Neither Obscene Nor Heard

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Oct. 3 is the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco court ruling that beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was not obscene (ACLU defended the poet in the case).

The ACLU also pointed to the irony that radio station WBAI New York had decided not to air a recording of a reading by Ginsburg of his poem as part of a news story on the anniversary, but instead sent it barrelling down the highway of the future (WBAI posted it on its Web site) for fear, or at least it suggested for fear, of FCC fines as high as $325,000 per expletive.

Since WBAI is a Pacifica station, my guess is that the decision not to air the poem was the station’s way of making a point rather than any real boot-quaking over the FCC, whose rules it has tested before. I also think I recall other Howl-related stunts from the Pacifica crew to make the point that the red-blooded venacular of Ginsberg’s James Joyce meets T.S. Eliott-on-drugs protest opus was being denied a wider audience by the blue noses in Washington.

Given the language on an HBO stand-up special or a Comedy Central roast these days (I’m still recovering from George Takei on Shatner’s send-up), Ginsberg’s poem would be right at home on cable but is still too much like rough, real life for the ruling sensibilities and dollars of broadcast television or radio.

The Howl reading is also onthe main Pacifica site as part of what is being billed as a "Howl vs. Censorship" special online, thanks to "draconian FCC fines for language infractions," says WBAI, "you still can’t hear HOWL on the radio," more evidecne of a wider "take that FCC" message.

Pacifica is essentially the poster company for the commission’s indecency enforcement regime, its name affixed to the Supreme Court decision in the George Carlin so-called "seven dirty words" case that reinforced–by a 5-4 thread–the FCC’s authority to crack down on indecent content.

If any of the broadcasters’ indecency enforcement challenges reach the Supreme Court on constitutional issues, it is the Pacifica decision that will either be upheld or rejected.

If so, one side or the other will surely be howling about that.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.