[Marxism] WBAI and George Carlin
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
By GLENN COLLINS
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
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
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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