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2004-07-30 14:36:53
(excerpted from KFAIís Program and Production Guidelines)

Sensitive language is a term that refers to three types of language that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that broadcasters canít use over air.  This handout will give you the information you need to know to keep from running afoul of these rules during your Wave Project program.  If you have any questions about this material, talk with the Wave Project coordinator or with KFAIís Program Director.

You need to be aware that the FCC takes these rules very seriously, and it has been handing out big fines to stations and programmers for violations.  For a one-time, single violation of its indecency rules, for example, the FCC is handing out fines of $12,500 or more.


The FCC uses a definition of obscenity set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1970s that you may already have heard.  In order for programming to be considered obscene, all three of the following elements must be present:

1. The average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the work as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.  In other words, the point of the work must be to arouse an "unhealthy" sexual desire.
2. The work must describe or depict, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically described by applicable state laws.
3. The work as a whole must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

As with all of the rules governing sensitive language, we have to do a lot of interpretation to understand whatís going on here. For example, you probably wouldnít get in trouble if you read James Joycesí Finneganís Wake on the air, even though the book was once banned as obscene.  Since Joyce is now considered to have been a great writer of "serious" literature, language that might be obscene when used by someone else is not legally obscene when Joyce uses it.  On the other hand, you might run afoul of the FCC if you did a program featuring only the "dirty" parts of Finneganís Wake especially if you interlaced your readings with comments like, "If you think that part was hot, wait until you hear this!"


In a statement released April 6, 2001, the FCC announced the following principal factors as being significant in their decisions to issue fines:

1. The explicitness or graphic nature of the description or depiction of sexual or excretory organs or activities
2. Whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions of sexual or excretory organs or activities
3. Whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate, or whether the material appears to have been presented for itís shock value.

The statement cited cases that have been ruled indecent. Here are examples:

-References to sexual activity appearing to titillate: A State University radio station in New York played a song describing oral sex activity and using slang terms to name body parts in relation to this activity.  The FCC said, " describes sexual activities in patently offensive terms and is therefore indecent."
-Non-clinical references to lesbian or gay sex, masturbation, breast or penis size, sodomy, erections, orgasms, etc: A morning show in Houston had a doctor on as a guest who spoke of the large size of a manís penis as ruining his marriage. The doctor and hosts went on to describe the size using terms like "two hands full" and "the diameter of a beer can" and asked the woman if "she could handle that." The FCC said, although the station had "substituted innuendo and double entrendre for more directly explicit sexual references remain that render the sexual meaning of the innuendo inescapable"
-Discussion of intimate sexual questions between DJís and callers:  "What the grossest thing youíve ever put in your mouth?," "What makes your hiney parts tingle?"
-Songs that contain repeated references to sex or sexual organs, including Princeís "Erotic City," and Monty Pythonís "Sit on my Face," and Consolidatedís "You Suck."


The FCC also considers material with the following seven words punishable if used on the air, especially when used in combination with any of indecency factors:
Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother-fucker, and tits. Variations are also found indecent - for example, "cock" is not exceptable in a song or poem unless it is in reference to a rooster or has defensible artistic merit.

Be aware: if you say hell, damn, goddamn, or similar words with the intent of bringing down the divine wrath or divine condemnation, they you are using profanity. However, the courts have said - and the FCC agrees - that the intent of the speaker is what matters when judging whether the language is profane. For a compliant to stick, the FCC would have to prove that you really meant for God to damn something or someone Ė that you really hoped that someone would be struck down by lightning , for example.  In general, complaints about profanity tend not to get to the FCC in the first place because people usually just call or write the station.  And since KFAI depends so much on listeners for the financial support that makes the station possible, we prefer not to anger our listeners by using profanity unless there is a compelling artistic or other reason to do so.  In practical terms, then, profane by the FCC.KFAI rules donít let you use profanity over the air.

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