A guide to broadcast obscenities and issuing content advisories

Airing indecent and obscene language puts stations at risk of FCC fines and possible loss of their license. It is your responsibility as a producer to carefully edit obscenities from your audio and to provide forewarning to stations of all content advisories in an upcoming episode.

What deserves a content advisory?

Generally, any derogatory term for genitalia, any hateful words, or anything you would hesitate to say in front of your mother or prudish Uncle.

Not all of this language needs to be dropped or bleeped, but it should all be noted (along with the time the words occur) in a message to stations. 

How to provide content advisories: 

  1. If your series uses automated delivery, it is important to use the “Contact Subscribers” link to send the content advisory directly to stations with your episode rundown.
  2. When creating a piece on exchange.prx.org, you'll see a box that says "Content Advisories." That's where you'll list the words used and when they occur in the episode. All obscene words should be noted here, even though they should also be bleeped over or dropped to silence. 

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Failure to notify stations of obscene language is a violation of our user agreement and may result in being banned from the PRX Exchange. 

When sending a note to stations about obscene or sensitive language, please make sure your message contains the following information:

  1. Mark it as an "alert" and include "Attention" in the subject line
  2. Write out all words in question, with the exact time they appear in the audio file
  3. Indicate whether the word has been bleeped
  4. If the language advisory is a warning about sensitive topics discussed in the program (i.e., sex, suicide, violence) rather than explicit language, include the full transcript of the language in question and the time it appears in the episode. 

What are the FCC rules around obscenities?

There is no specific list of banned words put out by the FCC. Their official policy may be found here, but read on for our summary. 

Obscene content does not have protection by the First Amendment.  For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person's prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a "patently offensive" way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

Profane content includes "grossly offensive" language that is considered a public nuisance.

Please note that these "definitions" are vague, and the final call is up to the subjectivity of the FCC. Remember, the consequences of a complaint can be extremely damaging financially, and can involved loss of carriage for the offending programs. The fiscal damage is judged on a per-complaint basis, not per word-use. Thus, one use of “fuck” with 10 complaints is 10x the penalty. Stations who receive complaints may find airing your program to be too risky. Distributors, like PRX, have dropped programs because of this as well.  

Can you give me some guidelines for indecent language?

We can hear you asking for it: "Can I just have a LIST?" We know. So much ambiguity is frustrating.  Although there is no clear list of words to follow, we've pooled our experience to give you some clarity around how approach certain language in your show. This is not an exhaustive list. 

Words that must always be bleeped/dropped and noted to stations in a content advisory: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits- and variations of these words- such as bullshit (see below on this particular word).  These words always need to be bleeped. The word 'pussy' when used in a sexual context is usually also to be bleeped, although the band Pussy Riot is okay to say. With scatological terms (obscenities relating to feces, urine, and defecation) should always have the obscenity bleeped or dropped to silence. For example: "shit," "bullsh*t," and "sh*thead."

Medical/anatomical terms are acceptable, e.g. anus, colon, penis, vagina, etc. 

While the medical dictionary terms are always acceptable, some words referring to parts of the human anatomy, mostly the so-called “private” parts, are considered crude. Thus, “vagina” is acceptable, “cunt” is not. The latter should be bleeped or dropped to silence. Due to “cock” meaning both male bird and reproductive organ, context is absolutely key. Dropped in most cases. Ass, horse’s ass, etc are allowable as mild euphemism- if the word donkey will fit, so will ‘ass’-  'asshole' IS an issue- edit it. 

Religious profanities should generally be dropped. Words and expressions that religious people find profane and blasphemous. Examples include "God damn" and "God damn you." Although not technically against the rules, these have been bleeped or dropped to silence for certain audiences; but not always- such as in the song  “Mississippi, God Damn”- mostly, a warning is written into the rundown.

Derogatory terms: Words or expressions that are used to denigrate and insult one's racial or ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation: Examples in this area include “wog”, “wop”, “nigger”, “kike,” “gook”, “gypsy”, as well as anti-homosexual terms like “faggot,” etc.  “Nigger” and other racist/bigoted terms require particular cultural sensitivity and should be given priority consideration. This is extraordinarily difficult, as it is dependent on who delivers the term, and in what context – e.g.  a woman relating her family's experience with the Green Book, or a poet using the word in a poem, vs it being used as abuse by a bigot. In cases where the epithet is not bleeped or dropped to silence, a warning should be given both in the audio for the listeners, and in a special notice to stations. The hurtfulness of such words can’t really be underestimated. In many ways, this situation is thornier than an outright use of an obscene ‘four-letter’ word.

The key thing is to be on guard- groups have used FCC violations to ruin stations and producers. Don’t let it happen to you. Does this mean only cover Pollyanna Sunshine stuff? No. But be aware of self-inflicted wounds. 

ATTACHED: a template for issuing an impairment notice to stations. Note that including the segment name and the exact time of the impairment/ content advisory is essential.

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