Lesson 7. Craft, On-Air Tone, and Federal Law

The following is adapted from Professor Matt Jackson’s lesson materials that he has historically presented to new students of The LION 90.7fm. A 2008 video of Prof. Matt Jackson delivering his lecture can be viewed here, and a copy of the lesson notes that accompany the below materials can be accessed here.

Law & Ethics

  • The law says what you MUST do and what you CAN do
  • Ethics says what you SHOULD and SHOULD NOT do
  • Free speech means RESPONSIBILITY as well as freedom
  • Remember: What you SAY and PLAY has a powerful impact on the community
    • You affect attitudes, emotions, worldview, even behavior
    • You represent Penn State.  Commitment to diversity and tolerance.
    • Sexism is just as bad as racism!

FCC License

  • WKPS is licensed to the Penn State Board of Trustees
  • You MUST serve the public interest in your local community
  • Everyone listens, not just students!
  • Take technical requirements seriously
    • Transmitter logs, legal ID, public file, etc.
    • $20,000 fine for file violation!

Key Trouble Areas for Content

  • Indecency
  • Defamation
  • Political sponsorship
  • Underwriting credits
  • Hoaxes
  • Lotteries and contests—including false contests
  • Telephone calls


  • Language or material that describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium
  • Can result in a major FINE or FCC can REVOKE license  $7,000-32,000 per incident

What is indecent?

  • Explicitness/Graphic: The more explicit or graphic the description or depiction, the greater the likelihood that the material will be considered patently offensive.  Merely because the material consists of double entendre or innuendo, however, does not preclude an indecency finding if the sexual or excretory import is unmistakable.
    • I whipped out my Whopper and whispered, “Hey, Sweettart, how’d you like to Crunch on my Big Hunk?”
    • ”she’s got the little mohawk downstairs;” ”she’s apparently undergoing chemotherapy below…that means her hair is gone”


  • Repetition of and persistent focus on sexual or excretory material
  • Well, it was nice big fart.  I’m feeling very gaseous at      this point but there, so far has been no enema reaction, as      far as.  There’s been no, there’s been no expelling?  No      expelling.

Presented in a Pandering or Titillating Manner or for Shock Value

  • Sex survey lines are open.  Today’s question, it’s a strange      question and we hope we have a lot of strange answers.  What      makes your hiney parts tingle?  When my husband gets down      there and goes (lips noise). …  I love oral sex. … Well, my boyfriend tried to put Hershey kisses inside of me and tried to lick it out and it took forever for him to do it.
  • Host discussing complaint from a listener: The caller will be raped and sodomized in prison.  I will stuff my package into his wife’s mouth and do her daily.
  • Not indecent (but very offensive) “Then I will bash her brains in with a baseball bat and light her children on fire.”


  • In 2004, the FCC began enforcing profanity for the first time!  The FCC now says any use of the “F—” word or similar highly offensive words will be considered indecent, even if it is only said once in a fleeting manner.  So now you must be even more careful regarding “bad words”
  • “language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”
  • Safe harbor for indecent speech is 10 pm – 6 am


  • Causing harm to someone’s reputation, exposing him/her to hatred, ridicule, or contempt.
    • Accusing someone of a crime, sexual misconduct, being dishonest, bankrupt, stupid, incompetent, etc.
    • Calling someone a Nazi, racist, bigot, womanizer, homosexual, coward, con artist, cheater, etc.

Defense to Defamation

  • Truth
  • Obvious exaggeration that no one would believe
  • Opinion—BUT if opinion implies specific knowledge that can be proven right or wrong, you can still get into trouble

Political rules

  • If you give or sell time to one candidate for public office, you must give same offer to competing candidates
    • Does not include news programs, debates, or interview programs
    • Noncommercial stations can editorialize BUT not allowed to endorse any candidate for public office

Underwriting (similar to commercials)

  • You may not promote goods and services
  • NO comparative or qualitative descriptions of the donor’s products
    • “It’s the best…”  “A great store…”
  • VALUE-NEUTRAL description is ok
  • Phone number of company is ok

Underwriting examples

  • No price information
  • No call to action
    • “Stop by..” “Check it out…”
  • No inducement to buy
    • “First 50 get a free T-shirt…”
  • Station co-sponsorship of for-profit concert got them in trouble.  Can list concerts as a public service, but NOT as a trade for anything of value.  However, you can promote NON-PROFIT events.

Miscellaneous rules

  • MUST get permission to broadcast a phone call  $8000 fine per violation
  • Cannot advertise tobacco
  • No hoaxes or April fool’s jokes that might cause harm or distress
  • No lotteries (contests that require any type of payment to enter)
  • No payola!

Final advice

  • THINK before you open the mic!
  • Entertaining the audience without offending anyone shows MORE talent and creativity
  • You can still have fun—trust me