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Fining our way to national decency 

Until recently, broadcasters who breached the federal government's indecency standards risked incurring not only the wrath of some viewers but also fines of up to $32,500.

No longer.

Now, any "obscene, profane, or indecent" content that the Federal Communications Commission finds "patently offensive" can earn the station's owner fines of up to $325,000: 10 times the previous maximum.

The changes come courtesy of the new Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which President Bush signed into law last week. Commenting on the former maximum, the president had this to say:

"For some broadcasters, this amount is meaningless. It's relatively painless for them when they violate decency standards."

And perhaps he's right. For some broadcasters.

For others though, the old $32,500 fine was anything but painless, and the new one could be a death blow. Washington Post television columnist Lisa de Moraes summed it up with this headline: "A Wardrobe Malfunction and You'll Lose Your Shirt, So to Speak."

Among the habitually cash-strapped broadcasters eyeing the new law with trepidation: public television and radio stations.

"There's a great deal of concern about this among public broadcasters," says Norm Silverstein, president and CEO of Rochester's WXXI.

For commercial broadcasters, fines often come from entertainment content: witness Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" or, more recently, a "Without a Trace" episode that depicted teenagers taking part in an orgy.

Obviously that's not your average PBS fare. For public broadcasters, the potential problems come from their journalistic programming.

"We can be fined for content in a documentary," says Silverstein. "To be fined for broadcasting a documentary --- it's unfortunate that we're spending our time on these issues, particularly with the amount of violence on some of those cable shows."

Silverstein notes that the indecency penalties don't apply at all to cable programs, which aren't broadcast over the airwaves, hence aren't regulated by the FCC. Similarly, the radio world has satellite radio, which is just as unregulated. That's why Howard Stern can be raunchier these days, yet not get fined.

Opponents say the heavy fines could have a chilling effect on stations, and Silverstein says that's already beginning to happen to some degree. When his station rebroadcast the Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan recently, it bleeped some the language. WXXI hadn't done that the first time it televised the show.

"The FCC is very unclear about the standards," says Silverstein. "It makes it worse." And to further compound matters, literally, says Silverstein, "You could be fined multiple times for each broadcast."

Still, Silverstein says his stations are willing to take risks, if necessary.

"We're not going to run and hide if there's an important story to be told," he says. "We take a lot of risks here and let the viewers decide."

In another part of the market, these changes aren't likely to be felt quite as acutely.

According to Brother Wease, WCMF's morning host, his company has long since toned down its content.

"It's a meaningless change to me, because I've already been following the rules," he says. Plus, he adds, "I can still say what I want politically."

But Wease acknowledges that the steep hike in fines could prove a dangerous threat for smaller, independently operated stations.

"If somebody got popped on one of those stations, it could put them out of business," he says.

Does he think that will happen? "I hope not," Wease says. "I'd hate to see someone who put his life into a station lose it because he hired an idiot. Because that's what it'd be."

After a moment's reflection, he adds: "It feels pretty silly to be censored as an adult."

Not everyone being censored is an adult. At WBER, operated by Monroe One BOCES, high school DJs are an important part of the mix. The station has an educational license, which is stricter than other licenses anyway, says station manager and program director Joey Giusto. Like Wease, Giusto says the additional fines won't make a great difference, since the station's vision of itself has already led to stricter standards.

"Even if there was no law at all and there was no penalty or anything I'd still think of the station," he says. "We're always going to be on the cautious side with what we play."

That said, he admits to worrying about what could happen.

"No one song is going to make or break a station," he says, but "the [regulatory] climate is just a lot different these days."

If the new laws were enforced to the fullest, one inexperienced or immature student could cause significant problems for the station.

"We try and train all the high school DJs, so they're aware of all the rules and what you can and can't say, and we try to monitor them on the air but they're kind of the weakest link in the chain," says Giusto. Without much experience, it's easier to mistakenly play an unsanitized track (or slip up on-air, for that matter).

If that happens, Giusto says, he hopes the FCC will take mitigating circumstances into account.

"There's a lot of difference between something that's done blatantly and something that's one mistake," he says.

The goal of all this, of course, is to use the harsher penalties to sanitize television and radio to a point where it becomes safe for the wariest of parents to watch or listen with their kids, without fear of encountering anything untoward.

"I don't think it'll have that effect," says Norm Silverstein.

And even if it did, would that address the core moral issues that prompted this debate in the first place?

Wease doesn't think so: "What you teach a kid about right and wrong is more important than an f-word."

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