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After flying under the radar for 25 years, student radio station bFM’s expletive-laden BSA promo landed in front of the Authority. So why wasn’t the complaint upheld?
There aren’t too many certainties in life, but one thing you can bet your bottom dollar on is that you won’t hear the word “f***-knuckle” on RNZ’s Morning Report.
You will, however, hear that rather creative curse on 95bFM – the student radio station owned and operated by the University of Auckland Students’ Association.
In New Zealand, all broadcasters must abide by a set of rules and guidelines known as the broadcasting standards, which are overseen by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, or BSA.
As a condition of being a broadcaster, these radio and TV stations must carry on-air ads informing the audience of its right to complain to the BSA if they feel those rules and guidelines have been breached.
The broadcasters have the freedom to write those promotions however they like. And for the past 25 years, the BSA announcement on 95bFM has been:
“If you seriously think we’ve crossed the line on air, give us a call on 309 4831 and tell us about it. We’ll be able to help you out and tell you the procedure if you wish to make a formal complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
“F***-knuckles, c**k and piss, balls. Thank you.”
BFM’s programme director (and RNZ newsreader) Sarah Thomson says the original ad has a rich history.
“I believe it was Bob Kerrigan who wrote the BSA ads and added that little coda at the end.
“Over the years it’s been re-voiced once or twice, the gent who voiced it last time, Josh Hetherington, added ‘balls’ to the end.
“It’s not being nasty to the BSA.
“It’s a wink to the listeners, saying, ‘Look – we know you’re not the types to complain about cuss words’.”
For 25 years the promo played without (visible) controversy – even landing its own line of merchandise.
But last week, a shockwave: an official complaint to the BSA, with the complainant writing that the vernacular breached the standard around taste and decency.
“These are not just naughty words”, the complainant wrote.
“They create unpleasant mental images of a sexual nature.
“Also, I find the word ‘f***’ offensive when it is used without any context, and especially in combination with ‘knuckles’…”
The complaint was met with a mixture of amusement and delight in media circles – particularly among student radio alumni.
And yet, as recently as 2019, another radio station – RNZ – had a complaint about its programming upheld by the BSA, when an episode of the podcast Eating Fried Chicken in the Shower contained an uncensored f-word.
So why is it that the broadcasting standards don’t seem to apply equally, across the board?
“It’s actually a very good example of a complaints-based system reflecting the community standards of the audience”, says journalist, former Mediawatch host, and former bFM board member Russell Brown.
“The idea of a complaints-based system is that there’s no hard and fast, ‘you can’t say that word’. It’s a matter of, if someone from the audience complains. And for 25 years no one did. That is how these systems are meant to work: if it’s acceptable to the target audience, then it proceeds.”
“If that went out on Morning Report there would be outrage, yet it’s played daily on bFM for 25 years. It’s a moveable feast – and that’s why the BSA surveys New Zealanders about specific words it finds offensive or unacceptable.”
“This is the system working as it’s meant to.”
‘Good taste’ and ‘decency’ are nebulous concepts, difficult to implement in a black-and-white fashion when the media landscape is broad and serves a wide variety of listener palates.
In this case, the BSA pointed out bFM’s status as an alternative radio station, ostensibly run by students.
It placed great weight on the station’s intended audience (young adults and university students), as well as the long-standing history of the promo in question.
It also disagreed with the claim that the words were used in an aggressive or sexually graphic manner, instead saying they were intended to be satirical.
Intangible factors are given a lot of heft when the Authority is considering complaints: who is the target audience for this programming? What are the expectations of that audience? Are they likely to be shocked or put out by what they hear?
Other factors come into play too, like the time of day the broadcast airs: the Authority is likely to be less sympathetic to bad language if it’s used at a time when children are likely to be listening.
In 1995, bFM took a slap on the wrist for broadcasting two songs – “Oh Shit” and “Body Count” – between March and April of that year.
The complainant argued the songs had lots of offensive language and violent themes, and the complaint was upheld.
A crucial point, though, is that in both cases the songs were played between 5pm and 6pm – drive-time, as it’s known in radio circles – and therefore there was much higher likelihood that children would be listening.
In one famous case from 2007, the TV channel Alt.tv was fined $5,000 – the maximum the BSA can levy – and ordered to halt broadcasting for five hours.
The channel was broadcasting a concert on Waitangi Day at Western Springs Stadium – part of the day’s programming featured text messages which people could send in, and which were displayed at the bottom of viewers’ screens.
The station hired an outside worker to vet the texts as they came in and decide what was appropriate, but this worker became intoxicated throughout the day, and some messages featuring extremely offensive language made it to screen.
Because of the supposedly G-rated nature of the programme and the outrageously offensive language – some of it race-based – the BSA came down hard: it remains one of the most severe punishments the BSA has ever given to a broadcaster for breaching the standards.
But not all cases are as clear-cut. Different audiences want different things from different stations. That’s why the broadcasting standards are so flexible – admirably flexible, says Sarah Thomson.
“When it comes to broadcasting, when it comes to the free exchange of ideas, being able to exercise judgment instead of sticking to rigid, black-and-white rules is absolutely necessary.
“Taking into account audiences, taking into account their expectations when they listen to a broadcaster is, I think, why they ruled the way they did.
“We would not have put those words at the end of a spot if we thought we were offending people. It’s not to be provocative, it’s not to be disrespectful.”
Bob Kerrigan no longer works at bFM – but on his personal Facebook page, he posed a message:
“20 something years ago, I wrote a radio ad … the idea was to see how many complaints we could get about the complaints ad.
We did this by adding “Fuck-knuckles, cock and piss”, the most comedic-for-the-90s-era-yet-offensive-at-the-time swearwords, to the existing BSA complaints script. However, it failed miserably as nobody complained.
Now it has come to the internet’s attention via an eagle-eared Russell Brown, that after all this time on air, someone has actually complained.
Finally after 25 or so years, success.