another great editorial on Howard from Ira Glass
Howard and Me
Under new F.C.C. rulings, we are all shock jocks now.
By Ira Glass
First published in the New York Times, May 9, 2004.
Last night I dreamed about Howard Stern again. He was disappointed in me, and ordered me out of his car. In my dreams, I never live up to Howard’s standards.
I host a show on public radio and when my listeners tell me they don’t care for Stern, I always think it reveals a regrettable narrowness of vision. Mostly, they’re put off by the naked girls. But Howard’s invented a way of being on the air that uses the medium better than nearly anyone. He’s more honest, more emotionally present, more interesting, more wide-ranging in his opinions than any host on public radio. Also, he’s a fantastic interviewer. He’s truly funny. And his on-air staff is cheerfully inclusive of every kind of person: black, white, dwarf, stutterer, drunk and semi-closeted gay. What public radio show has that kind of diversity?
Recently, in a show about testosterone, we stole the format Howard invented. On the air, our staff debated who among us probably has the most testosterone. Then we were tested. Then we opened the results on the air and tussled some more. That, in a nutshell, is the genius of Stern: you put all your regular characters into some situation; they argue; the situation takes a turn; they argue some more.
Sadly, lots of smart people shrug off the recent government crackdown on Howard Stern – and on other “indecency” – as if it were nastiness going on in some bad neighborhood of the broadcast dial, one that doesn’t concern them, one that they’d never stoop to visit.
But the recent changes in F.C.C. rulings make me Stern’s brother like I’ve never been before. Here are just a few of the things we’ve broadcast on our show that now could conceivably result in fines of up to a half million dollars for the 484 public stations who run the program: assorted curse words, people saying “damn” and “God damn” (a recent F.C.C. decision declared that “profane” and “blasphemous” speech would now come under scrutiny); various prison stories; and a very funny story by the writer David Sedaris that takes place in a bathroom and that violates all three FCC criteria for “indecency.” It’s explicitly graphic in talking about “excretory organs or activities”; Sedaris repeats and dwells on the descriptions at length, and he absolutely means to pander and shock. That’s what makes it funny.
In the past, the F.C.C. would have considered context, the literary value or news value of apparently offensive material. And the agency still gives lip service to context in its current decisions. But when the commissioners declared in March that an expletive modifying the word “brilliant” (uttered by Bono at the Golden Globe Awards) was worthy of punishment, they made a more radical change in the rules than most people realize. Now context doesn’t always matter. If a word on our show could increase a child’s vocabulary, if some members of the public find something “grossly offensive,” the F.C.C. can issue fines.
Because the whole process is driven by audience complaints, enforcement is arbitrary by design. Political expediency also seems to play a role. Stern has pointed out how, on a recent “Oprah” featured virtually the same words he uses but drew no fine. He urged his listeners to file complaints, to test whether the F.C.C. will only fine those it sees as vulnerable. Agency aides told The Hollywood Reporter that Oprah Winfrey was probably untouchable.
What’s craziest about this new indecency witch hunt, is that it’s based on the premise that just one exposure to filthy words will damage a child. (I’ve yet to hear of a scientific study proveing even that repeated exposure affects children.) Recently on my show, I asked one of the people who organizes write-in campaigns to the F.C.C., Brent Bozell, what harm it did anyone to see Janet Jackson’s breast for a fleeting second, or to hear Howard use the phrase “anal sex,” and he said it destroyed the “innocence of childhood.” In our talk, Mr. Bozell used the phrase several times himself, presumably doing exactly as much harm to young people as Stern did on April 9, 2003.
That day, a brief conversation about the act on Stern’s show drew $495,000 in fines. Mr. Bozell and I received no fines. No wonder Howard kicks me out of the car.