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What the *BLEEP*? Coarse Language in Radio Broadcasts

As Eric Alper recently pointed out on Twitter, A$AP Rocky’s song “F**kin Problems” is the latest in a string of songs that have the word “f**k” (or some variation thereof) in their title to reach the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart (the other two recent hits were Pink’s “F**kin’ Perfect” & Cee-Lo’s “F**k You!”). So far as I can tell, the first such song to achieve that, um, distinction was Eamon’s “F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back)”, which hit number seven back in 2004 (the “answer” song by Frankee, entitled “F.U.R.B. (F**k You Right Back)” only hit number 29 on the Billboard charts – though both songs evidently hit #1 in the UK). Anyone listening to those songs on Canadian radio are unlikely to hear “dirty” versions of them – instead, the broadcast version will likely be an edited version which somehow obscures the profanity, either by substituting a “clean” word, an obscuring sound (the classic “bleep”) or altering or dropping the audio on the vocal track when the profanity is said (in almost all such cases, the record company in question will have released an authorized “clean” version of the track for radio play). Are radio stations prohibited by law from broadcasting profanity?

Not really – there isn’t, strictly speaking, a legal prohibition on playing unedited versions of songs which containing profanity, but depending on the context it can be a violation of a broadcaster’s obligations under the code of ethics which broadcasters agree to observe. (As an aside, I seem to recall that not only was a “clean” version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” (which features a fairly prominent use of the f-word in its bridge) the only version you could hear on Canadian radio when it was released in 1994, but it often wasn’t even played until after 9pm. Kids these days, with all their hippin’ and their hoppin’… .) The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), a non-governmental organization, administers the various codes promulgated by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB). As a condition of their broadcasting license from the Canadian  Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), broadcasters are generally obliged to abide by the CAB codes, one of which is the CAB Code of Ethics, Section 9 of which provides that “particular care shall be taken by radio broadcasters to ensure that programming on their stations does not contain … unduly coarse and offensive language”.

It turns out that Canadian radio stations and television stations broadcast the f-word more than you’d think, at least if the number of complaints the CBSC receives is any indication – a search of the CBSC’s online repository of decisions turns up more than sixty decisions stemming from listerner complaints. The 2005 decision regarding the Tragically Hip song “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” (CBSC Decision 04/05-0324) contains a handy review of CBSC decisions regarding the use of the f-word in songs (evidently the first such decision was made in 2001) – some highlights:

  • the CBSC has “consistently ruled that broadcast of the f-word on radio during daytime and early evening hours [when children are most likely to be listening] constitutes a breach of the CAB Code of Ethics
  • repeated use of the f-word in a song can be a violation, but so can a single “gratuitous” use of the f-word (see CBSC Decision 00/01-0670)

The obvious implication of the wording of the statement in the first bullet above is that there may be hours of the day when broadcasting the f-word is not violative of Section 9 of the Code of Ethics. The CBSC panel also noted that “language usage is constantly in a state of evolution… Formerly unacceptable language gradually but invariably insinuates itself into more common usage and a review of the old and new practice is merited from time to time”, and so revisiting the treatment of the f-word and its derivatives (which the panel notes appears “in noun, verb, adjective, adverb and interjection forms in English”) is occasionally warranted. That being said, in 2008 the CBSC reiterated that broadcasting the f-word in a song played at around 5:15pm violated the Code (CBSC Decision 06/07-1118). In 2011, the CBSC held that the playing of a song (Buckcherry’s “Crazy B***h”) which edited out the f-word (by dropping the audio) was not a violation of the Code (CBSC Decision 10/11-1169).

So where do we stand? Playing a song featuring unedited uses of the “f-word” during the day and early evening hours is almost certainly still a violation of the CAB Code of Ethics prohibition on the use of coarse language. Broadcasts of the same song at night may not be violations of the Code, but the CBSC does not yet appear to have pronounced definitively on the matter – but broadcasts at such times are less likely, by virtue of the demographics of the listeners, to attract complaints and so we may never actually get a definitive pronouncement.

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What the *BLEEP*? Coarse Language in Radio Broadcasts

CBSC Delivers Revised “Money for Nothing” Decision

On August 31, 2011, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), the private body which administers the codes of standards and conduct created by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), announced its “revised” decision in respect of the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” (for previous Signal coverage of the CBSC’s original decision and its aftermath, see here and here).  (One curiosity worth noting: according to the text of “revised” decision, it was apparently decided on May 17, 2011 – it is unclear why the decision was only announced and released three months later.)

To recap: in January 2011 the CBSC released a decision of its Atlantic Regional Panel which, responding to a listener complaint, held that the radio broadcast of the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”, which contained the word “f****t” (artfully called “the other f-word” in the revised decision), violated Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, and Clauses 2, 7 and 9 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code (all of which counsel against the use of language which is abusive, offensive, derogatory or results in negative portrayal on the basis of, among others, sexual orientation).  The Atlantic Regional Panel’s decision ignited a negative public reaction, one which was so pronounced that the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was prompted, after being buried by outraged public complaints, to send a public letter to the CBSC asking them to reconsider the decision – a rather remarkable turn of events, seeing as (a) there is normally no appeal mechanism for CBSC decisions, (b) the CRTC has no formal oversight powers over the CBSC, and (c) the people complaining to the CRTC were evidently confused about precisely to whom they should have been complaining, since the CRTC had nothing to do with the CBSC decision.  The CBSC convened what it called an “ad hoc national panel” to reconsider the decision, and that ad hoc panel has now released a “revised” decision, which, to mangle the terminology, “overturns” the earlier Atlantic Regional Panel decision.

Interested readers should peruse two items from the CBSC: both the lengthy National Panel decision and also the Press Release about the decision which was released by the CBSC.

To summarize the revised decision: using “the other f-word” in radio broadcasts is, in general, inappropriate and a violation of the Code of Ethics and the Equitable Portrayal Code, however, in the context of this song, the use of the word “f****t” was acceptable because it was in furtherance of the artistic device of portraying the intolerant, bigoted individual from whose perspective the lyrics of the song are being sung; all that being said, because there are numerous alternative versions of the song which have been released by the band and which do not make use of “the other f-word”, those alternative versions are to be preferred, but broadcasting the original, unexpurgated version of the song will not, in itself, be a violation of the applicable Codes.

And so ends one of the more exciting episodes in the CBSC’s history (assuming that another new, previously unknown appeal mechanism is not devised).  It strikes me that the revised decision is the preferable of the two, though the entire saga hopefully highlights the deficiencies of the existing process and demonstrates the need for an internal appeal/review device within the existing CBSC framework.

CBSC Delivers Revised “Money for Nothing” Decision

Bully Beatdown Gets a Thumbs Up (or, How the CBSC and CRTC Function)

A recent Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision finding that MTV Canada’s broadcast of the show Bully Beatdown did not violate the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Violence Code offers a good opportunity to review the relationship between the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) and the CRTC – a useful reminder as we await the outcome of the CBSC’s review of its earlier decision on the radio airing of the Dire Straits’ song Money for Nothing (see here and here for earlier Signal coverage of the matter; also worth reading is the CBSC release entitled Some Important Clarifications about the CBSC’s Dire Straits Decision, which is not just informative, but fascinating reading from a public relations standpoint).

Some background on the Bully Beatdown decision.  In April 2009 the CBSC received a complaint about MTV’s broadcast of the show – this file contains the original complaint, the response from MTV and some subsequent correspondence from both sides.  The complaint asserted that the broadcast of the show, in which a victim of bullying is afforded the opportunity to see his or her bully engage in mixed martial arts combat with a professional MMA fighter (there’s a monetary component to the show which is, frankly, entirely besides the point), violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Violence Code.

In April 2010, the CBSC released its decision in the matter (CBSC Decision 08/09-1667), in which it concluded that the broadcast of the show did not violate the CAB Violence Code:

In the end, although sympathetic to the complainant’s concerns about the best societal solution to the bullying problem, the Panel finds no breach of any of the foregoing standards as a result of the type, timing, or advisory choices regarding the violent content of the challenged episode of Bully Beatdown.

The complainant requested that the CRTC review the CBSC’s decision (an explanation of the relationship between the CBSC and the CRTC as it relates to CBSC decisions can be found here).  The complainant wanted the CRTC to review the decision particularly with respect to the fact that the CBSC did not find that there was a violation of Section 3.1.1 of the CAB Violence Code – the so-called “watershed” provision which requires that programming containing scenes of violence intended for adult audiences be aired only after 9pm.

In March 2011, the CRTC released its decision in the matter (

Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2011-160

).  The CRTC confirmed the CBSC’s decision that the broadcast of Bully Beatdown did not violate the CAB Violence Code, and in particular, that the scenes of violence contained in the program “were not of such an explicit or graphic nature as to necessitate relegation of the broadcast of the program to post-watershed hours”.

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Bully Beatdown Gets a Thumbs Up (or, How the CBSC and CRTC Function)

CRTC Requests that CBSC Reconsider “Money for Nothing” Decision

Further to our earlier post on the matter (CBSC Decision on Derogatory Terminology), in what appears to be an unprecedented step, the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) has sent a letter to the CBSC (Canadian Broadcast Standards Council), asking the CBSC to reconsider its decision that the use of the word “f****t” in the Dire Straits’ song “Money for Nothing” contravenes the CAB’s (Canadian Association of Broadcasters) Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code.

The text of the CRTC’s January 21, 2011 letter to the CBSC can be found here.  It states, in part:

In light of the national scope of this matter, the strong public reaction to the Atlantic Panel’s decision, and the considerable experience of the CBSC in reviewing such matters, the Commission hereby is taking the following two steps:

  1. We are sending you all the correspondence we have received in respect of this matter since your decision was published.
  2. The Commission is of the view that the CBSC should appoint a panel with a national composition to reconsider the matter and review the new correspondence regarding this song.

Such reconsideration should, after seeking submissions from the public by means of a public request for comments via your website, take into consideration all relevant factors, including:

  • the context of the particular wording in the song’s theme and intended message,
  • the age and origin of the song and the date of its performance,
  • the prominence of the contested word in the song and the use of that word over time, and
  • the length of time and frequency that it has been playing on the airwaves.

The letter is particularly notable because the CRTC has no actual authority over the CBSC – the CBSC is a private independent body which does not report to the CRTC.

CRTC Requests that CBSC Reconsider “Money for Nothing” Decision

CBSC Decision on Derogatory Terminology

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), the private body which administers the codes of standards and conduct created by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), has rendered a decision (via its Atlantic Regional Panel) concerning the broadcast of the unedited version of the song “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits by a radio station in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.  The CBSC has made the full text of the decision available, as well as having issued a media release about the decision.  (The decision was made in October 2010, but not publicly released until January 2011.)

The decision is notable for a couple of reasons.  First, it represents confirmation from the CBSC that use of the word “f****t” (I confess I’m not sure what the exact etiquette of using derogatory words in an explanatory context on a law firm website is, so I’ll leave it to readers to click through to the decision if they feel the need to read an unexpurgated usage of the term) contravenes Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics, and Clauses 2, 7 and 9 of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code (all of which counsel against the use of language which is abusive, offensive, derogatory or results in negative portrayal on the basis of, among others, sexual orientation).

Additionally, the decision makes reference to Clause 9b of the CAB Equitable Portrayal Code, what I’ll call the “evolution of language” clause, which reads as follows:

It is understood that language and terminology evolve over time. Some language and terminology may be inappropriate when used with respect to identifiable groups on the basis of their race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability. Broadcasters shall remain vigilant with respect to the evolving appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular words and phrases, keeping in mind prevailing community standards.

As the decision notes, the wording of that clause of the Code “does not restrict the direction of the evolution, which may, in some cases, head toward greater permissiveness, and in others greater restrictiveness”.  In the case of “Money for Nothing”, released in 1985, the impugned word “even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so … it has fallen into the category of unacceptable designations”.  In other words, the fact that the song had been broadcast for nearly twenty-five years without formal objection could not be relied upon to justify contemporary broadcast.  (The decision makes reference to previous decisions by other CBSC panels which concluded that the word “f**” could be acceptable in certain broadcast contexts, though the Atlantic Panel seemed to be less than thrilled with those decisions.)  The lyrics in the song were controversial even when it was first released – and alternative edits, with the offending word either garbled or entirely removed, are available, and the Panel noted that broadcast of such an altered version of the song would not contravene either Code.

UPDATE: Graham Purse, at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law blog, provides a run-down of other CBSC decisions which examined song lyrics.  Radio guy Alan Cross has written a lengthy post which explores the workings of the CBSC from a broadcaster’s perspective (hat tip: Andrew Potter).

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CBSC Decision on Derogatory Terminology