Wishbone What?

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(Pictured: Wishbone Ash, on stage in the 70s.)

The Federal Communications Commission isn’t what it used to be. Its main task today is to facilitate the efforts of giant television, radio, and Internet conglomerates to take an ever-greater stranglehold on the marketplace and to help the bankrupt ones stay afloat. While it occasionally hands out fines to broadcasters for various legal and technical infractions, the Commission is not an entity the average dumb-ass disc jockey thinks about anymore. But it wasn’t always that way, as this college radio story from around 1980 indicates. 

We will call her Kristin, because that is not her name. Kristin was a pretty good newscaster, but she wanted to be a disc jockey, too. Alas, she was not good at it—without a script in front of her, she got flustered easily, and as a result, she didn’t have a great deal of confidence. That made nearly every break a walk on the high wire. I wondered why somebody who struggled so much and never seemed to get any more comfortable would keep on doing it.

Now, before I can tell you the rest of this story, I have to tell you a different one.

We have mentioned before how it used to be that the jock on the air was also the transmitter operator, required to pass a test and get a license from the FCC. The operator had to take regular readings of transmitter power to make sure the station was operating legally, and adjust power if it was not. If the station dropped off the air for some reason, it was that person’s responsibility to get it back on, and to document everything in the station’s transmitter log. It was made clear to every jock from Day One that all of this was Very Serious Business, because the FCC was always watching, like God. In addition, the transmitter operator/DJ bore the ultimate reponsibility for whatever got on the air. So we had our own homemade, bitch-free edit of “Rich Girl,” and why Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” bore a warning label regarding the single “shit” in the lyrics. Nobody wanted to be the person who brought down the hammer of federal justice.

One afternoon we heard through the grapevine that an FCC inspector had been in nearby Dubuque that morning. Word spread through the station like wildfire, and we immediately went on high alert, obsessively monitoring our transmitter to make damn sure we were legal. We got all the old logs in order, in case the inspector wanted to see them, and we probably picked up the place a little bit too, all in anticipation of the fateful visit.

As it happened, Kristin was on the air that afternoon, and the news that the FCC might be listening did absolutely nothing for her barely detectible confidence. On one of her first breaks, she cued up a Wishbone Ash record and promptly introduced it as Wishbone Ass. After it dawned on her that she had said “ass” on the air while possibly being monitored by the FCC, she was distraught. She was sure that she was about to get her license revoked, and the station’s, too. Some of us took more pleasure than we should have in her obvious discomfiture, but at the same time, we worried that she might be right.

As you might guess, however, the Great Wishbone Ass Incident didn’t cost anybody their license. The FCC didn’t show up that day, or on any other day as far as I can remember.

Years later, it seems to me that our concern about the FCC was not unlike a child’s concern about the monster under the bed: a mysterious presence, amorphous in the dark, ready to bite our heads off at the slightest provocation. We could feel it, even though we couldn’t see it. Surely, even back in the day, FCC field officers had better things to do than monitor 420-watt college radio stations. Nevertheless, we acted as though the monster was really there, because it seemed safer than to risk being eaten.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post.)

7 thoughts on “Wishbone What?

  1. Tim Morrissey

    Great post, as usual! Two incidents from my career, as regards the FCC: 1) I came back from lunch one day and had a “While You Were Out” phone message from our receptionist. It said something like “Bud from WAGO called and said to warn you that the FZZ is in town.” 2) A fellow jock and I convinced our afternoon lady that the name of the new Seattle football team was actually “SeaShit” and she believed us and read it that way in her next news/sports break. Afterward we came into the studio and confessed our crime, and apologized with serious faces, telling her we’d never have pranked her like that if we’d known the FCC was in town and monitoring. Told her we’d just gotten word of it from the station across town. She was terrified so badly that we had to confess it was all BS.

  2. Alvaro Leos

    It’s amusing to think while the lyrical content of music has become far more daring since then, radio really hasn’t. Even the local college radio station won’t go further than “shit” during the daytime hours (once “safe harbour” hits at 10pm anything goes) and most commercial stations won’t even go that far. BTW, have there been any real life cases where the FCC prosecuted a station for very mild expletives?

  3. That setup would make for a funny episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati”; have one of the goody-goody characters, say Les or Bailey (didn’t she always want to go on air?) accidently let an F-bomb out on a live mike, which results in a Christmas card and visit from the FCC.

  4. mikehagerty

    So, my tagging an Anheuser-Busch spot with “And while we look up the verb “to anheize…” was probably riskier than necessary, huh?

  5. mackdaddyg

    Interesting post, JB. I hadn’t thought about it, but I guess since everything (both talent and transmitter power) is mostly automated these days, there isn’t much concern if the FCC shows up anymore…assuming there’s somebody at the station to talk to them.

  6. porky

    Great post. I remember the “FCC fear” instilled in me to keep me on my toes.

    I recall the on-air content being recorded on a reel-to-reel that moved at glacial speed; it was said that if the “big boys” wanted to listen to an on-air no-no they would listen to this tape. It was also said that it recorded at such a slow speed as to be unintelligible. And yet we had shelves of these tapes, “just in case.”

  7. mikehagerty

    Slow-speed loggers weren’t unintelligible. They sucked in terms of audio quality for music and spots, and airchecks pulled from them are the worst—but if you said something, the FCC could hear it. Most of the time, they were used for proof of performance if a sponsor questioned the accuracy of your logs.

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