Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Hitting the &$%@#* Button!

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Red Button

Today, while listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s midday news magazine/talk show, “Think Outloud”, I heard something that I don’t often hear.  As Mark Zusman, publisher of Portland’s “Willamette Week” newspaper, praised the work of the late Oregon writer, Catherine Dunn, he recounted a story of a lapel button she frequently wore as she wrote for the paper.  Mr. Zusman presaged the comment by saying, “I don’t know if I can say this”, and Think Outloud host Dave Miller recommended he edit his memory for a radio-friendly audience.

Apparently, Mr. Zusman chose not to do that because the next thing I heard was Mr. Miller translating the button into, “The Meek shall Inherit Bupkis”.  Bupkis, for those who don’t know, is Yiddish and means, “nothing”.  So, with Ms. Dunn’s flair for the English language, it’s safe to assume the button said something like, “The Meek Shall Inherit Not Shit”.  And I know I didn’t hear Mr. Zussman say it because after the translation, Mr. Miller said he thought he saw his producer “Hit the Button”.

“The Button” is slang for the more technical term, “Broadcast Delay”.  Whenever something is said that could possibly offend either community standards or the FCC, stations and hosts have the responsibility to use technology that makes certain the offending word never makes to the public airwaves.  To a listener, it might sound like a bad audio edit; one second, the person talking is about to say whatever they’re going to say and the next second, they are saying something completely different.  This happens because all radio broadcasts operate on a delay of between seven and 30 seconds.  That means what you, the listener is hearing, is actually seven to 30 seconds after when it was actually said.  If there is something stations have to cut, they trigger a circut that removes the offending audio in real time at the station but what you hear is the edit.

Why some guests speak the profanity anyway is partly the fault of the stations  themselves.  The “beep”, or the sound that many producers have used for years to indicate the place where the profanity was, has itself become iconic.  To be “beeped out” is kinda cool, like it gives you radio street cred.  Guests know cursing on the radio is frowned upon, so that might be another reason – they get to be a little “bad”.  They don’t always realize this doesn’t work as well for a live rather than a pre-produced program.  Or, maybe guests figure they have the literary license to speak truthfully about whatever it is and leave it to the stations to sort it out.

This technology varies depending on what stations can afford.  Because it is expensive, some systems have a limited capacity to do this, meaning, if there are more than, say, three such oopsies in one conversation, the system might stop working and then the station is in danger of a fine.  And after the 2004 Super Bowl “Wardrobe Malfunction” incident involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, that fine went from about $35,000 per violation to about $350,000.  So stations are really, really paranoid about profanity.

However, I have noticed some very interesting exceptions to that rule.  I’ll be talking about those in a later post.

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