August 1–8, 1996

city beat

Lawyers, Guns and Lyrics

Has the FCC cowed WXPN into cutting the naughty bits out of songs?

By Margit Detweiler

One WXPN listener is willing to pay good money to hear her songs unadulterated. Fifty bucks, to be precise.

In a letter to WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania public radio station of which she’s a card-carrying member, Nancy McClernan wrote that she “objected” to the way WXPN was censoring particular songs, specifically the Steely Dan song, “Showbusiness Kids,” and Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Instead of bleeping out the offensive word in each song, lines are rearranged.

“I’ll try to send more,” she writes. “In fact, I’ll take up a collection of anti-censorship listeners to ransom back all the songs that you’ve tampered with.”

In the Steely Dan song, for example, the line “Show business kids making movies of themselves, ya know thay don’t give a fuck about anybody else,” is replaced with a line that appears earlier in the song: “Show business kids making movies of themselves, you know ya want ’em.”

Warren Zevon’s song is even more mangled.

Zevon’s line, “I’m traveling in Honduras, I’m a desperate man, send lawyers, guns and money, the shit has hit the fan,” is now, “I’m traveling in Honduras, I’m a desperate man, send lawyers, guns and money, get me out of this.”

“Get me out of this” appears in a previous verse, “I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk, send lawyers, guns and money, Dad, get me out of this.”

“I wouldn’t like it if you just bleeped the word ‘fuck’ out either,” McClernan wrote to WXPN, “but at least you would be honest about your censorship. Who made WXPN Steely Dan’s producer?”

Program Director Kim Alexander wrote a letter back to McClernan citing WXPN’s license suspension for offensive language on the air in 1975 and it’s sensitivity to these issues since then.

“Therefore we are in the position of either editing certain songs or excluding them completely from our library.”

Though Alexander was out of the office this week, Assistant Station Manager for Programming Bruce Ranes said that there have been incidents in the past “where some broadcasters, particularly students, didn’t use the best discretion,” he said. “Since then we remain to be very cautious.”

An FCC representative, who is not allowed to disclose her name, said it must have been a pretty big case because when she asked around, another FCC rep said, “Oh that must be that indecency case from back in the ’70s in Philadelphia.”

In December 1975, the FCC suspended the station’s license and fined them $2,000 for violating obscenity standards on several occasions.

A show called “Vegetable Report,” a live broadcast which ‘XPN aired in the fall of 1974, was particularly troublesome to the FCC.

A transcript accompanying the suspension notice started off with this exchange.

“Male announcer: —on the air”

Female caller: Kiss my pussy, you dog you-

MA: You’re beautiful! You’re a poet!

FC: Suck my pussy, you motherfu-

MA: You’re a poet! Don’t hang up — keep going.

FC: Suck out my ass. Get a straw and strip it to the bone and suck out that motherfucker.

MA: Wow! [Later he adds] You’re magnificent… No seriously, your command of the English language is fantas-

The various encounters with callers wanting to spew obscenities were plentiful. The FCC rep explained that several incidents contributed to the suspension, the fine, and ultimately a hearing.

“Because there was a question as to whether WXPN could adequately control their radio station,” said the FCC rep.

So it’s not surprising that the station has been running scared for about 20 years.

Other stations don’t feel they have to be so cautious. WMMR plays “Lawyers, Guns and Money” with the “shit” intact (though they don’t play “Showbusiness Kids”) and WDRE plays the “chickenshit” version of Alanis Morrissette’s “Hand In My Pocket,” while WXPN plays the song with the word bleeped. But neither WXPN nor WDRE says they’ll rework a song if it has an offensive word.

“We might take a word and invert it,” says WDRE program director Jim McGuinn. “We can do this thing where we cut the piece of tape that says ‘fuck,’ put it upside down so it goes ‘shwwoop!’ or something like that. We have this great digital workstation. With the Violent Femmes song ‘Add It Up,’ we replaced the word “fuck” with a beat from the intro to the song.”

Chuck D’Amico of WMMR’s music department says the station might bleep a word out but they won’t change a song. They might shorten a song, or play it only at a certain time of day.

“But if it takes that much effort to fix it,” says D’Amico, “we probably wouldn’t play it.”

“It’s really strange that they would go to such lengths,” said a representative from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers), who preferred to remain anonymous. “And it’s certainly not commonplace.”

What’s most commonplace in radio censorship is simply editing out a particular word or playing an artist-approved version. Morrissette supplied radio stations with a “clean” version of “Hand In My Pocket” which didn’t contain the word “chickenshit,” and Tom Petty offered an alternate version of his song, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” one with the line “let’s roll another joint,” the other with the replacement, “let’s hit another joint.”

“We elected to only play [the clean version] of ‘Hand in My Pocket’ so we didn’t have to hear ‘chickenshit.’ Although we do keep the part where she says, ‘Would she go down on you in a theater?'” says Ranes. “The law of averages says we could probably play the unedited version, but if the record company gives us an artist-approved clean version? You know? We’re the same station that has Kids’ Corner, so… There have been cases, as in ‘Showbusiness Kids,’ where we have the choice of not playing the song, or play our own edited version of it. We don’t want to deprive people of hearing the song.”

So why not just bleep out the word that offends? Why recreate the song? McClernan’s beef is that the listener doesn’t realize they’re hearing a denatured version.

“They could be doing it to lots of other songs and I wouldn’t know the difference,” she says.

“We don’t do that as a rule, only an exception,” says Ranes. “I might not have done it that way. We usually do something at the digital work station where we substitute a beat for a word. We’re not in the business of changing art.”

Ranes says that out of the thousands of CDs in their library only a dozen or so songs have been altered that way.

“I see this as a huge, major league non-issue… Let’s call a spade a spade. Half of what’s out there, if it doesn’t have cursing, has some sort of drug or sex reference. Try to find a rock ‘n’ roll song that’s not about that and you’re gonna play like four songs on the radio. No matter what genre. Frank Sinatra, for God’s sakes.”

As for the Zevon song, Ranes isn’t sure where the WXPN version originated — he thinks it’s a different version from a Zevon greatest hits album, that the station never messed with it. According to Zevon’s manager Gloria Boyce, and Zevon himself, he never created an alternate version.

When I mentioned the edits to Boyce, she seemed shocked. “What radio station does this?”

She forwarded the information to Zevon whose only comment was, “I’d rather be bleeped.”

Editing out to clean up isn’t the only reason radio programmers tinker with songs. WMMR’s D’Amico says shortening songs to increase the attention span of the listener is commonplace.

The practice of shortening songs for airplay, or making a station seem “hot” by speeding songs up, has been done imperceptibly for years, says the rep from ASCAP, especially by pop or top 40 stations.

McGuinn says he’s even gotten to remixing to increase the listeners’ attention span. The station didn’t like that the song “Scooby Snacks,” from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals album Come Find Yourself (EMI), didn’t get to the chorus until too late.

“So we put the chorus up closer in the song,” says McGuinn.

Wouldn’t the band mind the ‘DRE version?

“Their record label wants the new mix… And I don’t know if Fun Lovin’ Criminals are at a position in their career where they could say anything about it.”

Although the band couldn’t be reached at press time, a representative from EMI said they are “aware” of the remix.

“Technically, if you look at the fine print, a CD is on loan to a radio station from a record company and the record company retains the rights to it,” said the ASCAP rep. “Legally, though, there’s not much that they can, or would do. The artist and label is usually happy to get any play at all. Music does get played with, if you know what I mean.”