In August 2017, we’ve seen a continuing rise of the ‘alt-right.’ Following the racially-fuelled conflict in Charlottesville, streaming service giant Spotify removed all bands linked to discriminating neo-nazi hate groups. Whilst Spotify may have just decided to take action against hate-spewing musicians, Ofcom licensed radio stations have been avoiding these bands forever. As part of the broadcasting regulator guidelines, Ofcom licensed radio stations should not play music citing hatred or abuse.
Ofcom rule 3.2 states “material which contains hate speech must not be included in television and radio programmes except where it is justified by the context.” Similarly Ofcom rule 3.3 reads “material which contains abusive or derogatory treatment of individuals, groups, religions or communities, must not be included in television and radio services except where it is justified by the context.”
So, what does it mean to be justified by the context?
Ofcom guidelines state: “Meaning of “context” under Rule 3.2 and Rule 3.3: Key contextual factors may include, but are not limited to: • the genre and editorial content of the programme, programmes or series and the likely audience expectations. For example, there are certain genres such as drama, comedy or satire where there is likely to be editorial justification for including challenging or extreme views in keeping with audience expectations, provided there is sufficient context. The greater the risk for the material to cause harm or offence, the greater the need for more contextual justification; • the extent to which sufficient challenge is provided; • the status or position of anyone featured in the material; • the service on which the material is broadcast; and • the likely size and composition of the potential audience and likely expectation of the audience.”
Working in radio, for Sunderland community radio station Spark, one of my biggest challenges has been receiving tracks suitable airplay from North East hip-hop artists. Some have admitted it’s laziness, others have cited the confusion of what words or phrase are playable for radio – most however, their reluctance to create clean versions of music is purely political.
In a conversation with Kay Greyson and Rex Regis, the two expressed their opinions on the subject on TheRootMusic radio show. Kay has notoriously not given me clean edits despite revealing that they’re on the North East rapper’s Google Drive. Kay’s older brother, and fellow hip-hop artist Rex Regis is on the other end of the spectrum. Unlike his sister, Rex has been compliant in giving me clean edits – as a result I played the majority of his latest album ‘The Third’ on my show.
Kay explained that whilst she understands swear words are banned, there are some phrases which aren’t clear. I have to hold my hands up and admit I’m in a similar position myself. I once edited the ‘green’ out of Frank Ocean’s “too many bowls of that green, no lucky charms” lyric from ‘Super Rich Kids.’ On the other hand, I’ve let slip other, more obvious drug references. I’ve always wondered why Justin Beiber got away with “We all get high sometimes you know” yet Mike Posner’s “I took a pill in Ibiza” was switched to “I took a plane to Ibiza.”
I find it laughable Future’s hit ‘Mask Off’’s hook is allowed to be played uncensored because most people don’t know what a ‘Molly’ or ‘Percocet’ is. I even tested that fact in disbelief with a few Spark personnel, and to my disbelief no-one in the office had any idea what Future was talking about.
That is a big part of radio censorship. Knowing your audience – something which has changed for me recently. In the past, my show was in the late 9-11pm slot. Whilst radio doesn’t have a watershed like TV does, it’s unlikely that children would be listening particularly in the second hour. As a result, I would sometimes play out tracks such as Jay Z and Pusha T’s collaboration ‘Drug Dealers Anonymous’ – risky even because of its title – towards the end of the show.
Now, TheRootMusic radio show broadcasts on Spark from 7pm. This means children are more likely to be listening and thus I have to be particularly careful in what I play. Zico MC is a multi-genre artist including hip-hop, but also a father. Zico admits: “As an artist I’m lazy and radio edits are long, especially when you’re trying to keep the creative juices flowing.”
On the other hand, Zico says “as a father, I fucking hate it when there is swearing on the radio, tv, music videos as my boy is almost three and he is copying everything he hears now.”
Jack Matthews, owner of ‘grime scene plug’ KIP Promotions, is also a father. He agrees with Zico: “I’m exactly the same with my kids.” The promoter advices artists “in terms of radio edits, always get your engineer to do them when he’s mixing it all down etcetera. It doesn’t take that much longer unless you’re a swearing machine.”
Zico professes however, that he is a swearing machine. “Snap,” adds Thomas Harriott, “kids are sponges and I wish I’d not been sworn in front of and I might not be so quick to now.”
Not everybody agrees. In fact, Zico, Jack and Thomas seem to be in the minority who think censorship of music is worth it for the sake of young children. Hannah Parker thinks “we completely mollycoddle our kids and try to hide them away from the real world far too often. I know you’re not just talking about cutting out swear words before the watershed, but I just think it’s ridiculous that we shelter our kids away from language they’ll hear daily on the playground from other kids. Take your kid to a football game, they’ll hear swearing and abuve language. Take your kids to a pub for a family meal and it’s very likely the group of friends next to you will swear. They hear it in the real world every day through no choice, so why do we block it out of something that they could very easily just turn off?”
Hannah makes a good point. Swearing is everywhere. There’s no way of escaping it completely – but that doesn’t necessarily mean radio should follow suit. Especially because it’s not so simple to “just turn off.” Radio is similarly inescapable in many places. Shops, restaurants, taxis.
Scott McGerty is the compliance manager at Sunderland community radio station Spark. His role revolves around ensuring everything broadcast on Spark is compliant to Ofcom’s rules. He explains: “radio is regulated differently to everyone else as it’s just on. You get into a car and it comes on, walk into a ship and its on, walk through the office and if you’re lucky, its on. Spotify, podcasts, playlists etc, people choose to put on. They don’t just appear. This is where you can maybe get away with swears as people choose that risk.”
For many, it’s not so much about the children potentially listening, but the artistic integrity. Gilly Man Giro is perhaps best known for the song ‘Sellouts’ which is indicative of how he feels about censorship. The rapper bluntly states: “Fuck censorship in the cunt. All or nothing,” he continues, “sugar coat your true feelings? Go against what you really think for the sake of other people’s feels? Never! Where’s the true progression in censorship?”
As Scott explains however: “we don’t remove swears if it compromises the artistic value of the song but we still choose to place this unedited song in timeslots less likely to be heard by under 15’s. The bulk of swears and explicit content that needs to be removed isn’t artistic. Too much of the time it’s when a write has nothing of high value to end a verse and swearing become the go to. It becomes the hook and is uncreative. If you could just swear in songs, way more people would write them because it would make telling a story an easy engage. It’s lazy on most parts. Don’t get me wrong, some people do it really well but others just use it as punctuation.”
Stephanie Farnsworth offers an “activist perspective”: “I think it censors the wrong thing to be honest. There’s so many “clean edits” on radio of songs with awful messages. Look at the outcry around ‘Blurred Lines’ and lyrics seeming to support ignoring sexual consent. What’s worse? That or saying “fuck”? People find swearing weirdly offensive but as perfectly fine with music that’s just bad and has awful messages. A swear really isn’t harmful.”
Rapper BEN agrees: “Some words are deemed unacceptable while others which you could argue are way worse manage to slip through, seems like the whole things set up to promote a certain sound or ethos then really, saying “I’m fucking sick of this shit” is a no go but you can references rape and discrimination all day long.”
Although ‘Blurred Lines’ is an aptly titled song which evidences the radio industry sometimes gets it wrong. As with everything, these mistakes are how potential improvements are spotted, and then made. Scott comments “swears and content are evolving as society changes” but admits “not at the same time unfortunately.”
Scott admits “We can all relate to cunt. Ten years ago it was the worst thing that could pass your lips, now it’s one of the most casual words in society,” he continues, “Ofcom constantly review swear words with normal people like radio. They have lists that categorise what society deems offensive. Fuck is worse than cunt nowadays. To an elderly person, coffin dodger is deemed highly offensive but to young people it’s nothing.”
This all centres back to radio stations knowing their audience. On the other hand however, it’s also about artists’ expectations. J-Man summarises “It’s how things are and it’s the rules you have to play by if you want your songs on radio, if not there are other platforms for your music where you don’t need to censor your work so know what you’re trying to achieve and use the relevant platforms effectively.”
As far as Ofcom is concerned however, perhaps it needs to practice more consistency. As radio is evolving (even if it is slowly), it still appears to condemn hip-hop artists for circumstances in which pop (or other genres) have been allowed to do. Max Gavins remembers “hearing the Sugababes say “my sex ass got him in a new dimension” but Eminem couldn’t say “I ain’t never seen an ass like that.”
It doesn’t appear that I’ll be receiving tracks suitable for radio play from North East hip-hop artists any time soon. If it is out of laziness, that is a seperate issue. If it is however an instance of confusion as consequence to Ofcom’s inconsistency, or purely out of individually held values of authenticity; I’m hoping Ofcom either grows more strict or more lenient in their guidelines so that at least one of these issues could be solved.
I’m not even overly concerned on which way it goes, I’m just trying to play good music to thousands of people without wanting to risk my career.