naked female corpse on a gurney. "There was a completely exposed nipple," Reed said. An urgent warning went out through the system and around the country. "We just have to be much more diligent about everything we do," Reed said.
But Flores, speaking as a father, wonders if there is at least a tinge of hypocrisy in the station's new puritanism. "If you have a kid home sick from school, don't let them watch soap operas," Flores said. "There is some pretty salty stuff that goes on at 11am right on KEYE."
Shortly after Flores was fired, staffers at KVUE-TV, the ABC affiliate, were sent an e-mail exhorting them to be more careful. If nothing else, the Flores case reminded everyone that the stakes were higher than ever before. "Everybody is nervous," said KVUE's Steve Bringle.
At KVUE, Bringle is the man on the button, the guy charged with watching everything that goes over the air to make sure it doesn't get the station in trouble. His title is master control operator, which means he sits surrounded by blinking lights and control boards, cross-checking ID numbers on tapes and counting down to the next station break. In normal times, it's a fairly routine job at a TV station, but now it has become one with dire implications.
"My job is on the line, the station is on the line, and the jobs of everyone in the building are on the line," Bringle said one night as he waited to punch in a commercial in the middle of Lost. "My job is more like a goalie in a hockey or soccer game. I'm the last line of defense."
Bringle was watching Monday Night Football a few months ago when the show opened with Nicollette Sheridan of Desperate Housewives, wearing only a towel, talking to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in the locker room. "I was like OK, what are they doing?" Bringle recalled. "I was in a frame of mind that I better watch this closely." When Sheridan dropped the towel, he was surprised, but let it go. It was "risqué," he said, but on a station that routinely shows butt crack on NYPD Blue, he saw nothing that overtly broke the rules no nudity, no contact, no profanity. "They pushed it, but they didn't go over the line," Bringle said.
Needless to say, the skit ignited yet another "firestorm" of controversy and an immediate groveling apology from ABC executives, who expressed their shame and begged for forgiveness. Bringle has decided the key is "context," and that some things are OK, as long the viewers are not "blindsided by it."
But viewers, it is fair to say, have no clue what is going on. They see a couple locked in a sex act on ER, but then Fox changes the name of its sports show from the Best Damn Sports Show Period to the Best Darn Sports Show Period, out of fear of shocking the Super Bowl audience. On the Fox cable channel, viewers can see a character on Nip/Tuck break his nose while orally pleasuring a naked woman, but PBS dithers over paintings of nudes on Antiques Roadshow.
Traditionally, the FCC has allowed the networks relatively free reign after 10pm (9pm CST), under the theory that kids don't stay up late. Legally, they can't ban anything that isn't obviously obscene that pesky freedom of speech again so the FCC instead focuses its energy on trying to regulate programming from 6am to 10pm which is why a show like ER seems to operate under a different set of rules than, say, the new Fox medical show House, which airs earlier.
Adding to the confusion, the FCC doesn't regulate cable and satellite channels. It has no jurisdiction cable and satellite don't require government licenses to operate. Only the old line, over-the-air broadcasters have to follow the FCC's mandates, despite the broadcast industry's best efforts to push Congress to move in on cable. "If we are going to be continued to be regulated, then the same moral issues should apply to cable," said KVUE's Smith, Bringle's boss. "And if they don't apply to cable they shouldn't apply to broadcasting."
It's the inconsistencies that drive broadcasters crazy. In a case like Private Ryan, if they are unsure of the standard, there's no one to call, no indecency hotline to clarify the rules. The FCC says that if it were to tell station owners what they can't air, that would be true censorship. Instead, broadcasters must turn soothsayer and attempt to interpret the FCC's rulings.
"We felt like we knew what the rules were," Smith said, and now it's up in the air. On a logical level, Smith realized that airing Private Ryan would likely only generate a few complaints, at most. But she felt she couldn't risk it, considering the FCC's newfound willingness to fine affiliates. If the broadcast were targeted by the anti-smut groups, there was no telling how the FCC would react.
"People need to understand, that if this goes unchecked we will have one or two organizations deeming what is appropriate and not appropriate for television," Smith said. "I don't think anybody wants that."
The Way the World Works
On the phone from her Los Angeles office, Parents Television Council director of corporate and entertainment affairs Lara Mahaney is talking about "masturbating on a girl's face." "I don't think people are listening to Howard Stern because he's talking about masturbating on a girl's face," Mahaney said. "He resonates with a lot of people because of his honesty, not because he's talking about masturbating on a girl's face."
The PTC is arguably the most powerful single force in broadcasting today. With 20 full-time staff employees manning offices in Los Angeles and Virginia, the PTC does what the FCC does not it monitors all network programming. When its reviewers find something they believe objectionable, the PTC mobilizes its mailing list to use form letters to complain to the FCC. And, in what some may find ironic, it posts what it considers the worst offending segments on its Web site for all to see. ("We don't have kids coming to our Web site," Mahaney said.)
Funded by what Mahaney would only describe as "private individuals and foundations," the PTC is the spawn of prolific conservative pundit L. Brent Bozell, a former Pat Buchanan backer who also founded the Media Research Center, a "watchdog" group tracking "media bias." Before 2002, the PTC primarily targeted advertisers. "We believe in the private sector solution first," said Mahaney. "Our choice would be that the FCC not be involved."
But the PTC is the master of getting the FCC involved. A widely circulated report by Media Week claimed that 99.9% of the complaints filed in 2004 were generated by the PTC, a figure denied by both the FCC and PTC. (An FCC spokeswoman says the agency has never done a study on the origin of complaints.) The PTC says it officially generated 224,000 complaints in 2004 (up from 113,000 in 2003), although Mahaney says that doesn't include complaints its supporters filed on their own. "Our position is that we made it easy to file a complaint," she says. "But just because they came through the Web site doesn't mean they are from the PTC."
Technically, the PTC's protests are rarely successful. The FCC recently denied 36 of the group's filings, including several complaints about the use of the word "dick" on network TV shows. But there is no denying their ability to influence Washington. "It's an important issue for a lot of Americans. Just ask Congress," Mahaney said. "Parents were fed up with the fact the networks don't listen to them." She bristles at any suggestion that the PTC represents the viewpoint of a narrow group. "Show me the numbers of people arguing for [the broadcasters]," Mahaney countered. "We're open to a community standards audit. We would love to prove that we are not disproportionate."
In fact, there is little organized support for the freedom to say "dick" on radio and TV. "The right is doing all the activism and they've done a really good job," said Amanda Toering, a former Austinite who has started SpeakSpeak.org, a Web site dedicated to supporting freedom of expression. "Right now we're seeing a very narrow slice of our population having undue influence on culture," she said. "It's terrifying."
Even the PTC seems slightly surprised at the extent of the broadcasters' self-censorship. The PTC didn't oppose the airing of Saving Private Ryan, for example. "There's a big difference between gratuitous titillation and something done because it shows what goes on in war," Mahaney said.
Instead of fighting the PTC and the FCC's seemingly arbitrary application of the rules, last year several of the major broadcasters entered consent decrees with the FCC to settle existing complaints, hoping to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Viacom, parent company of CBS, and Infinity Broadcasting, home to Howard Stern, alone agreed to pay $3.5 million. Some industry observers suspect broadcasters are more worried about trying to relax ownership restrictions than going to court to fight for freedom of speech.
"I don't know if I'd give up a hundred million dollars to prove a point," said John Hiatt, market manager for Infinity's four Austin stations. Last year his stations spent thousands of dollars to add delay equipment and board operators to guard against any on-air foul-ups. "I don't know that we are that seriously affected" by the indecency debate, Hiatt said. "Is anybody really missing anything at this point?"
At a legislative level, "we've seen a stunning lack of courage from public officials on this issue," said Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity. New legislation working through Congress would allow the FCC to increase fines. A bill carried by Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee, which was approved by his committee by a vote of 46-2 a few weeks ago, would also allow the FCC to directly fine on-air personalities.
"Good luck getting blood from a turnip," said Dale Dudley, when asked about the new legislation. "It's going to get interesting when they start putting morning personalities in jail."
Despite the tenor of the times, KLBJ continues to promote the Dudley and Bob show's controversial elements. Billboards show a giant hand pointing a finger at the show's stars and proclaiming, "You can't say that!" Dudley says Emmis Communications, owners of KLBJ, have been supportive of the show, but he knows that will only go so far. A few weeks ago, Emmis' New York station, WQHT, suspended morning show host Miss Jones and fired a co-host and producer for airing a parody song about the tsunami in Southeast Asia. At the very least, the incident emphasized the fine line between funny and fired.
"What I've told them is use their common sense," said Scott Gillmore, Emmis' market manager for Austin. "And that's the best advice I can give them." He says he will back the show if they get in trouble. "I am willing to defend them if it is a frivolous complaint," Gillmore said.
But it's understood there are limits to Gillmore's backing, even if they are legally right. "The FCC has not been taken to court and I don't want to be the one taking them to court," Gillmore said. "I think it is silly the way the world works. But that is the way it works."
Out the Innuendo
Last March, Emmis Broadcasting hosted a conference call with all its morning shows, including Dudley and Bob. "Big Boy," the star of Emmis' L.A. morning show, and Chicago icon Mancow were also on the call. With a lawyer at the ready, they were told flat out: No sex. No excretion jokes. Nothing. Zero tolerance. "What about a fart sound effect?" one jock asked. Nothing, they were told.
They were even told to avoid double entendres and innuendo. "To take away double entendre and innuendo, that was a basis for humor for generations, from the Smothers Brothers on down," Dudley said. "That's legislating thought." Sitting nearby, hunched over a laptop, Bob Fonseca, Dudley's dry counterpart, adds, "It's like Spanish Inquisition lite."
For the first few months after the Emmis meeting, "we would literally look at each other," not knowing what to say, Dudley recalled. "It killed spontaneity." As they bantered, partners Fonseca or Charlie Hodge would say something funny and Dudley would edit it. "For a while we went political and that really pissed off a lot of people," Dudley said.
The show is undoubtedly different today than it was a year ago. "We don't do as many naked strippers or porn stars," Hodge said. But the show still mines humor on the edge, bopping around topics that would surely irritate the likes of the Parents Television Council the material that has made them the most popular radio show in Austin. On this Friday morning, as Dudley sits in front of a small keyboard, punching up sound bits, Hodge is working through the news of the day, when he stops after an update on the upcoming election in Iraq. "How do you vote?" Hodge asked. "Do you stand next to a black goat or a white goat and fire an AK-47 in the air?"
Next is a phone interview with actress Mary McDonnell who clearly wants to talk about her current project, not her most famous role in Dances With Wolves. Dudley offers, deadpan, "You know, in Indian my name is Ass Smells Like Death," sending his partners into hysterics. For a brief moment they are winning, and ass humor is beating down the forces that would take them off the air.