[Marxism] WBAI and George Carlin

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 25 16:36:08 MDT 2008

NY Times, June 25, 2008
The Station That Dared to Defend Carlin's '7 Words' Looks Back

As the encomiums for George Carlin have rolled in from stand-up 
legends, celebrities and scholars, his death at 71 has also been 
noted at a diminutive, iconic and iconoclastic radio station in 
Manhattan, WBAI-FM.

Its broadcast of the comedian's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on 
Television" became a landmark moment in the history of free speech. 
In a 1978 milestone in the station's contentious and unruly history, 
WBAI lost a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision that to this day has 
defined the power of the government over broadcast material it calls indecent.

"It's a bad time here for us because George Carlin was part of the 
family," said Anthony Riddle, the station's general manager. "I think 
all the producers are dealing with it in their own way," Mr. Riddle 
said, some doing commentary and others running archival material, 
including a bleeped-out version of the "Seven Words" routine.

The 1978 ruling, often termed "the Carlin case," was actually called 
Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, and turned 
on a 12-minute Carlin monologue called "Filthy Words" that appeared 
on a 1973 album, "Occupation: Foole."

After the Carlin album monologue was broadcast on WBAI in 1973 during 
"Lunch Pail," an afternoon show, a listener objected that his young 
son had heard the words on a car radio. The corporate parent of WBAI, 
the Pacifica Foundation, received a letter of reprimand from the 
commission, which the company challenged in court.

The Supreme Court said that the broadcast was indecent, though not 
obscene, and gave the commission the right to determine the 
definition of indecency and to prohibit such material from being 
broadcast during hours when children were likely to be listening.

Despite this legal Dunkirk, "the fact that his seven dirty words 
having emanated from here is kind of a source of pride," said Jose R. 
Santiago, the station's news director.

The court decision "was about more than just radio," Mr. Riddle 
added, "it was about the right to be human beings in the United States."

"It was a gutsy thing for a radio station to do, taking that stand," he said.

Though the station was not fined, Pacifica paid hundreds of thousands 
of dollars in legal fees, said Larry Josephson, the WBAI station 
manager from 1974 to 1976.

Now, broadcasting the seven words "would cost us $360,000 per 
incident — so those seven words would cost us $2.5 million," about 
equal to the station's annual budget, Mr. Riddle said. "Now we'd be 
severely limited in taking a chance on protecting people's free-speech rights."

Recently Mr. Josephson had to abide by the consequences of the very 
commission decision he was involved in, as the independent producer 
of WBAI's annual "Bloomsday" celebration on June 16, which honored 
James Joyce and his novel "Ulysses."

Though the broadcast began at 7 p.m., the protagonist Molly Bloom's 
famous lengthy monologue of erotic musings — which contains several 
forbidden words — had to be read after 10 p.m. during the "safe 
harbor" period when the F.C.C. allows the broadcast of what it terms 
"indecent" material.

The station that for generations has spoken truth to power is 
incongruously situated on the 10th floor of 120 Wall Street, and 
smack in the middle of the FM dial, at 99.5. Now in its 48th year, 
WBAI was both an expression, and ringleader, of the counterculture 
during its peak in the mid-1960s through the Vietnam War.

Observers have said that in its heyday, its on-air personalities, 
like Mr. Josephson, Steve Post and Bob Fass, extended the popularity 
of FM radio and explored the possibilities of the medium.

But its turmoil-filled subsequent history has featured a fiesta of 
staff clashes, board eruptions, station coups and protests. Amid 
accusations of every imaginable form of -ism, on-air personalities 
and producers have been summarily banned; on-air resignations have 
not been unknown.

These days WBAI, whose slogan is "Your Peace and Justice Community 
Radio Station," has a paid staff of 25 and 200 independent volunteer 
producers, Mr. Riddle said, adding that WBAI has more than 200,000 
listeners. He declined to say how many subscribers there are, but the 
number is believed to be fewer than 20,000; the minimum subscription 
rate is $25 a year.

Mr. Riddle, who joined the station in February, said that "it's 
always difficult to run a democracy," adding that "a lot of people 
believe in the kind of radio we provide," since the station does not 
accept advertising, underwriting or grants.

If in many ways the station has changed, the legality of broadcasting 
the "Seven Words" has not.

"Now, 35 years later, we can't take a chance of playing it," Mr. 
Riddle said. "Discussion of the words is not acceptable, unless you 
cut the heart out of it."

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