At the height of his bardic powers, Allen Ginsberg could terrify the authorities with the mere utterance of the syllable “om” as he led street throngs of citizens protesting the Vietnam War. Ginsberg reigned as the raucous poet of American hippiedom and as a literary pioneer whose freewheeling masterwork “Howl” prevailed against government censorship in a landmark obscenity trial 50 years ago.
It is with a queasy feeling of history in retreat that poetry lovers discover that WBAI, long the radio flagship of cocky resistance to government excess, decided last week that it couldn’t risk a 50th anniversary broadcast of the late poet’s recording of “Howl.” The station retreated out of fear that the Federal Communications Commission would levy large obscenity fines that might bankrupt the small-budget station.
The retreat was hardly an exercise of the sort of rhetorical paranoia that listeners rate as part of the charm of WBAI, an outlet with a brave history in broadcasting such free speech as George Carlin’s comedic “seven dirty words.” No, this time the broadcaster had to be mindful that the F.C.C. had already fined CBS $550,000 for its absurd nanosecond telecast of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” Stations are rightly worried these days that airing “fleeting expletives” can cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.
The result is a growing tendency toward self-censorship. WBAI is hardly alone in flinching. Public broadcasting stations already are editing Ken Burns’s new documentary on World War II, eliminating pungent four-letter talk from the eyewitness accounts of G.I. Joe.
If Ginsberg were still with us, he would undoubtedly pen a mocking line or two about his poem being banned from the airwaves 50 years after it was ruled not to be obscene. Congress, of course, could redress the F.C.C.’s bullying powers if it wanted to. But lately, the Capitol’s most energetic broadcast agenda has been conservative members’ organizing against any attempt to restore the fairness doctrine to political broadcast, which could crimp the 24/7 rants of right-wing talk radio. The poet would understand, having once noted: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”