Sunday, March 9, 2003

The rise of R-rated radio

Don't adjust your dial. That bleeping sound you hear is just the hit-maker machine

By Gil Kaufman
Enquirer contributor

"Put the (bleep) on ya like I told ya . . . / Phone before you come, I need to shave my (bleep) . . . / Go downtown and eat it like a (bleep)" - Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, "Work It"

The constant beeping you're hearing is not some strange new strain of dance music, it's the current sound of pop radio, where risque lyrics, copious edits and digitally blurred vocals are as much a part of the music as drums, guitars and rapping.

With The Osbournes breaking every (bleeping) taboo about profanity on television, urban, pop and rock radio stations are buzzing with the sounds of more instantly hummable, bleep-heavy songs than ever before.

From hip-hop acts such as Missy Elliott and Cam'ron to rockers Puddle of Mudd, artists have upped the ante at radio, releasing salty songs for airplay that have censors working overtime.

"I really like that song, it has a great beat," said Leah Turner, a Columbia Township mother of two teenage daughters and a 10-year-old son, of Elliott's "Work It." "When I heard it at first, I thought, `Is that really what they're saying?' "

Turner said the "incredible battle" over the radio began nearly a decade ago when her kids were listening to the squeaky-clean New Kids on the Block. It has become more pitched in the past few years. "By the time they hit eighth grade, they can download the words and see what's being said, which they probably know anyway."

Turner said she finally told her children that she'd prefer they keep the radio off when she rides with them in their cars.

Though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has strict rules regarding the airing of obscene material over the public airwaves, it has no provisions for songs that have been edited. That might explain why on a recent weeknight more than three-quarters of the hit tracks played on KISS 107.1's (WKFS-FM) "Freak Show" ("The only show worth a bleep" is its slogan.) between 7 and 8 p.m. featured at least three or more edits.

"Almost every song we play is about something inappropriate, but artists used to do a better job of camouflaging what they were saying with metaphor and whatnot," said Scott Reinhart, program director for KISS and rock stalwart WEBN-FM (102.7).

"Now, they're trying to compete with the HBOs of the world and to protect their street cred (by using foul language)."

Reinhart said he first noticed the trend toward more explicit language about three years ago, especially on KISS, whose target audience is females between the ages of 18 and 34.

Ironically, WEBN, whose target audience of 25-34 year-old males is, according to Reinhart, the most likely to accept controversial content, has few songs with significant profanity in heavy rotation.

Watchdogs are listening

The increase in racy songs has also drawn the attention of conservative watchdog groups.

"I am happy that, for the most part, in this nation we don't tolerate uncensored, strong obscenities (on radio) and people send out clean versions," said Bob Waliszewski, youth specialist for the conservative "family-based ministry" Focus on the Family. "It could be worse and we may be going that way in the next five years."

Waliszewski said he thinks enrelope-pushing cable television shows such as The Sopranos have put pressure on the major TV networks to loosen standards - as evidenced by NBC's heavily promoted, bloody Kingpin series - and that has trickled down to radio stations.

"It's a slow process of desensitization and I'm disappointed that we live in a culture where, in 30 years, it's gone from the Rolling Stones battling with Ed Sullivan over `Let's Spend the Night Together,' to 2003, where Eminem can boast about killing his wife," Waliszewski said.

When he reviewed reggae singer Shaggy's 2000 album, Hot Shot, for Focus on the Family's Plugged In magazine, Waliszewski thought that "It Wasn't Me," - with its lyrics about an adulterer "bangin' on the bathroom floor" - as so over-the-top the song would surely never get played on radio. The No. 1 single was one of the most popular songs of the year, as well as Shaggy's biggest hit to date.

The art of the edit

Songs are edited for radio in one of three ways: an artist approves and/or records an alternate version with clean lyrics or edits; the artist leaves the song as is and lets the radio station do the edit; or, as was the case with one of last year's most controversial hits, the artist submits an edited version and stations make additional changes. In some cases, songs can be edited several different ways among stations owned by the same media conglomerate in a single city.

Such was the case with Pink's "Get the Party Started." When the song aired on The Mix (WVMX-FM, 94.1), programmers edited the word "ass" out of the phrase "kiss my ass." But, on KISS, the reference was left in, according to Reinhart. "It's all based on what the audience, and advertisers, will accept," he said.

Last summer, Artemis Records had to provide New York's No. 1-rated pop station, Z100, with three different edits of their raunchiest song to date, Khia's "My Neck (My Back)."

Artemis President Daniel Glass said the airing of tracks such as Khia's - which even in its edited version is Sex and the City steamy - reflects shifting social mores, but also points to the changing face of top 40 radio.

The format that just a few years ago was the bastion of teenybopper performers such as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys now frequently mixes tame pop songs from artists such as Avril Lavigne and Justin Timberlake with more R&B and streetwise hip-hop anthems from rappers such as Ja Rule, Fat Joe and Eminem protege, 50 Cent.

The bylaws of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) state that "broadcasts that fall within the definition of indecency . . . aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. are subject to indecency enforcement by the FCC." While the agency does not monitor the airwaves in search of indecency, it responds to public complaints, which could lead to a warning, fine or, in very rare cases, revocation of a station's license.

The stations are safe, or course, if they air material that is suggestive but has been stripped of profanity and sexual language, however obvious the implication. After the "safe harbor" hours pass, stations can, in theory, air uncensored versions of songs, Reinhart said, though few take the chance. To his knowledge, Reinhart said neither KISS nor WEBN has had any recent complaints related to content.

Conservative markets hear it

The trend has spread from major cities to even the most traditionally conservative radio markets, often driven by the economics of hit records. Roanoke, Va.'s WJJS had its hand forced when it came to tracks such as Mr. Cheeks' 2002 No. 2 rap hit, "Lights, Camera, Action!" In that song, the rapper uses one of the "seven dirty words" no less than 20 times, not to mention more than two dozen n-word references, which most stations edit as well.

"What you're hearing on radio reflects what people's standards are now," said Melissa Morgan, assistant program director at 'JJS, the top-rated top-40 station in one of the more conservative markets in the region. "We clean songs up so the mom in the minivan doesn't have a lot of explaining to do . . . but our public wants to hear those songs and it doesn't pay to be cautious when it comes to playing them."

Morgan said her station was cautious at first with Eminem, but when "21-year-old women studying for exams demanded it," the station relented and added the controversial rapper to its roster.

"We often wait for a song with strong lyrical content to be exposed in other arenas like MTV and BET so that it will hopefully be more acceptable to the soccer mom, but there are definitely times we've been too cautious and were late," Morgan said.

As recently as five years ago, record label and radio executives say, many labels were reluctant to offer heavily edited songs to radio for fear of having them rejected, and stations rarely played songs with three or more edits, to say nothing of tracks with 10 and higher, such as recent hits by Cam'ron and Fat Joe.

Rock stations sign on

It's not only pop and urban stations that are pushing the envelope. Fueled by a steady diet of "Bob and Tom," The Howard Stern Show and The Man Show, rock stations such as WEBN and Channel Z (WAQZ-FM, 97.3) have begun airing their fair share of expletive-deleted (and in many cases, not deleted), songs as well.

Rock radio began the trend nearly 30 years ago with the Who's classic anthem, "Who Are You," complete with the infrequently deleted "who the f--- are you?" lyric, but newer acts have gotten in on the action as well.

Limp Bizkit proteges Puddle of Mudd had a sizeable radio hit in late 2002 with the anthem "She Hates Me," which features the refrain, "She f---in' hates me," and moody rock band Staind scored with "It's Been Awhile," with the lyrics "I've gone and f----- things up again."

For Turner, the words may be a bit further over the top, but the song, for the most part, has not remained the same.

"Really, it's no different from the songs that my husband and I used to listen to," she said, refering to such classic rock staples as Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" and ZZ Top's "Tush." "But I looked up some of the lyrics to the songs my kids listen to now, and I just thought, `Well, how much further can they really go? What's left?' "

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