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FCC Discovers Dope, Does Darndest Thing

Can radio stations be punished for songs about drugs?

Marijuana joint

Marijuana Joint

Boyrcr420/Getty

Washington, D.C. – – When Art Linkletter, the TV personality who turned drug expert after his daughter’s acid-inspired death, testified before a congressional commission on drug abuse in late 1969, he warned us of the specific evils menacing society at that time: Timothy Leary, the Beatles, and rock and roll radio. Tim Leary, Linkletter said, because he “and others who speak highly of LSD [are] among the murderers of my daughter.” The Beatles because they are “a terrible, terrible example for youth.” And Top 40 radio because “half the songs are secret messages to the teen world to drop out, turn on, and groove with chemicals and light shows at discotheques.”

Linkletter has scored well. Leary and the Beatles are gone – —dead, at least, as teen idols. And now the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, has finally come down on number three, with its first direct attack on broadcasters who air songs “tending to promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs.” That is, the FM rock stations.

The FCC action was announced in the form of a “public notice” warning all broadcast licensees to be aware of the lyrics they were broadcasting. It’s a vague warning –— almost begging for a court challenge. But, as FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson, lone dissenter in the 5-1-1 decision, commented, dope songs may only be the first target.

The FCC notice was composed over the last five months, according to Bob Cahill, aide to FCC Chairman Dean Burch. Five months ago Vice President Agnew made his Las Vegas speech about dope lyrics, attacking “permissive” broad-casters and “super-permissive” government officials like Nick Johnson. That speech was followed by a White House conference in January where 75 radio executives got the word on dope from such government heads as Attorney General Mitchell and President Nixon, armed with slides of creepy hippie posters, Woodstock revelers and festival and street riots. The secret meaning of such song titles as “Acapulco Gold,” “Don’t Bogart Me,” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was also revealed.

Now the FCC, the federal regulatory —body covering all forms of public broad-casting, has moved. Their notice, issued March 5th, reads:

“Whether a particular record depicts the danger of drug abuse, or, to the contrary, promotes such illegal drug usage is a question for the judgment of the licensee. The thrust of this Notice is simply that the licensee must make that judgment and cannot properly follow a policy of playing such records without someone in a responsible position (i.e., a management level executive at the station) knowing the contents of the lyrics. Such a pattern of operation is clearly a violation of the basic principle of the licensee’s responsibility for … the broadcast material presented over his station. It raises serious questions as to whether continued operation of the station is in the public interest.

“In short, we expect licensees to ascertain, before broadcast, the words or lyrics of recorded musical or spoken selections played on their stations.”

Station management responsibility for the content of the public air is nothing new. It’s a basic element in Virtually any of the radio laws drawn up in the Communications Act of 1934.

“What we said,” Commissioner Robert E. Lee tried to explain, “is not that you shouldn’t play a record— – just know what you’re playing. We’re going to rely on the broadcaster’s judgment.” That is, a station manager may no longer defend material on the grounds that he didn’t know it was being broadcast or what it meant. Lee said he’d welcome a test case to clarify the FCC notice, which he admitted was vague.

Would the FCC offer broadcasters some direction on what “glorifies” drugs, maybe give out titles of offending songs?

“Oh, no,” said Lee. “That would begetting close to censorship.”

The FCC’s already more than close, as far as Nicholas Johnson is concerned. In his dissent, he called the commission’s action “an unsuccessfully disguised effort to censor song lyrics that the majority disapproves of … an unconstitutional action by a Federal agency aimed clearly at controlling the content of speech.”

Talking to KSAN-FM (San Francisco) from a weekend retreat near Washington, Johnson added a touch of paranoia: “The thing I find most ominous is that the presentation we received was put together by the Pentagon for the President, and this Defense Department briefing on song lyrics in fact used a lot of of lyrics that aren’t talking about drugs at all—they’re anti-war songs or songs attacking the commercial standards of society, the standards of conspicuous consumption.

“That raises some questions about what’s going on here. If the FCC is going to be used by the Administration to frighten broadcasters to carry only stuff favorable to it, this country is in a lot more danger than any of us has imagined.”

Response from American station managers and executives was almost as vague as the FCC action. Most dope songs aired on any station – —AM or FM – —cannot accurately be blamed for “glorifying” or “promoting” drug abuse. In fact, said programming consultant Bill Gavin, “my observation has been that the singles product put out over the last nine months to a year has been completely free of mentions of drugs in their lyrics.” Which pretty much leaves AM stations clear. Except – —thinking back to Las Vegas— – for oldies like “White Rabbit,” “Eight Miles High,” or “A Little Help From My Friends,” which Agnew said were “brainwashing” young people. Or maybe a new hit or two about dope like “One Toke Over the Line,” number 48 and rising this week on Billboard’s Top 100.

At the Hollywood offices of Bill Drake, who consults and programs the “boss,” “big” and “solid gold rock and roll” stations around the country, right-hand man Bernie Torres said Drake wouldn’t change his playlists.

“The only thing you can do,” he said, “is make the stations aware that this or that song is being pointed out. You make your own decisions, but you may have to pay your dues.”

At KYA, the AM station in San Francisco now mixing album cuts with Top 40 tunes, program director Dick Starr was still wrestling with the FCC wordage. “What a joke,” he said. “It says you have to know the words to every song, but it doesn’t say what to do with it. It smacks of censorship, and it’ll create a lot of busy work. I’ll have to ask for lyric sheets if it gets that far.”

Funny he should mention that. Just a couple of months ago, NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters, passed a resolution asking that record manufacturers provide lyric sheets with all releases to be considered for airplay – —albums and singles, even tapes. Reminds one of the Fifties when broadcasters made a similar request, panicking over those new “race” records. In the early Sixties, Gordon MacLendon, a station chain owner, became a one-man censor, requiring lyric sheets for all records to be considered for airplay by his Texas rock station.

Even with lyric sheets, who’s to say what’s really subversive? In New York, George Duncan, president of the powerful Metromedia FM chain, said, “I don’t think ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ encouraged anybody to take drugs, and the number of songs that do encourage even marijuana is minimal. However, you cannot eliminate songs that have drug references or are against the use of drugs, because they’re commenting on something that exists. ‘Vietnam Potluck Blues’ was a reflection of a fact— – widespread use of marijuana in Vietnam. Whether the FCC ruling is censorship or not will have to be decided in the courts.” Metromedia stations have always made clear to announcers that the best dope songs to play are anti-dope songs.

The same with the ABC-FM network, according to Vice President Allen Shaw. He added, “There is, of course, debate on whether marijuana should be legal or not, and we’ve aired discussions on that controversy. Obviously we’re putting on discussions that are encouraging the use of illegal drugs, but I’m not sure if the Commission wants us to eliminate discussions of controversial issues just because they happen to be about illegal drugs.”

Bill Gavin, who traditionally has pointed out what he considers dope references in the songs on his weekly playlist/programming guide to stations, generally approved of the FCC action. But recently he criticized “the veiled allusions by government, by the Vice President that ‘You better be careful or Big Brother will come after you.'” Cigarette and hard-liquor advertising has been banned, he said, boror the FCC has no objection —– yet –— to songs glorifying drinking and smoking.

“Here, the FCC is placing the lyric content of songs within the framework of other types ofon-the-air spoken comment that has been grounds for canceling a license,” he said. “The thing that is questionable is the position that a lyric is conceivably encouraging or attracting use of illegal drugs.”

But there’s another line of thinking, said Gavin, “that it doesn’t even matter whether what you say is pro or anti drugs. Just the fact that it’s constantly on the air puts it on the level of common social acceptance. It’s like advertising.”

Like advertising. On the rear ends of San Francisco taxicabs and buses, K101, an FM station that programs what it calls “adult Top 40,” urges people to “TURN ON … 101.” Will the Feds try to confiscate the signs? Terry Smith, promotion manager and announcer, laughed. “Let’em come at us!” The promo line could mean anything, he said— – like, even, turn on your radio. As for the FCC notice on music: “It scares us. We don’t know what to do yet because it’s still pretty vague. I think the FCC is going after record producers, and they can’t get at them, so they’re going through us.”

Talking to Commissioner Nick Johnson, Willis Duff, KSAN general manager, defined scapegoatism another way: “This is a nice, simplistic problem to attack among all the problems we have in this society,” he said. Johnson asked Duff what the reaction of broadcasters might be. “I think 95 percent of them will knuckle immediately.” Duff replied. “The sense of civil libertarianism is at its minimum in the broadcasting industry.” Who mght fight the ruling? asked Johnson. “Perhaps Pacifica, perhaps a few of the independents.”

In Berkeley, Pacifica sighed. Kathy Kahn, administration assistant at KPFA-FM, recalled the Pacifica Foundation’s extensive courtroom experience, including the HUAC controversy and a number of license-renewal hassles. But she hastened to add, “There is a real shortage of court cases on programming.” Besides, “We audition the stuff we put out and watch for obscenities … we air what we think we can defend in court.” It’s partly a matter of money, she said.

“They’re trying to get us involved in a legal way,” said Lee Rishard, manager at KMPX-FM in San Francisco. “They know we [FM rock stations] are in trouble financially, and they want to tie us down in lawsuits. The implications are very clear. They talk about not proselytizing drugs. It’d be reasonable if they took out the word ‘illegal.’ Maybe we shouldn’t play any drug references – —but that’d take out a lot of advertising.”

KSAN news director Dave McQueen asked Commissioner Johnson about taking the issue to court. “There’s gonna have to be some kind of test,” Johnson said. “It’s inconceivable to me that any court that I’m aware of in this country would think of upholding the FCC action, of taking away a license because of contents of programming, particularly anything with socially redeeming importance of an artistic context, which by definition all this music would have.

“The FCC tried to get involved with obscenity and couldn’t define what it meant. The Supreme Court has made very clear that if the government is going to start messing around with speech, it’ll probably be unconstitutional. It sure as the devil will be unconstitutional if they can’t say what it means.”

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