Censorship In Radio

I would like to begin this section with a quote by John Street. Street claims that:

“Whether we do or not, more important is recognizing that acts of censorship involve a complex chain of events in which interests conflict and coalesce to create the circumstances in which bans are implemented and in which music is, as a consequence, invested with particular meanings and forms of power.”

            John Street, Music and Politics, Page 15

            In relation to radio broadcasting, this complex chain of events seems to be rooted in the ideologies that the government, the FCC, and many parents believed that Rock music represented and evoked. The censorship of radio airwaves  has a history dating back to the start of the 20th century, however, significant progress was made over control of airwaves during the late 1920’s and early 30’s as federal regulators were given the power to suspend the licenses of providers who were broadcasting obscene or profane language. Furthermore, in the early 30’s, the FCC was established to help regulate publically owned bandwidth¹².

During the Rock era in the early 60’s, the FCC began to ban certain songs that had to do with a range of topics that were considered indecent. These topics ranged from sexuality to violence and any songs that were considered to promote, incite, or explicitly mention these issues were often times regulated by the FCC. In Anti-Rock: The Opposition of Rock n’Roll, a handful of examples are provided and I will provide a few links to some of the examples that were mentioned. In regards to some of the taboo subject areas, it is mentioned that:

            “…Anti-war sentiment, class-consciousness, and racism were political concerns of the young, it was inevitable that these topics would be discussed in Rock and Roll lyrics…Drug use was the focus of adolescent experimentation and it was certain that drug experiences would be described in song. It is interesting to survey a cross-section of words, phrases, or lines that were banned in the sixties and early seventies. Many seem innocuous today which merely emphasizes how relative and subjective the label ‘obscene’ or ‘distasteful or ‘damaging’ can be.”

             Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, Anti-Rock: The Opposition of Rock n’Roll, Page 189


As these topics continued to creep into the music of the generation, more and more radio stations were being threatened by the FCC. It is explained that,

“Apparently there were no hard and fast rules for determining what was obscene or inappropriate. This made the whole censorship issue ridiculously arbitrary. It was left to the FCC, broadcast executives, radio program directors, record company managers, and adult opinion to decide what could or could not be used. The FCC avoided legal battles over whether lyrics were pornographic or discordant with their vague regulations concering ‘community standards’, because the courts would undoubtedly argue that the musc had ‘artistic merit’. But the FCC exercised their power in no less a heavy-handed manner. Through warnings, short-term license renewals, fines, and bureaucratic red tape the FCC could pressure a station into economic collapse. Rather than provoke the FCC, therefore, almost every station owner and program director toed the line, or in other words, practiced self-censorship.”

            -Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, Anti-Rock: The Opposition of Rock n’Roll, Page 191

            Although a lengthy explanation, I feel that the authors really summed up the issue at hand in radio industry. The issue for broadcasters was an issue of regulatory red tape and warnings that prohibited them from playing any music which fell under the vague definition of obscene that the FCC provided. Furthermore, these kinds of warnings and fines allowed for the FCC to avoid actually shutting down any radio stations³. In this way, the FCC could control what was being broadcast without actually shutting down a station, it was a means of censorship that took the form more of the oppressive force rather than a method of moderation.

This type of censorship and regulation reached the White House during the Nixon administration. In an instance in October of 1970, President Nixon invited about 70 radio broadcasters to a drug abuse conference in the White House, hoping to win them over in the battle against the screening of rock music. Martin and Segrave mention that, “Nixon had no intention of telling them what to broadcast, but he would ‘appreciate’ their cooperation” (203). It is interesting that such a strong correlation between Rock music and the influence of drug use had motivated the President and the FCC to hold such a conference simply because when asked about the correlation, many of the broadcasters explained that there really was no such correlation. Although many young listeners experimented with drugs, the broadcasters believed that the music did not introduce listeners to drugs but rather simply reflected the culture of the generation.

Similar to the Presley case, it is evident that, once again, the issue of censorship seems to be entangled in a much larger process. The reason that many songs were censored or outright banned from being played by stations had to do with the fact that they were reflecting parts of culture that were seen as negatively affecting the youth and encouraging experimentation with drugs. However, it is interesting that the broadcasters mention that the music is simply a reflection of the culture rather than a catalyst for these obscenities. Also, the fact that the definition of obscene that the FCC provides to stations is vague seems to further hint at the fact that it is not so much about the content of the music that makes it offensive. Thinking back to the Street quote from earlier in this section, it is also interesting how music, as a result of this complex chain of events, is given a sort of power. A power that the Ancient Greeks may have hinted at early on.

As a sort of concludimg point, I like to think that for the most port the question of censorship has not necessarily been answered, but has begun to be clarified. In order to truly understand censorship in its various degrees, it is important to survey the various ways in which censorship is used not only in the US, but around the world. By understanding a general survey and seeing what remains constant across that general survey, I believe it is possible to begin to pinpoint the essence of censorship. In terms of dealing with labels of obscenity and offence, I think it has become clear that these labels are subjective and at times even the institutions that provide definitions for these terms are often times vague. I find that it is important to begin to see that the definition of obscene, or rather, what is considered to be obscene will continue to change as new generations come and go. Keeping this in mind may help clarify some of the vagueness that surrounds censorship and its ever-changing radar.

Examples of Songs that were Banned or Censored on the Airwaves:

Anti War Theme: The Doors – Unknown Soldier

Issues of Race: Jimi Hendrix – How Would You Feel

Sexual Innuendos: The Rolling Stones – King Bee

Disrespect for Elders: The Who – My Generation

Censorship in Television

¹Head, Tom. “History of Radio Censorship Timeline – A Timeline History of Radio Censorship.” Web. 21 April 2015. <http://civilliberty.about.com/od/freespeech/tp/Radio-Censorship-History-Timeline.htm>

²”The History.” Music Censorship. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://censoryofmusic.weebly.com/the-history.html>

³Winfield, Betty Houchin. Bleep! Censoring Rock and Rap Music. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. Print.