Sandlin, executive director of the Northeast Alabama Community Development Corp., and members of the local broadcast media who spoke recently with The Star believe the area’s local broadcasters adhere to higher decency standards than the ones imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Other findings from The Star’s two-month probe of local broadcasting and community standards found:
n No FCC complaints concerning indecency, obscenity or profanity had been filed against local radio stations in the past four years.
n It’s expensive and time-consuming for a member of the public to learn about FCC violations in the Calhoun County market. Compliance with a Freedom of Information request for complaints about indecency, obscenity or profanity in Calhoun County costs $410 and would take nine hours to complete, said a spokesman for the FCC.
n Nationally syndicated programming is often out of step with the standards defined by community members and local broadcasters.
n Though Birmingham and Atlanta are both less than a two-hour drive from Calhoun County, the standards of those markets are far looser than the ones in Calhoun County, the community members and broadcasters say.
What you can say
To appease audience members, local broadcasters say they are overly cautious and even more conservative than FCC regulations.
“You can say ‘hell,’ you can say ‘damn,’ and that’s it,” Mike Stedham, Jacksonville State University’s director of student media, tells student broadcasters at WLJS-FM 91.9, the school’s radio station. “We don’t go into the gray areas. We draw the line very conservatively.”
The FCC defines broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”
The community standards measurement “is a very vague standard,” said Dr. J. Patrick McGrail, assistant professor of broadcasting and communication at JSU.
“Contemporary community standards” may be difficult to measure, especially as nationally broadcast programming continues to shape them. For Calhoun County, the threshold for indecency is lower than that of surrounding metropolitan areas, according to community leaders and broadcasters.
The Anniston area is a conservative, predominantly Christian and traditional community, according to the panel of community members and local broadcast media assembled by The Star in June. Panelists included broadcasters, student media directors, board of education members and activists. (See page 3B for biographies of panelists.) The inevitable influence of nationally syndicated talk shows or corporate-radio playlists selected hundreds of miles away from Anniston may be shifting these community standards, many on the panel said.
“We’re pretty much on the conservative side when it comes to talk radio or when it comes to music,” Sandlin said. “You’re going to hear pretty much music that you don’t mind listening to in front of your mom or your grandparents.”
At WLJS, the student-radio volunteers are told to play only the “clean versions” of songs. For Stedham, “pushing the envelope” is not worth the risk, especially because one $325,000 fine is about three times the station’s annual budget, and to lose the radio station’s license would mean the loss of a valuable teaching tool for future broadcasters.
“To risk all that just to get one song on the air, to me, would not be a very good use of public funds. Are we being overly cautious? Yes,” Stedham said.
Small-town values on air
Besides the financial cost, local disc jockeys and station managers say they avoid racier content because they are held to a high standard by their listeners.
“Because we are in such a small market, we’re able to interact with our listeners on a more intimate level, like grocery stores and church,” said Steve Stevens of Anniston’s WVOK-FM 97.9. “We hear first-hand from our listeners, and I think because we are such a small market that we’re held to a higher level of decency.”
Chuck Woodard, WVOK general manager, agrees.
“We’re not a hidden face,” he said. “We’re a family station and we’re not going to play anything that’s offensive that would drop listeners and drop advertisers.”
When it comes to advertising, adult entertainment or palm readers can’t advertise on WVOK.
Other area stations have similar policies. Montressor Sudduth, a longtime DJ at WHOG-AM 1120 in Anniston, said advertisements from “loan sharks” or “bad car dealerships” are prohibited.
The nationally syndicated programming airing on local radio poses a threat to defined and cohesive community standards, the panel members said.
Jon Holder of WGRW-FM 90.7 in Anniston remembers during his childhood that everyone basically listened to the same things because of the lack of choices. With the additional niche stations, listeners’ standards today may be too diverse for definition.
Holder said he knows how his audience, a Christian one, would respond to certain content, “but to say that the same audience listening to a country station or the same audience that’s listening to pop stations would have the same reaction, it’s hard to tell.”
Songs that are ‘hot’
WVOK regularly plays “California Gurls” by Katy Perry and has ranked it as the No. 1 song on its website. Despite the song not having what the FCC defines as profane or obscene lyrics, it may not square up with contemporary community standards of this area.
The song, which has a lyric, “Sex on the beach/We don’t mind sand in our stilettos/We freak/In my Jeep,” has been No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 100 list.
When asked about the particular lyric of “California Gurls,” WVOK on-air personality Jock Burgess said, “She wasn’t really going overboard with it … I don’t think that’s going to cause a lot of controversy.
“This part of the country, this part of the state, is very conservative,” Burgess said, adding that it’s not true that every person in the region would find the same lyrics or issues offensive. He added, “There is a diversity of opinions here, though maybe not as diverse as other places.”
Burgess also pointed out that the song is “hot” and is “high, high on the charts. We’d be crazy not to play it.”
Mark Hogan, general manager of WHOG, said he does not see Calhoun County as having different standards than anywhere else, despite being “heavy in the Bible Belt.”
He, too, said the demand for a certain is the main factor in whether the song will be played, as long as the song meets FCC criteria.
He said that every era has “controversial songs. Every generation has music that older generations don’t like.”
However, Burgess said the station would consider pulling a song if there were “a reasonable outcry.”
It’s not only the nationally syndicated programming or playlists that differ very little from others on stations in different markets that are shifting contemporary community standards. People are just not tuning into their local radio stations as much; instead, they’re opting for personal music devices or satellite radio stations, said panelists.
Sandlin, who listens to his personal CDs more than the radio, said he doubts he would ever need to complain about the content on local radio stations — although he would “if it’s to the point that I’m afraid to turn the radio on with my daughter in the truck with me.”
Conservative, but not Christian?
In 2009, nationally syndicated libertarian talk-show host Neal Boortz reacted to the news that more 1,000 Birmingham residents had lined up for public-housing assistance. Boortz’s verdict: People applying for government assistance are “human parasitic garbage lining up to get their applications to loot … to take money away from somebody better than they.”
At the time, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources, Calhoun County, where “The Neal Boortz Show” aired on WDNG-AM 1450, was in the top 10 of Alabama counties in terms of residents receiving financial assistance.
“It’s scary that people are listening to this (on the radio),” said Martha Vandervoort, executive director of Interfaith Ministries of Calhoun County, an agency dedicated to helping the poor.
Government-assistance applicants, Boortz has said on his program, “sit on their fat asses and do nothing to improve their condition … You may not like it and you may [say,] ‘Oh, he’s preaching hate, he’s spewing venom.’ But truth is truth.”
How to square this rhetoric in a community firmly rooted in Christianity? Proverbs 29:7 states, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”
Imagine Boortz’s words coming from a church pulpit or family reunion picnic.
Profits and programming
J.J. Dark, WDNG’s station manager, explained that airing Boortz’s program by using a commercial argument, not a moral one. Boortz is a part of the station’s lineup, Dark said, “because he beats Rush Limbaugh” in Atlanta. “What he does in larger markets, he usually does in smaller markets.”
Dark said that Calhoun County is “conservative, Christian-oriented with Christian values. That’s why our type of programming fits in so well.”
Dark also added, “People take talk radio too seriously. If talk radio was as strong in changing the public opinion as much as the opponents say it is, then (Presidents) Clinton or Obama would never have been elected.”
Vandervoort isn’t sure if community standards are “that different here than anywhere else. We’re more religiously oriented, and I’m not sure if that makes people have different standards or not. You would think that it would.”
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 82 percent of Alabamians describe themselves as Protestant Christians.
“A liberal here is a conservative in California. We’re in the Bible Belt. Most of our concepts are based off Scripture and principles like that,” said David Reddick, director of the Calhoun County chapter of the NAACP. “You can take the biggest heathen out here and he can quote Scriptures to you.”
For the local talk-radio shows, Christianity always plays some part. Almost every comment on Marty and Casey Rollins’ WDNG radio show, “The Honest Answer,” included a Bible verse or mention of Jesus or church. Also, local pastors are regular guests on the show.
However, the local broadcasts do not bring in the revenue of the national talk shows, which Burgess said are “entertaining.”
Sudduth of WHOG said talk radio shows are outlets for people to vent frustration, anger and disappointment, and are great for stations’ bottom lines, as well.
Dark said the listeners of the nationally syndicated talk shows on his station are “much more educated about what’s going on, have the income to purchase the items advertised on the radio,” are “upscale” and predominantly “professional.”
The profitability of these shows may very well reflect the community’s standards. On the other hand, they may affect or mold the community’s standards to meet one that more closely resembles other areas of the nation.
“We’re not changing anything, just reflecting the lifestyles, attitudes and morals of the people in the South,” Dark said of WDNG’s programming.
The public owns the airwaves, meaning that the public has a right to complain if something does not meet regulatory standards.
For Vandervoort, broadcast regulation is important because of the profound subsequent impact of what is heard (and seen) has on people.
“I feel that your thoughts and your life reflect what you listen to,” said Vandervoort. “I think people kind of get used to what they’re hearing and they don’t even realize what’s coming into their mind and affecting their own morals.”
Kiri Walton, a native of Nashville, is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama Knight Community Journalism Masters Program who interned this summer at The Star.