CIRK-FM re K-Rock Morning Show

PRAIRIE REGIONAL PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-0713 & -1113)
D. Braun (Chair), D. Ish (Vice-Chair), D. Dobbie, V. Dubois, J. Fong and R. Gallagher

THE FACTS

The K-Rock Morning Show airs every weekday from 5:30-9:00 am on CIRK-FM (97.3 K-Rock, Edmonton).  The show is hosted by Terry Evans, Steve Zimmerman and Bill Cowen (and is sometimes known under their names).  It includes customary morning show fare, such as songs, news, traffic updates and weather reports.  The program also features banter between the hosts, as well as comedic songs and sketches.  Many of these discussions, joke songs and skits have sexual themes.

Two individuals complained to the CBSC about different episodes of the program, one about that of April 9, 2002 and the other about that of July 24.

The First Complaint

The first complaint was dated April 9 (the full text of all the correspondence can be found in Appendix B).  The complainant characterized the morning show content as “blatant sexual exploitation” and as being offensive and insulting to women.  He stated that he felt the “Dirty Lori” segment, in which a “sex expert” answers listeners' letters, was “far too explicit than is needed.”  He also mentioned his disapproval of one host's use of the word “shit” during the April 9 broadcast.

CIRK-FM's Director of Programming responded to the complainant on April 25 by explaining that

[t]he use of the word 'shit' was accidental and was immediately addressed internally.  It is our policy that this word, and many unmentioned others, are NOT to be used on the air. [.] Following that day's broadcast, management addressed this with the on-air talent who agreed that it should not be used again in the future.

With respect to the complainant's other concerns, the Director of Programming stated, first, that the Dirty Lori segments, rather than providing sexually explicit explanations, use “innuendo and conjecture, leaving it up to the listener to 'fill in the blanks'” and, second, that the sexual discussions on the program “are not specific to any gender, and do not demean or denigrate any individual on the basis of gender.”

That complainant sent an e-mail response to the Director of Programming's letter on April 26.  He was satisfied with CIRK-FM's approach to the issue of foul language, but disagreed with the station's position on the Dirty Lori segments and the representation of women on the program.

The Second Complaint

The second complainant sent his e-mailed correspondence to the CBSC on July 24 and copied CIRK-FM.  He also complained in general about the “objectional [sic] material” found on the station and specifically mentioned a joke song entitled “Tits” that was played on July 24.  The Director of Programming responded to that complainant on the very same day.  He explained that, according to ratings data, the K-Rock Morning Show is the number one morning program in Edmonton with listeners in the 25-54 age demographic.  He acknowledged that their content was “on the edge”, but stressed that they take broadcast standards very seriously.  With respect to the “Tits” song, he stated that “[t]he word, in our opinion, is simply not a profane or indecent word, and its use on the air does not denigrate, demean, or disparage anyone on any basis.”

Once the CBSC had processed the complaint, it gave CIRK-FM a second chance to respond if it wished.  CIRK-FM took the opportunity and replied on August 20.  The Director of Programming generally reiterated the station's views on the issues raised by the complainant.

Both of the complainants requested that the CBSC Prairie Regional Panel review the challenged broadcasts and rule on the relevant matters.

THE DECISION

The Prairie Regional Panel examined the broadcasts under the relevant portions of the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics and Sex-Role Portrayal Code:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 6, paragraph 3:

It is recognized that the full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial is the prime and fundamental responsibility of the broadcast publisher.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 15 (Sex-Role Stereotyping):

Recognizing that stereotyping images can and do cause negative influences, it shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to exhibit, to the best of their ability, a conscious sensitivity to the problems related to sex-role stereotyping, by refraining from exploitation and by the reflection of the intellectual and emotional equality of both sexes in programming.

CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code, Article 4 (Exploitation):

Television and radio programming shall refrain from the exploitation of women, men and children.  Negative or degrading comments on the role and nature of women, men or children in society shall be avoided.  Modes of dress, camera focus on areas of the body and similar modes of portrayal should not be degrading to either sex.  [.]

The Prairie Regional Panel listened to a recording of each of the K-Rock Morning Show broadcasts in question and reviewed all of the correspondence.  It concludes that certain segments on both dates are in breach of Clause 6, paragraph 3 of the CAB Code of Ethics because they are too sexually explicit for times of the day when children are likely to be listening to the radio.

As indicated above, one of the complainants strongly objected to the use of the word “shit” on air on April 9.  That word was used in the following statement during a conversation about local politics (transcripts of the pertinent portions of all relevant dialogue and segments can be found in Appendix A):

Well, and that's the thing.  Everybody goes around, they need a politician that kisses ass.  Where I can go up and say “You know what, I think you're a piece of shit,” you know and that's the difference between, you know.  So I just don't.  As soon as they get elected and they're in the seat of power it's like this to the voter.

Many of the CBSC Adjudicating Panels have been called upon to address the use of various coarse words on both radio and television.  In the very first CBSC decision dealing with such an issue, namely, CFRA-AM re Steve Madely (CBSC Decision 93/94-0295, November 15, 1994), the Ontario Regional Panel established the “current broad social norms test”.  In general, that test provides that current broad social norms must be taken into consideration when assessing the acceptability of certain words on the airwaves.  At the same time, the test includes the notion that there may be words which ought not to be used in the medium but whose use cannot be raised to the level of a Code violation.

Since the Madely decision, CBSC Panels have applied the broad social norms test to different words.  They have not found Code breaches for the use of words such as “damn”, “crap”, “ass” and “son-of-a-bitch” even when employed at times of the day when children could be in the audience [see, for example, CHAN-TV re Sportscast (CBSC Decision 95/96-0108, December 18, 1996) and CIQC-AM re Galganov in the Morning (CBSC Decision 97/98-0473, August 14, 1998)].  On the other hand, Panels have determined that broadcast of the f-word and its derivatives will be found in violation of the CAB Code of Ethics when played at times of the day when children could be expected to be listening to the radio.  In the first decision in which that determination was made, namely, CIOX-FM re the songs “Livin' It Up” by Limp Bizkit and “Outside” by Aaron Lewis and Fred Durst (CBSC Decision 00/01-0670, June 28, 2001), the Ontario Regional Panel dealt with variations of the words “fuck” and “motherfucker” in song lyrics.  In that decision, the Panel noted that research conducted in other English-speaking countries, such as Great Britain and New Zealand, had found that the f-word and its derivatives were ranked among the most offensive to survey respondents.

No CBSC Panel has yet made a decision regarding the use of the word “shit”.  Although the word itself was used in the song broadcast in CIOX-FM re a song entitled “Boyz in the Hood” (CBSC Decision 99/00-0619, October 12, 2000), the Panel had no information as to the time at which the song was played.  In the matter at hand, the word was used at approximately 6:15 am, during a morning radio program time slot, which has generally been considered a time at which children are likely to be listening.

In the studies conducted in other English-speaking countries mentioned above, [1] the word “shit” stood roughly in the middle of lists ranking coarse words by level of severity, according to survey participants.  Respondents to those studies replied that they found words more or less severe depending, among other things, on the context in which they are used; such words are, for example, deemed less offensive when used as interjections (grammatically speaking), in other words, as expressions of surprise or frustration than when they are used to insult other individuals.

In the broadcast at hand, the on-air announcer used the word as an insult, albeit an undirected insult, and this in the context of a hypothetical scenario.  The phrase “piece of shit” was not focussed on any particular politician, but rather reflected the host's view of politicians in general.  Nevertheless, the coarse word was applied intentionally and in a derogatory way.  The Panel considers such a usage sufficiently severe as to conclude that its use at times of the day when children could be expected to be listening constitutes a breach of Clause 6, paragraph 3 of the CAB Code of Ethics, the provision that the CBSC currently uses to deal with complaints about coarse language.

From the broadcaster's letter, it is clear that CIRK-FM agrees that the word should not be broadcast on its station.  The Director of Programming indicated that management had addressed the situation with the on-air host, who also agreed that the word would not be used in the future.  The complainant then declared himself satisfied that “the response from CIRK-FM addresses the issue of foul language adequately.”  Since the action taken by the station in correcting this issue has met the expectations of both the complainant and the CBSC, the Panel sees no reason to oblige CIRK-FM to announce this aspect of the decision on-air.

In past decisions, the CBSC has distinguished between the type of sexual comment that is acceptable on radio at times of the day when children are likely to be listening and that which is not.  In general, its Panels have determined that mild sexually suggestive content, often in the form of innuendo or double entendre, is not considered to be in violation of the CAB Code of Ethics; on the other hand, more sexually explicit or detailed commentary is considered to be in breach of the Code when broadcast during morning drive radio (and at other times of the day when children are likely to be listening).

In CFMI-FM re Brother Jake Morning Show (CBSC Decision 00/01-0688, January 23, 2002), the BC Regional Panel examined episodes of a morning radio show that often included discussions and comedic sketches, some of which were limited to sexual innuendo, but others of which included more sexually explicit material.  The Panel concluded that the situations involving mere innuendo, such as Jake's suggestion that his female co-host “hold my import”, were perhaps in poor taste, but did not amount to a breach of any Code provision.  In other cases, the content was deemed to be too sexually explicit for that time of day.  One of the primary examples cited by the Panel was a lengthy conversation in which a male host recounted his previous night's date where he was “givin' it to her” on a workbench and “she's goin' nuts grabbin' my nuts.”  Another example of sexually explicit content found in breach of the CAB Code of Ethics was a comedic sketch in which a woman with a Mexican accent was clearly in the throes of passion yelling out phrases such as “oh, the tongue!” and “oh, the finger!”.

Similarly, in CFNY-FM re The Show with Dean Blundell (CBSC Decision 01/02-0267, June 7, 2002), the Ontario Regional Panel determined that those comments that could be considered innuendo and thus merely in bad taste were to be regulated by the listener via the radio tuning dial or the on/off switch while those discussions which crossed the line into sexually explicit territory were found in breach of the Code.  One such conversation about a male host's sexual encounter began with double entendres about it being “windy that day” as there was “some blowin'”, but eventually led to more unequivocal comments such as “she performs pleasures on him” and “she fellated you within three hours of knowing her.”

Then, in CFMI-FM re Brother Jake Morning Show (Wake Up Contests) (CBSC Decision 01/02-0875, January 14, 2003), the BC Panel addressed a listener's concerns about two contests that were broadcast during the program.  The first was entitled “Wake Up Woody” and the second “Wake Up Wendy”.  Contestants were required to awaken their sleeping partners using innovative sexual techniques while the morning show crew listened over the telephone and transmitted the scenario on-air.  The listener felt that both the contests' theme and the actual dialogue that took place during the stunts were too sexually explicit for a time when families were preparing to go to work and school.  The Panel disagreed with the complainant's characterization of the contests, finding that the contests' nature and titles as well as the descriptions used by the hosts, such as “you go downtown, [.] south of the equator” were sufficiently couched in innuendo to pass muster.

The Prairie Panel considers that much of the content of the K-Rock Morning Show referring to sexuality is on the edge of acceptability, while some instances fall over that edge, resulting in a Code breach.  One example of a sexually explicit discussion occurred on April 9 at approximately 6:00 am when a woman, Norma, telephoned the station to ask the hosts if they knew of a good headache remedy.  The following conversation ensued:

Norma, what you gotta do, do you have anything battery operated?  Because there's a scientific fact that orgasms can, uh, can cure headaches.
Terry:    Do you have a cell phone that you can set to vibrate?
I do have a cell phone, but I don't know if it'll vibrate.
[.]
Terry:    You have a washer?  Okay, what you do is, you go to the washer, you take an uneven load.  All right?  So that means you get a couple of pairs of jeans and you put 'em all on one side of the drum, inside there, okay?
[.]
Terry:    And all you do is rub up against that and in no time your headache will be gone Norma.

The woman telephoned back later in the program to inform the hosts that her headache was going away through the use of medication.  They expressed their disappointment that she had not followed their more sexually oriented advice.  In the end, the Panel finds that the detailed instructions on how to masturbate with a washing machine provided during the first of Norma's two calls were too sexually explicit for times of the day when children could be listening.

In addition to such conversations, there were also other comedic sketches and songs broadcast on both April 9 and July 24 that were, in the view of the Panel, problematic.  Into this category fall a mock commercial for a “Solo Sex” exercise machine, a humorous song entitled “Dear Penthouse” and another called “Prison Bitch”.  Although the majority of those segments consisted of very strong sexual innuendo, each did include certain words and phrases that made the subject matter entirely clear and unequivocal.  In the case of “Dear Penthouse”, the reference to the teacher “with the dynamite ass” undressing and inviting the student to do the same for the purpose of having sex is an example not only of explicit material but also of a theme that could be expected to be disturbing to children.  The description of the sexual activities in the tent is similar.  The “Prison Bitch” song is at least as explicit.  At the very least, the references to “doin' you” and being a sex machine while referring to Vaseline fall into that category.

On the other hand, a number of other segments fell into the more innocuous category of mild sexual innuendo and double entendre.  These include a mock commercial for “Trophy Wife Barbie” aired on July 24.  “Trophy Wife Barbie” is said to come with such accessories as high heels, a push-up bra and an engagement ring twice as big as First Wife Barbie.  The fictional advertisement featured a double entendre in the lines:  “Sorry, Trophy Wife Barbie's husband sold separately.  We'd like to say she comes with her husband, but she doesn't.  She does, however, come with Pedro, the pool boy.”  In such instances as these, the Prairie Panel concludes that the segments are in poor taste but do not rise to the level of a breach of the CAB Code of Ethics.  As the CBSC has stated on numerous previous occasions, when content is on the edge but not over it, the principle of freedom of expression must prevail, and listeners must make their own choices as to whether such content is acceptable in their households.

As noted above, the first complainant also made specific mention of the Dirty Lori segments in which “Dirty Lori” answers listeners' letters on sexual matters.  The Dirty Lori spot that was broadcast on April 9 dealt with a question about penis shape.  Although the three male hosts made some jokes about the issue, Lori did respond to the question seriously.  The Panel finds that this particular Dirty Lori segment was not sufficiently ribald to be considered in breach of the Code.  While the conversation did provide a description of male anatomy, it was not in the context of a sexual act which is the criterion that would have rendered it inappropriate for times of the day when children could be listening.

The Panel understands the dilemma of broadcasters desirous of providing programming featuring a content and style that they deem appealing and entertaining for their target audience while respecting codified broadcast standards.  The appeal to all the perceived instincts of the target audience cannot be the sole, or even principal, determinative characteristic of broadcasters' programming choices.  Broadcasters must use their expertise to find the appropriate combination of content that is, on the one hand, amusing to their audience and yet, on the other hand, does not contravene any of the Code provisions which Canada's private broadcasters have themselves collectively established. The collective standards represent a series of limits or borders, developed with the interests of audiences, as well as competitive broadcasters, in mind.  A broadcast that treats those limitations cavalierly is a broadcast too far.

Anticipatorily, the Panel notes that the revised CAB Code of Ethics (which came into effect August 1, 2002, subsequent to the broadcast dates in question) contains a specific provision requiring that broadcasters ensure that their programming does not contain “unduly sexually explicit material”.  The revised Code (applicable only to post-August 1, 2002 broadcasts) more clearly sets out the requirements in this respect than did the more general provision regarding “full, fair and proper presentation of news, opinion, comment and editorial.”  Since the latter was the applicable Code provision, the Panel finds CIRK-FM in breach of Clause 6, paragraph 3 of the CAB Code of Ethics for broadcasting sexually explicit segments at times of the day when children are likely to be listening to the radio.

The issue of exploitation and degradation of men, women and children differs from the matter of sexually explicit material in the sense that the former is in violation of the CAB Code of Ethics and the CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code when broadcast at any time of day.  Past CBSC decisions have, however, explained this requirement to mean that the presentation of one sex must be degrading or exploitative relative to the other.

The first complainant stated his opinion that the content of the K-Rock Morning Show was insulting and exploitative towards women, while the second complainant was specifically concerned with the joke song entitled “Tits” which he considered could be offensive to some listeners.  Moreover, there can be no doubt that the three male hosts comment both on sexual situations and the appearance of women.  On the other hand, it must be recognized  that they also mock men, including themselves, in similar contexts.  Some of the comedic sketches and songs also focus on the body parts of both men and women.

The Ontario Regional Panel dealt with a similar question in the aforementioned Dean Blundell decision.  In the course of certain episodes of that program, the hosts made comments about women's body parts.  For example, they discussed singer Bif Naked who exposed her breast for an album photo, as well as their female co-host's augmented breast size which was the result of her recent pregnancy.  The Panel concluded that no comment was so focussed as to amount to a breach of the sex-role portrayal provisions in the broadcaster Codes:

In neither instance were negative or degrading comments made.  It must also be acknowledged that the women who were the subject of these remarks were willing participants:  Bif Naked for choosing to put a revealing photo on her CD, no doubt in an attempt to be provocative; and [the female host] for contributing to the jokes about the post-pregnancy increase in her bust size.

This treatment of women stood in contrast to that found on The Howard Stern Show.  In both CHOM-FM and CILQ-FM re The Howard Stern Show (CBSC Decision 97/98-0001+, October 17-18, 1997) and CILQ-FM re The Howard Stern Show (CBSC Decision 97/98-0487+, February 20, 1998), the Québec and Ontario Regional Panels found Stern's unrelenting use of terms such as “pieces of ass”, “dumb broads”, and “sluts” in reference to women in breach of the Codes.  The Panels also noted that Stern

[f]requently deals with female guests on the basis of their physical attributes and sexual practices rather than, or occasionally in addition to, the skills or talents which are the reason for their common recognition.  In the case of callers, he regularly avoids the subject with respect to which they have called in order to seek details of their bust size and weight as well as their sexual practices, despite the fact that this information is utterly irrelevant to the subject of interest.

The K-Rock Morning Show does not sink to that level of degradation when dealing with women.  As noted above, both women and men are targets for the program's jokes.  For example, the “Tits” song, which tells the story of a man who buys his wife breast implants only to be unsettled by the fact that she shows the result to everybody, was preceded an hour earlier by a joke song called “Circumcision”, which told the equally ridiculous story of a man who satisfied his fiancée's request for him to be circumcised for which he goes to a barber “for a little off the top” and ended up with a significant diminution of a material part of his anatomy.  As this Panel stated of a televised film in CKX-TV re National Lampoon's Animal House (CBSC Decision 96/97-0104, December 16, 1997),

While the portrayal of the women in the film is not overly flattering, it cannot either be said that the portrayal of the men is any better or advantages them in any way.  All in all, the presentation of almost every one of this group of young college people is as unflattering as one might expect from a film emphasizing the frivolous, narcissistic, often gross, occasionally disgusting portrait of college fraternity life which can best be characterised as high farce.  The question of portrayal inequality does not come into play.

While there may be issues of taste with respect to the representation of both men and women on the program, the Prairie Regional Panel finds no breach of either clause 15 of the CAB Code of Ethics or Article 4 of the CAB Sex-Role Portrayal Code in either of the challenged episodes of the K-Rock Morning Show.

Since one of the responsibilities of membership in the CBSC Manual is to “co-operate fully with complainants by responding quickly and effectively to their concerns,” CBSC Panels always take the time, in the course of their deliberations, to review the broadcaster's responsiveness to the complainant.  Compliance with this undertaking is a matter required in all files under consideration by the CBSC's Panels.  In this case, the Director of Programming wrote detailed, thoughtful replies to both complainants addressing their specific concerns.  In the case of the complainant who copied CIRK-FM on his initial complaint, the Director of Programming provided a lengthy response to the complainant on the same day and responded a second time a few weeks later when offered the opportunity by the CBSC.  In this respect, CIRK-FM has met and even exceeded the responsiveness requirements of CBSC membership.  Nothing further is required in this respect in this instance.

ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DECISION

CIRK-FM is required to: 1) announce this decision, in the following terms, once during peak listening hours within three days following the release of this decision and once more within seven days following the release of this decision in the time period in which the morning show was broadcast; 2) within fourteen days following the broadcast of the announcements, to provide written confirmation of the airing of the announcements to the complainants who filed the Ruling Requests; and 3) at that time, to provide the CBSC with that written confirmation and with air check copies of the broadcasts of the two announcements which must be made by CIRK-FM.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has found that CIRK-FM has breached a provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics.  On April 9 and July 24, 2002, CIRK-FM broadcast sexually explicit segments during the morning show.  Those episodes included sexually explicit material which was broadcast at times of the day when children could be expected to be listening contrary to Clause 6, paragraph 3 of the CAB Code of Ethics, which requires that broadcasters ensure the proper presentation of opinion and comment in their programming.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.