Brain Police Zero In On Radio (April 26, 1987)

Miami Herald
Author/Byline: Bill Cosford Herald Movie Critic
Edition: Final
Section: Amusements
Page: 1K

Warning: This column contains words, phrases and perhaps a concept or two that may be offensive to some. You know who you are. Stop here.

Let us briefly consider Howard Stern.

Howard Stern is a New York-area radio personality with a foul mouth and a huge audience. The two are not unrelated.

If you haven’t heard Howard, you cannot fully appreciate the nature of his appeal, though you can approximate it: Think of Archie Bunker, only a bit more scandalous and a hell of a lot smarter.

Howard Stern is at the very epicenter of the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to warn radio stations that certain things — words, innuendo, the audio equivalent of a leer — will no longer be tolerated. Stern’s show, on morning drive time on an FM station that serves greater New York, has apparently drawn no complaints there. But the show’s “simulcast” into more tender Philadelphia inspired 69 (sic) listeners to complain to the FCC.

What does Howard Stern do? He tries as hard as he can to offend people. In the process, since taking offense implicitly suggests a certain vulnerability, he makes a great many other people laugh. A typical Stern routine is “Lesbian Dial-a-Date.” Another is loving appraisal of his on-air sidekick’s breasts. A third is the use of pre-teen euphemisms for body parts.

Clearly, Stern’s show is a send-up. The comedy is directly from the schoolyard, even to its delivery, which when Stern is “on” is a whiny, snickering voice that reminds you of the days in your life when saying “ca-ca” and “boobs” was a “no-no.”

I think Stern is hilarious. There’s no accounting for taste. In any case, we can blame this latest attempt by our own government to determine what we be allowed to see or hear or read (so far, thinking is OK) directly on Stern. He has annoyed people. It’s possible that the 69 annoyees were merely friends and family of Stern’s rivals in the Philadelphia broadcasting market, but in any case the FCC has put him and everyone else who is tempted to broadcast naughty on notice: They are listening.


Locally, Stern has at least one ardent fan. Neil Rogers, not coincidentally the most popular English-language AM radio personality in South Florida, has heard tapes of Stern and has been inspired to spice up his own act. Neil now says “douche bag” more than he used to, and “old fart.” Like Stern, Rogers has reacted to the FCC action by counterattack; he has volunteers from his audience stuffing envelopes with petitions, and hopes to engage broadcasters across the country in a protest.

Unlike Stern, Rogers’ prime intent is not to offend. It still doesn’t do to cross him, or even to bore him, lest he grow testy. But Rogers is a talk host rather than a schtick man; he is also a prominent liberal voice here.

Rogers and Stern do share one other experience, however. And that is that some of the people who do not like them are not content to refrain from listening, but insist that they be taken off the air. It is this small minority for which the FCC has taken up arms.

As has become customary, this latest free-speech attack comes with save-the-children justification, as well as the “community standards” dodge.

We must protect children from radio, says the commission, because radio is pervasive. Well, yes — assuming the kids have one and are listening to it. Interestingly, Rogers and Stern are on the air during school hours, when the 5-and-overs presumably are in class, not huddled around the boom box. As for the under- 5s, show me a 4- year-old who skips Sesame Street for morning drive and I’ll show you a kid with bigger problems than Nasty Neil.

And community standards? The ratings speak eloquently for those: Where Stern and Rogers are heard, they are tremendously popular.


The issue, of course, is not kids or community standards at all. It’s adults. Even if it were plausible that the likes of Rogers and Stern could pollute our listening youth, it would then be incumbent on parents to restrict the listening, not on government to limit adult listening to the norms of pre- kindergarten.

The issue is that some adults continue to want to make other adults conform to a narrow idea of what is good for them. Few would deny that Howard Stern pushes the limits, or that Neil Rogers can be insulting, can rile people. Few would deny that either is capable of flirting with the bounds of “good taste,” if not trampling them outright.

So what? Isn’t that allowed?

After all, the FCC has said time and time again that it is not concerned with content. After all, it has said time and time again under the Reagan administration that it wants to deregulate broadcasting, to remove it as much as possible from government control. After all, it is indifferent to the advertiser assault on children during their prime weekend TV- viewing hours, and says nothing about the waves of debauchery that buoy the daytime soaps during the week.

It cannot be a matter merely of “good taste,” can it?

It can indeed. In a Herald editorial supporting the FCC decision — and in one of the saddest sentences I have ever read in this newspaper — the game is given away: “Perhaps (the decision) will help define the bounds of good taste.”

And there we are. Good taste, as defined by the federal government. The same government that can’t even run a simple Central American gun-running scam without screwing it up. They are the ones who will tell us what’s in good taste. And we don’t have to do a thing.

We need a ream or two of petitions, Neil. And hurry.

Copyright © 1987 The Miami Herald

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