'Howl' too hot to hear
Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg's Beat-era poem "Howl" was not obscene. Yet today, a New York public broadcasting station decided not to air the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission will find it indecent and crush the network with crippling fines.

Another irony: WBAI, the Pacifica Foundation station in New York that plans to post "Howl" online, is the same station that took on the FCC more than 30 years ago over the right to air George Carlin's comedy routine featuring the "seven dirty words." The challenge led to a 1978 Supreme Court decision governing what naughty words can be broadcast and when.

WBAI won't broadcast "Howl," even between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the hours the FCC has cordoned off for rougher language. WBAI program director Bernard White fears that the FCC will fine the station $325,000 for every one of Ginsberg's dirty-word bombs. If each Pacifica station that aired the poem - and possibly repeated it - were to be fined for airing "Howl," it could mean millions of dollars in fines.

The show they wouldn't air is on their web site.

Update: I've turned off comments on this because I honestly don't give a shit about the opinions of the drooling morons who feel the need to explain to me how this is all perfectly ok, or how "radio" or "speech" or "non-satellite radio" are somehow less deserving of First Amendment protection than is "print", or how it wasn't "really" censorship because the radio station decided not to broadcast it and get fined out of existence. You certainly have a right to these opinions (isn't democracy ironic?) but I still think you're a moron and don't want to waste any more of my time arguing with you, so fuck off.

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19 Responses:

  1. elliterati says:

    ...but I think I might have to lay low, for awhile...

    What's emigration to the Netherlands like?

    • elliterati says:

      Weird, I was looking at lyrics sites to check my quote, and pretty much all of them skip the chorus.Which to me is the most important part. What does THAT mean?

  2. loosechanj says:

    The show they wouldn't air is on their web site.

    The whole time I was reading this post I was thinking well gee broadcasting over the airwaves is so quaint.

  3. certron says:

    Disclaimer: I'm a listener and sometime sponsor of WBAI.

    Just to make a distinction, WBAI is not 'public broadcasting' like NPR is, since they are completely supported by personal (and not corporate) donations. Typically, they refer to themselves as "non-commercial, listener-supported community radio station, in the middle of your FM dial."

    Due to this, they have pledge drives about 3 times a year, with a 1 day every 6-8 months for the Pacifica Foundation. I usually donate for the "Off the Hook" show. Regardless, WBAI doesn't (usually) stand for 'We Beg At Intervals'.

    • Public broadcasting is broadcasting funded by the public.

      How, exactly, are contributions by individuals not contributions from the public?

      (insert snarky comments about corporations being the definition of "public" here. I just don't have the energy)

      • certron says:

        I didn't say they were not public, but your average PBS / NPR station receives a whole lot of corporate sponsorships and quite a bit more money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which some might say occasionally compromises their 'integrity'. Bill Moyers is probably a counter-example to this, but when the directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting starts saying that there should be more conservative voices on PBS to 'balance' things out, I get a little suspicious about impartiality. (Yes, sort of two different issues, I know.)

        Most (all?) Pacifica stations have local station boards, which are elected by the listenership, and they make a big deal about not having corporate donations, although they do receive some money from CPB as well, but most of the operating funds come from listeners. If you want a good example of independent programming, there's Democracy Now and Free Speech Radio News. It might not always be interesting, but it regularly has stories that never show up on TV, and regularly are the first to cover issues that are later reported on by more mainstream media.

        • I didn't ask for a sermon on objectivity, I just asked - how is WBAI not "public broadcasting"?

          Are you defining it as "receiving money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting"?

          • certron says:

            I'm not saying it isn't public broadcasting, just that it is different from NPR and PBS, and perhaps worthy of further investigation by those who are interested, in case they didn't know about it before. There are considerably fewer Pacifica network radio stations than NPR, and I find it to be useful listening. Take it however you want.

            Basically, consider this as the annoying voice in the back of the classroom relating a true, possibly interesting, but sometimes irrelevant piece of information.

            I think we're approaching the point of "arguing on the Internet".

  4. evan says:

    It's excessive for them to call it "Howl Against Censorship" when they're the ones who won't air it. Airing it, and then (maybe) going to court would make their headline a bit more reasonable. I guess "Howl Against Chilling Effects" doesn't have the same ring to it.

  5. c_death says:

    I like Evan's take. They made a decision not to air it, just as if I owned a a liquor store, can choose not to sell "Big Jugs" or what ever. It not so much censorship. It's equally fascist to force someone to do something they are uncomfortable with (in the name of free speech) as it is to limit their right to do so.

    Also. Howl, not exactly PG. More like NC-17. Just like you probably will never see Scarface unedited on prime time on ABC, you will probably wont hear Howl being read on _public_ radio.

    who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
    who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
    who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
    who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,
    who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom,
    who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and
    come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness,
    who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sun rise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake,
    who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver-joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses' rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too,

    • jwz says:

      Their lawyers told them that even if they played it at midnight, multi-million dollar fines were likely.

      But I'm sure you're right, that was all nonsense and they're just cowards. The FCC is a good and reasonable supporter of the First Amendment, and chilling effects don't exist.

      • c_death says:

        I'm not all "yeah yeah FCC yippy" I do think they are a bunch of idiots most of the time.

        but using this as an example of big bad FCC is in my opinion, dumb.

        Public radio is *public radio*. If you want to hear the words fuck and cunt and so on and so forth listen to satellite or internet radio.

        • jwz says:

          You're insane.

          Here, let me show you why:

          "Bookstores are *public bookstores*. If you want to read the words fuck and cunt and so on, use internet bookstores."

          • c_death says:

            you are talking about spoken word which can be heard by everyone in earshot verses a read word which is only "heard" by the reader.

            Even if there was a out loud reading at a bookstore, there is usually notices as to what is going on at the door, so any passerby can choose to come in or not.

            Public radio has a "standard" as to what to expect. I know I could let my 12 year old son (which I do have one, though he was adopted at birth) listen to radio and know he's not going to hear a detailed description of rape in a glamorous manner.

            I can not go to Golden Gate have sex with a donkey and call it performance art and actually think I'm going to get away with it because of "free speech".

            but... If I want to so the same thing at a private party in which people know, or have an idea what going to happen, then that is a different ballgame.

            • strspn says:

              Earshot? Are you saying you wouldn't be allowed to recite Howl on a public street corner?

              • c_death says:

                no. I used to recite Howl in front of supermarkets ('cause that was an actual hangout in bumbfucked egypt) and the mall. and I read it because it was shocking. Nobody really stuck around to actually listen, or didn't care because I was never asked to leave. So I couldn't tell you what my 15 year old self would do if was asked to leave. However, I was respectful of children and stopped when I saw them. and continued once the entered the store with their parents. Maybe that's why I was never asked to stop. My 31 year old self on the other hand... well probably wouldn't be reading it in public 'cause I feel is disrespectful to force people over their comfort level. But that's me, I am not ruler of the world and can not tell people what or how to feel or act.

                But, if I was a parent and *saw* someone reciting something down the street, I can choose not go in earshot with my kid. Public radio, you can't "see" what coming up next. Let say I let my 12 year old son listen to some morning show that at the worse have fart jokes and then one morning starts talking about sodomy, heroin addiction, amphetamine/sleep deprivation/LSD hallucinations, prostitution, public masturbation, masturbation with beer bottles, cunts and snatches, oral sex, self mutilation, suicide. Well I would be pissed...

                The fact they wouldn't allow a midnight reading if fucked. But the fact Howl wasn't read in general on public radio, isn't that shocking nor am I pissed.

            • jsbowden says:

              There's a dial on the radio for a REASON.

              There's also an 'Off' switch.

              I suggest you investigate the possibilities.

  6. cygnus says:

    Just wanted to thank you for this post. I love "Howl", and I've wanted to hear a Ginsberg reading of it for a while. Most of your links don't make me thankful so much as scared shitless, but stuff like this is why I'm willing to go through the occasional gouging out my eyes thing.