The $500K #!*@%

The FCC's latest mission: Dumbing-down our airwaves.

Underneath the Lintel Produced by Cesear's Forum at Kennedy's, 1501 Euclid Avenue Through May 8 (no performance on April 9), 216-241-6000
A fine mess:  Rover (center) and his friends just got a - little less Xtreme.
A fine mess: Rover (center) and his friends just got a little less Xtreme.
Craig Callander's business card pretty much says it all. "669: Helping You Hurt Yourself" it reads, an apt encapsulation of his on-air antagonism. As the anti-everything radio personality Sweet Ass Sassafrass, Callander is among the funniest and fiercest on Cleveland airwaves. 669, his twice-weekly show on WCSB-FM 88.3, is a mix of scabrous punk rock and humor as abrasive as steel wool. It's Callander's playground, where he violates listeners, airs randy prank calls, and occasionally hosts f-bomb-filled interviews with acts like Insane Clown Posse.

Well, not anymore. In the wake of Janet Jackson's Nipplegate, the FCC has come down hard on stations that air off-color humor or the occasional curse word, which had been permissible in the past.

How bad has it gotten? Even the Butt Trumpet's been silenced.

"Butt Trumpet has a song, 'Fucking Asshole,' that used to be a big request. I won't play that now because I'm kind of nervous about it," says Callander, whose show airs at 5 p.m. Thursdays and 1 a.m. Saturdays. "It's a nasty song, but it's something that I've played for 10 years. Now, in this climate, I won't even consider it, because I don't want to get busted on some stupid technicality. It's so weird how, after all the freedoms that I've enjoyed for so long, I'm nervous about a lot of stuff now."

Rover, an equally pugnacious personality at 92.3 Xtreme, also feels the duct tape on his mouth. The host of Rover's Morning Glory (weekdays 5:30 to 10 a.m.), he's had to tone down his show's mix of bawdy comedy and modern rock.

"One of the segments the lawyers made us ax was a daily feature called 'Dear Porn Star,' where porn star Carmen Luvana would answer listeners' love, sex, and relationship questions," Rover says. "In fact, they said the mere title 'Dear Porn Star' had to go, no matter what the content of the feature was. If she was to give lawn and garden advice or talk about politics, we still couldn't call it 'Dear Porn Star.' Twelve-year-old girls are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words 'Porn Star' across their chests, but I can't say the term on the air."

The FCC's regulatory powers were amplified last month, when the commission reversed its decision on an indecency ruling from October 2003. That ruling followed U2 frontman Bono's nationally broadcast speech at the Golden Globes, in which he uttered, "This is really, really fucking brilliant." At the time, the FCC said the curse was permissible because it was fleeting and didn't describe sexual or excretory functions -- long the standard for forbidden words.

By March, the excretory functions had hit the fan. After an appeal filed by the Parents Television Council, the FCC did an about-face, ruling that Bono's words were in fact indecent and broadening the definition of "profane" speech to include just about all swear words or racy commentary, regardless of context. A new "Indecency Bill" before the Senate would greatly amplify fines: First offenses, currently $27,500, would jump to $275,000; by your third slipup, the tab hits $500,000. After that, stations' broadcasts licenses may be revoked. Even DJs can be fired.

That's why, after decades of spinning classic rock, WNCX Program Director Bill Louis had to slash his playlist, removing songs by the Who ("Who Are You"), Warren Zevon ("Lawyers, Guns and Money"), and the Steve Miller Band ("Jet Airliner") because they contain mild profanity. He'd been spinning Pink Floyd's "Money" for 17 years without a single complaint, but its use of "bullshit" forced Louis to shelve it. "This puts everybody on red alert for anything that could create a fine in that area," he says.

Stations like WCSB, whose annual budget is well under $50,000, could easily be put out of business by a single violation.

"You're not going to take any chances," Callander says. "I wouldn't even care if I got a fine, but I don't want to be the person who gets the station in trouble just for taking a stand. It seems like the FCC wants to baby-proof and Nerf everything and make it so safe that no one could possibly be offended. You never know what they're going to go after. You could be next."

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