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NPR - Talk of the Nation transcript

Location: Washington, DC

National Public Radio (NPR) January 28, 2004 Wednesday

Copyright 2004 National Public Radio ®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.
National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Talk of the Nation (3:00 PM ET) - NPR

HEADLINE: Obscenity over the airwaves and whether Congress or the FCC should tighten restrictions and regulations



CONAN: Frank Ahrens is a reporter who covers the FCC for The Washington Post, and he joined us from their offices in downtown DC.

And now here with us from his office on Capitol Hill is Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican of Texas. And he is a sponsor of one of the pieces of legislation and the author of the other that we were talking about.

And, Congressman, good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): Neal, good to be with you and your listeners, as well.

CONAN: Currently, as we heard in that conversation with Frank Ahrens, the FCC fine for an obscenity offense is around $27,000. You want that 10 times bigger. Why?

Rep. SMITH: That's correct. Well, first of all, let me just correct that. The fine can be up to 27,000. It's not an automatic 27,000.

There is some leeway there. The reason for increasing the fines tenfold is twofold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. SMITH: First, that is what Chairman Powell recommended and suggested, and we think it's good to take him up on his suggestion. And the second is to really come up with a fine structure that would be a deterrent to individuals who might just say, you know-a wealthy entertainer might say, 'Hey, I can get $27,000 worth of free publicity by saying the word and getting-becoming notorious because of it.' And so we really want to have the fines large enough, still with some flexibility, so that it would deter individuals from either offensive actions or offensive words and using them at all.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Is that-as we also heard from Frank Ahrens, is even a tenfold increase going to be enough to deter the media giants?

Rep. SMITH: Well, it's more than just a start. I think it will be a deterrent, in combination with bad publicity. And after all, we ought to remember that, you know, a huge majority of the American people are offended by hearing certain words on TV or on the radio. They worry about their children. And these words, I would say, violate, you know, community standards of decency. And I think that-What?--90 percent of the American people would say we ought not have our children be exposed to these offensive words on TV or on the radio. And so with that kind of public support for saying certain words are offensive or certain fines ought to be increased, I think that it may well happen. And regardless of what some of the large media organizations think or feel, I think it will have an impact.

CONAN: Let's get some callers involved. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is And we'll begin with James, who's with us from Portland, Oregon.

JAMES (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JAMES: In Portland, we have a small community subscription alternative radio station that presents not mainstream media and a lot of alternative programming, including alternative radio, which NPR does, as well.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JAMES: And so we have a lot of what would be controversial or colorful kinds of programming. And one of these times-10 fines would take our station off the air completely, and it's all public subscriptions. So it's-you know, what might work for the giant is not going to be good at all for the local alternative expression medium, which, you know, is the little guy getting stepped on by the tools that are equipped for the big guy.

CONAN: Congressman Smith.

Rep. SMITH: Now I'll be happy to respond. First of all, there's a way to avoid being put out of business by a large fine, and that's not to allow the words to be used or spoken. And that's the whole point. But it's not to put people out of business; it's to encourage the media, whatever their size, not to use the words to begin with. And even though this may be an alternative radio station, it's probably just as easy for a child to click on the radio or push the button that turns on the radio and listen to it as any other station, and that's really who I think we're trying to protect as much as anything else.

And as long as the FCC licenses the alternative radio stations, then they, in fact, have every right and responsibility to maintain what would be considered, I think, community standards and want to protect the children or even adults from hearing these offensive words.

CONAN: Would the punishment be set to fit the crime, or would the punishment be set to fit the alleged offender, and-in this case, the difference between a Clear Channel or a community radio station in Portland, Oregon?

Rep. SMITH: Yeah. I don't think you can sort of get into, you know, one fine for one kind of station and another fine for another kind of station, either on the basis of, you know, the kind of programs they carry or on the basis of their size. I think you've just got-I think that would be unworkable. I think you just have to have one fine. And to the extent that it's-you know, the point is to deter, not to punish. And it sounds like-and I think it would be effective in accomplishing that goal.

CONAN: Nevertheless-and, James, thanks very much for the call. Nevertheless, the resources of, you know, a Viacom or a Clear Channel-they may absorb a 300,000-dollar fine and...

Rep. SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: ...look at the publicity as a positive, while that station in Portland might be off the air.

Rep. SMITH: Right. And as I said a while ago, there is flexibility. And so it may well be that the FCC would say, 'This is the first offense by a small radio station that is an alternative radio station,' and so maybe this time it'll be a thousand with the warning that next time it really will be 27,000 or 275,000.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Rep. SMITH: Whereas to the big guy who might, you know, abuse the rule and have 20 people say 20 different words, then you can hit them a little bit harder. But that's why the fines are up to, not an automatic mandate.

CONAN: Congressman Smith is going to stay with us to answer a couple more of your calls when we come back from the other side of the break. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is We're talking about his proposed Clean Airwaves Act, and we'll be right back after the break.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about attempts to change how the FCC regulates decency on the public airwaves. Our guest is Congressman Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, who's backing two bills in the House aimed at strengthening the FCC's hand. Of course, you're invited to join our conversation: (800) 989-8255, or e-mail us:

And the other piece of legislation, the Clean Airwaves Act, Congressman Smith-you wrote that, and it lists, well, the language that you want to...

Rep. SMITH: Right.

CONAN: ...absolutely bar.

Rep. SMITH: That's correct. There's eight words and phrases we'd like to add to a short list that already exists, saying that other words are patently offensive and should not be used. And these words, I think, are generally just as offensive, and we'd like for the FCC to rule that these words should be prohibited as well, and add them to the list for which, you know, media organizations could be fined if they allowed these words to be used.

CONAN: In any context?

Rep. SMITH: And by the way, to give credit where credit is due, I did not actually-I was an original co-sponsor of this legislation. It was actually written by Doug Ose, a congressman from California. But I was happy to be the other co-sponsor when it was introduced.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that correction.

The bill, as you say, deals specifically with vocabulary, but as I'm sure you know, many parents also question content...

Rep. SMITH: Right.

CONAN: ...of broadcasts. We have a clip here from the television show "Clueless," which-a spin-off from the movie-it aired on ABC and UPN-in which two teen-age characters argue about their sexual experience.

(Soundbite of "Clueless")

Unidentified Teen #1: You have no idea what you're talking about.

Unidentified Teen #2: Yes, I do.

Unidentified Teen #1: Unbelievable. You're a virgin, too.

Unidentified Teen #2: Oh, please.

Unidentified Teen #1: You are.

Unidentified Teen #2: Not.

Unidentified Teen #1: Are.

Unidentified Teen #2: Not!

Unidentified Teen #1: Are!

Unidentified Teen #2: Not!

Unidentified Teen #1: Are!

Unidentified Teen #2: Not!

Unidentified Teen #1: Are!

Unidentified Teen #2: Not!

Unidentified Teen #1: Are!

Unidentified Teen #2: OK, I are-am! So what? I cannot believe Dionne Davenport is gonna lose it before I do.

CONAN: None of the words that would be on anybody's list in that skit or sketch or in any other...

Rep. SMITH: Right.

CONAN: ...of the many sitcoms that you see on television every night.

Rep. SMITH: Right.

CONAN: But if that kind of content is going out over the airwaves, isn't-you know, a few words here or there...

Rep. SMITH: Well...

CONAN: ...kind of closing the barn door after the cow's escaped?

Rep SMITH: Let's just say we're starting where we can. And one of the reasons why we had to be specific in the legislation, as offensive as those words are, is to not be unconstitutionally vague. And, you know, so the more specific you are, the better chance you have of being upheld in court, and that was one reason we were specific in the bill.

But as you just pointed out, there are going to be incidences that may or may not be able to be regulated, and that's just the way it is. And sometimes there are exceptions to the rule or there are loopholes, and what you just simply try to do is close as many of them as possible. But I think, generally speaking, you know, we're targeting the most offensive words that almost no one would want to have broadcast, say, during family hour up until 10 PM at night. And, you know, like I say, that's a good place to start, and sometimes you just can't worry about all the other innuendos.

CONAN: That sound you heard in the background was the buzzer in the House of Representatives that summons representatives to a vote. Do I have time for one more question?

Rep. SMITH: Yes, and you were exactly right. We do have a vote coming up.

CONAN: And that question is: There are people in the broadcast community who say, 'Look, we have to compete with people who are on basic cable, who are much more explicit that we are, and they have to compete with paid cable and, you know, movies, paid movies, that are even vastly more explicit.'

Rep. SMITH: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

CONAN: 'So how are we supposed to compete in this world?'

Rep. SMITH: And that's all true, and the others cannot be regulated because they're not licensed by the FCC. And again, you regulate and prohibit what you can, even if you are not able to prohibit everything that you want.

And, you know, this is-as I say, it's a start. And also, maybe by setting the example, there will be some public pressure brought on the cables and some of the other broadcasts that cannot be regulated to clean up their act a little bit. So don't underestimate that possibility, as well.

CONAN: Congressman Smith has to leave to conduct the people's business. Thank you very much for being with us.

Rep. SMITH: Thank you, Neal. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Republican Lamar Smith is a representative from Texas, and he joined us today from his office on Capitol Hill.

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