Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Swearing In Podcasts?

Should podcasts swear? I’m curious about this question because I sense it’s an unexplored etiquette for a new technology.

Podcasting can seem like radio, if only because its an audio feed. But radio has a strict provision on swearing because it’s sent out over the public airwaves. Since its difficult to gauge who can hear the radio, including the young, the government, in the form of the FCC, has a motivation for censoring content...to protect the children.

But typically in media formats where the viewer/listeners/reader has to make an active choice to access the material there been less self-censorship by content producers. For example, premium cable shows like HBO. Since there has be an adult making a purchase decision, HBO feels pretty free to let the nudity and swearing fly.

I bring up this topic because I recently noticed that Slate (which is owned by The Washington Post) decided to bleep two swear words in a podcast. I’m a big fan of Slate’s podcasts. After seeing the movie Sunshine I listened to Slate’s spoiler review of the movie. Towards the end of the podcast reviewer Dana Stevens uses the term “they fucked up” and “fucked” is bleeped. She later uses the term “oh shit” and that is bleeped as well.

The bleeping was fairly noteworthy, because I was trying to decipher if Slate (or by extension The Washington Post) had instituted a new editorial rule of “no swearing in podcasts” because I also listen to Slate’s gabfests podcasts and a couple of weeks ago John Dickerson let fly with a couple of swear words which were not bleeped. But at the beginning of the podcast the introduction actually warns listeners that Dickerson swears (and apologizes for it.) [UPDATE: After I e-mailed Dickerson he replied that he thought it was David Plotz who swore in the gabfest I was refering to, but he believes he's also uttered words that should have been bleeped in other gabfests.]

So my question: is it necessary for Slate to bleep swear words? In the instances I’ve seen, the swear words were brief and mostly incidental. Dana Stevens did not apologize for swearing in her podcast, but I believe Plotz did in his. However, whether they were brief or not, clearly Slate podcasts are not filled with curse words. Not like, say Dan Savage’s LoveCast where Dan takes particular pleasure in his ability to swear over the non-airwaves.

However the Savage LoveCasts are also marked “explicit” by my iTunes. This doesn’t mean that if I was a 10 year old I still couldn’t download them. Its just the equivalent of a warning sticker.

But who is listening to a Slate podcast who is going to be outraged by the occasional swear word? If you are choosing to download a podcast that presumes a level of technical sophistication. It’s not a lot of technical sophistication, but listening to podcasts aren’t quite the same as turning on a radio. You might still be 10 years old but is the swear word really going to be the worst thing you download? (And do 10 year olds download Slate podcasts?) But even for adults there is a degree of thought and choice when one downloads something and then decides to listen to it. You are kind of signing up for what you are about to listen to.

The reason I bring up the 10 year old example is because I’m trying to decipher who Slate is *not* swearing for? Are they not swearing for the children? Or are they not swearing for the adults? I’m almost more offended by their not swearing than I would be by the occasional “fuck” or “shit” that is let fly. The bleeping of a podcast tends to call attention to itself. It’s marks itself as a deliberate choice of censorship, YOU ARE NOT TO HEAR THIS.

What was odder about bleeping swear words in a review of Sunshine was that the movie is rated R! So Slate bleeped swear words in the course of discussing a movie that only 17 year olds and older could go see.

There is certainly no reason to gratuitously swear on a podcast just like I could make a blog post that is nothing but swear words. But that wouldn’t exactly make my point or my words all that much better to read. But there’s something priggish about Slate’s editorial decision to pretend its actually going to adhere to the standards of radio. Why? This feels like a decision that was made using old-media as the model and not thinking about the options of choice and selection and audience. I don’t think there’s a phrase that is more patronizing than “family friendly media outlet.” After all, it's not as if Slate enforces a "no swearing in print" rule either.

If I were setting Slate’s editorial policy on swearing during podcasts, I would use this rule. “Swearing is generally discouraged, but if you use the occasional expletive, please use it sparingly.”

In other words, get to the fucking point without swearing if you can.

UPDATE II: More from Slate's podcast editor.

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