BUFFALO, N.Y. — "Shock radio" may be the last way the Niagara Frontier Radio
Reading Service for the Blind would define itself.
Nevertheless, the service finds itself cast in the broadcast indecency
debate, alongside Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" and Howard Stern.
Buffalo television station WKBW-TV recently stopped broadcasting the reading
service's audio signal after a listener complained about an offensive word — apparently contained in the Tom Wolfe novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.
"As I understand it, they took one call from an 89-year-old woman from
Lewiston," said reading-service director Bob Sikorski.
Sikorski attributes the television station's response to the indecency storm
that has gathered steam since Jackson's overexposure during last year's Super
Bowl halftime show.
Last month, the fed-up House overwhelmingly passed a bill authorizing
unprecedented fines for indecency: up to $500,000 for a company. A similar bill
is pending in the Senate. The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, has
stepped up enforcement of the indecency statute, making radio personality Stern
a frequent target.
All have left broadcasters jittery and more apt to self-censor than risk FCC
wrath, authorities said.
"Many broadcasters are very anxious right now and are going to err on the
side of restricting speech, which is obviously very unfortunate," said Andrew
Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a Washington law firm
that represents small broadcasters.
Sikorski, a former FCC lawyer, said that while he understands broadcasters'
concerns, "we hope there won't be a panic mentality."
The reading service uses volunteers for its around-the-clock reading of
newspapers, magazines, obituaries, movie listings and books, reaching thousands
of visually impaired listeners via the WKBW SAP channel or specially equipped
radio receivers, Sikorski said.
Since WKBW pulled the voluntary broadcast about three weeks ago after a
14-year run, Sikorski said he has been inundated with calls. "We've literally
had a run on radio reading receivers," he said. "We're virtually out of
After weeks of talks, the television station has agreed to put the service
back on the air, but not overnight when material containing adult content may be
read, Sikorski said.
WKBW general manager Bill Ransom did not return calls seeking comment. He
told The Buffalo News that the station's parent company, Granite Broadcasting
Corp., had referred the matter to its attorneys.
"They need to clarify things," he said.
And although the station is pleased to resume airing the service, Ransom said,
canceling the overnight programming would also cancel out worries about FCC
Schwartzman said those worries were unfounded in the reading service case,
which involved a word read in the context of a novel after 10 p.m.
"That would not come close to the kind of indecency that would merit sanction
from the FCC," the lawyer said. "There is a question of whether reading services
for the blind are even subject to regulation in this regard."
Yet, in light of the actions by Congress and the FCC, "we're seeing this kind
of chilling effect all over the country," Schwartzman said.
Sikorski said the reading service broadcasts best sellers with adult content,
such as the Wolfe novel, after 10 p.m. and includes a content warning. The
practice is in line with FCC guidelines which allow adult programming after 10