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Indecency complaint leads to limit on blind broadcast service

By The Associated Press

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 them."

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 fines.

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 p.m.


Viacom calls Super Bowl fine 'illogical'

CBS's corporate owner says proposed penalty for Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' violates free speech and is an unwarranted expansion of FCC's powers. 11.09.04

House again votes to hike indecency fines
Lawmakers overwhelmingly approve bill 389-38, rejecting criticism that stiffer penalties would stifle free speech, expression and further homogenize programming. 02.17.05

Surrendering our choices to a sense of decency
By Paul K. McMasters Parents have a wide range of tools to keep indecent programming out of their homes if they wish — but some people seem bound to restrict our choices to their tastes. 04.10.05


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