This past week, WBAI, a public radio station in New York City, was so worried about the FCC’s recent trend of levying astronomically high fines on stations found in violation of obscenity rules that it decided to not air Allen Ginsberg’s epic Beat poem, “Howl.” Ironically, the impetus for the planned broadcast was that it was the 50th anniversary of a ruling that deemed the poem fit for the airwaves.
On Oct. 3, 1957, the courts ruled that “Howl” contained “coarse and vulgar language,” but “unless the book is entirely lacking in social importance, it cannot be held obscene.” Yet 50 years later, the threat of a six-figure fine has no radio station willing to bet on the poem’s social importance.
While it seems unbelievable, the threat of large fines is enough to give any radio programmer, including the more adventurous college DJ, pause.
I should note here that my co-writer, Evan L. Hanlon, is off this week—these are solely the experiences of me, Kimberly E. Gittleson. Two years ago, I was running out of material to play for my Jazz and Poetry Orgy on WHRB. Orgies are six-plus hour blocks of programming devoted to an artist or a theme, for those of you who don’t know. Frantically combing through the piles of CDs and LPs strewn across the floor, I hit gold: a CD of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other Beat poets with the Cellar Jazz Quintet.
I put on the CD and Kenneth Rexroth came on, angrily spitting out the words to “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Rexroth built up to the furious conclusion, damningly beating out, “And all the birds of the deep sea rise up / Over the luxury liners and scream, / ‘You killed him! You killed him. / In your goddamned Brooks Brothers suit, / You son of a bitch.’”
Before Ferlinghetti’s recorded voice could take the audio stage, the phones at the station lit up.
Expecting the usual array of old men reminiscing about seeing Ferlinghetti, I was floored when I received three angry calls in a row objecting to the obscenity of the material I had just played. I dismissed their complaints as the missives of crotchety old people, until the third caller threatened to write to the FCC. Suddenly, these callers weren’t just annoyances but serious threats. I hurriedly faded down Ferlinghetti’s “Junkman’s Obbligato” just as I heard him go on about “drying our drawers / on garbage fires / patches on our asses.”
Thoughts of Janet Jackson’s $550,000 wardrobe malfunction were whizzing through my head as I looked up the regulations.
According to the FCC, “an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest…the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” The Beats were poetry, and poetry had serious literary merit.
“Phew,” I remember thinking. That is, until I scrolled down to find out that what I played could be deemed indecent under another standard, since the language could be found to be profane. Was it profane speech?
What mattered more: The language, or the “prurient interest”?
The question of what is obscene or indecent is not one that is clearly defined on the FCC’s Web site or uniformly enforced in practice. The matter doesn’t fall easily along political party lines, nor, as both the “Howl” case and my own ill-fated Orgy attempt show, is it resolved by artistic importance.
The whole matter is not even policed directly by the FCC, but rather by the complaints of the listening public to the FCC. Conservative vigilantes report on foul language; liberal partisans skewer conservative talk shows that use racist language. Free speech, in its most literal incarnation, seems to be something that only a handful of organizations think is worth fighting for.
Nevertheless, it seems as if free speech advocates are making important inroads. In June, a federal appeals panel ruled in favor of a coalition of TV networks (Fox, CBS, NBC, and ABC) that argued that they should not be held responsible if they broadcast shows that use obscene language. If President Bush and Vice President Cheney are allowed to curse in public, the coalition argued, why should individual networks be held responsible?
This small glimmer of hope could indicate that WBAI’s decision to not air “Howl” was not one of fear but rather one of subtle protest. They’re getting more attention by deciding not to air the poem. The station is known for its risky behavior in the past, including its decision to air George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” recording (for which they were heavily fined), so maybe they’re trying a different tactic in the debate over free speech.
Perhaps, by the 100th anniversary of “Howl,” we’ll be able to listen to him and Ferlinghetti in all their expletive-ridden glory.
—Staff writer Kimberly E. Gittleson is the president of WHRB, Harvard’s student run radio station. She can be reached at email@example.com. Evan L. Hanlon is taking the week off.