The "F" Word Debacle

I got the job that helped me get to the big time in Philadelphia radio on the misfortune of a station disc jockey who had a slip of the tongue.

Seems this newsman/part-time dj was working the Sunday morning shift where this particular top 40 giant was forced to schedule religious programming to fulfill its FCC license requirements.

Suddenly, a taped religious program dropped out, dead air ensued and the announcer ran into the studio in a panic.

I must explain that at this time that station had engineers who controlled levels, tapes and microphones and the jock cued the music, commercials and jingles. It was an awful system.

There this poor soul, hearing dreaded dead air, runs in to studio A and shouts to the engineer controlling the taped show, “what the f@#k happened”.

Unfortunately, the engineer threw his mike open when he saw the announcer enter the studio assuming that he was going to fill the dead air – but not like that!


You can’t make this stuff up.

The engineer recovered, fixed whatever was wrong with the taped program – I still can’t believe all this happened in the middle of the station’s religious block or that the call letters of the former religious-then-top 40 station were W-I-B-G (like in “I Believe In God” the inspiration for the original call letters).

WIBG’s one Sunday morning listener protested, contacted the management and the announcer was rightfully called in to explain.

He confidently said, “let’s go to the tape” and when there was no “F” word there he thought he dodged a bullet that could have been fatal to his career.

But the listener insisted he heard an inappropriate word during his favorite Sunday morning religious show and finally management thought –let’s go to the other tape.

You see, miraculously the “F” word was expunged from the station’s Soundscriber – that is, the Soundscriber for WIBG-AM. Somehow, no one was thinking of the simulcast FM Soundscriber that morning. Who knew this stuff was on both the AM and FM station.

The announcer was fired.

The station, apparently hard up, finally hired me after years of pounding their door down.

All ended well for the announcer.

He went on to Hollywood, wrote a movie.

I went to New Jersey. Let’s not talk about it.

I was thinking about this when I heard about Tuesday’s three-judge panel ruling against the FCC’s current policy on indecent language, the stage has been set for a Supreme Court battle.

All the elements are there.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals saying, the FCC policy is “unconstitutionally vague” and leads to “a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here.”

Proponents of decency and restraint arguing to uphold the pre-Obama policy that makes even “fleeting indecency” such as the kind Nicole Richie, Cher and other personalities sometimes utter in public at awards show and the like. And that such offenses should be fined.

One thing I’ve learned about politics from my mother who was a dyed-in-the-wool local Democratic party worker is that you’ll never change someone’s politics. But if we look beyond politics, perhaps we can all agree that the indecency issue and, for that matter, issues of free speech could be dealt with much more effectively at the local level.

If we had the kind of local management WIBG had when it was owned by Storer Broadcasting Company, an excellent operator who also dabbled in TV and then cable. They set the right tone as local operators.

No pressure to make money.

Just to serve the community. Owners got into radio for different reasons then as incredible as it seems today.

I, and others working at fine companies like Storer, were more afraid of the general manager than we were of the FCC.

And rightfully so, because there was always a consequence for violating that special relationship between the station and its audience.

You know, it was kind of like a social network (without the Internet and mobile devices). Our listeners counted on the station for programming and the management counted on its employees for good judgment.

If someone slipped the “F” word, he was gone.


Nicole Richie, you slip up and you don’t get a live mike again.


Janet Jackson – if your top falls off and there is at least a little suspicion it may have been planned and/or some viewers were offended at that thing that was hanging off your breast, you’re done.


In the end, the FCC is scrambling to make indecency a federal case and now they’ve got it. But that is no substitute for good local judgment.

A fine is of little consequence.

The problem is today most stations are operated by people who don’t know how to run radio and TV stations because they’ve never worked in the industry. That’s like hiring you or me to run a hospital when we have no experience even as an orderly.

In the age of corporate responsibility, fair speech was not a problem, either.

On-air talent was expected to get both sides of the story. I worked for Paul Rust, the toughest news director I ever met. I am convinced he toughened me up (sorry Farid, Lew and John). No need for equal time rules, it was expected or else there were consequences.

So as you observe the wasted time, legal fees, judicial wrangling in the years ahead over an issue that could easily be resolved by responsible local management, remember how I got my big break in radio.

An “F” bomb with consequences.

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