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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

You can’t bleeping say that!

Published on March 13, 2008

Dear Friends,

You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing for a good part of yesterday and today. Groveling. Yes, groveling and humbly apologizing for something I DIDN’T DO!

Those of you who listen to Selected Shorts on the radio know that we follow the practice of bleeping out any words that may be considered “obscene” or “inappropriate” or foul. Well, we don’t actually replace their words with annoying BLEEPS! We have learned to be much more subtle, and our mix engineers have developed a high level of skill at “dropping out” such words so that you don’t hear a distressing bleep, but just a little skip in the rhythm of the reader’s sentence.

Now we do not bleep out words or drop them out in our live readings at Symphony Space or on tour, where our policy is to read a work of literature exactly as its author intended it to be read or heard. But for radio, we do. We don’t like it, but we do it because we are told that the 155 public radio stations across the country which carry the series from our distributor, PRI, Public Radio International, want us to – in fact insist that we do. In the current cultural climate, a station is threatened by the FCC with $30,000 fines, or worse, for violation of the language rules, whatever they are exactly.

So we bleep. I’ve written about this before in this blog. Fifty percent of our mail on this subject comes from listeners who thank us for keeping the language of our short stories “clean” so that they can be comfortable listening with the kids in the car or at home. The other fifty percent of the mail comes from listeners who accuse us of being wimps, giving in to censorship, betrayers of the freedom of speech of American literary artists and worse. It appears to be a no win situation. The worst is when we are forced into self-censorship by deciding that a very good story, such as one by a great American writer about U.S. Marines fighting in Viet Nam, will be nothing but a shell of bleeps and dropped-out silences if all the obscenities are deleted, and that, all things considered, we may as well drop it from the series. Our listeners are deprived of something first-rate, and their children’s ears are spared so that they can then turn to such cable TV shows as The Sopranos or Deadwood, brimming over with words we are prohibited to broadcast.

So, as I say, we bleep. Except in last weekend’s broadcast. In one charming and funny family story by David Schickler, which I had the fun of reading and which has brought in a great deal of appreciation and praise from radio listeners, there was a slip-up, and ONE utterance of the word “fuck” was not caught in time and was broadcast to the nation.

The letters of protest from station managers in several parts of the USA have come to us from PRI, and we have undertaken to call each one, apologize, grovel, and pledge that our system of review will be given extra steel to prevent any recurrence of this outrage. We don’t blame the stations, who are worried about fines and even their licenses (though we may think the threat is somewhat exaggerated), but we don’t want them to drop Selected Shorts (as some have threatened they might have to do).

In a funny twist, at the end of our day of groveling, we had a little recording task to do in preparation for our newest Shorts CD collection. In one story, which I read in California at The Getty Museum, the word “shit” is mentioned by an irascible fellow talking to a headwaiter. At The Getty, I spoke the word. For the radio broadcast, the word was dropped out. For the CD, where our policy is to do no censorship of this kind, it has been impossible to find the original un-bleeped recorded version. Thus, I went before the microphone yesterday to re-record the paragraph with the word “shit.” If you buy the CD and hear that story and word and are offended, I will apologize to you in person. I will grovel. Believe me, I have practice.

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