Late Night Fucking

There is no 9pm watershed in radio.

That’s a detail that often surprises people, most of whom assume that the strictures that apply to ‘adult’ and ‘mature’ material on television also cover radio broadcasts as well. In actual fact the only content restrictions on radio broadcast enforced by the almighty regulator Ofcom are that they must have “particular regard to times when children are particularly likely to be listening” (Broadcast Code Section 1.5) and in the case of offensive language “unless it is justified by the context” (Broadcast Code Section 1.16).

I’m fond of reminding people that just over 20 years ago Radio One once broadcast the whole of Bono’s “fuck the revolution” speech from the performance of Sunday Bloody Sunday in Rattle And Hum on a Saturday lunchtime as part of a documentary on Northern Ireland. The request to do so was handed up to the highest levels of the corporation and it was decided that the language was perfectly justified in context of an adult documentary on a subject that aroused intense passions on both sides of the debate and that as long as it was preceded by a warning it was fine to go out. It remains the most high profile deliberate broadcast of daytime profanity on national radio. And a fine example of what is allowed if the context merits.

Over the years one of the jobs I’ve ended up with at work is being the final port of call for any of the occasional pre-recorded shows broadcast on talkSPORT. Tapes of the award-winning My Sporting Life are handed to me to check for technical quality, scheduling in the playout computer, editing for the timeslot if required and making sure anything that was supposed to be cut has indeed been removed.

This also means I have to deal with potentially the hottest potato on the schedules, the monthly “Matt Forde’s Sports Party” specials. These are live recordings of comedy chat shows, held in the intimate surroundings of the St James’ Studio in Central London. Guests from the world of sport and comedy are interviewed at length and in an envrionment where everyone has let their hair down. That does mean people use language you wouldn’t normally expect them to. Which can often lead to some soul searching. It is one thing to say something in front of a crowd of 50 people who have paid to be there. It is another thing altogether to inflict on a national radio audience the spectacle of a much-loved hero or entertainer saying “fuck”. Or is it?

The edition of the programme which went out in September required a fair bit of soul searching at times, the process of which I thought it would be interesting to share here. The Sports Party is an adult show, and is promoted as such. It is broadcast at 10pm on a Sunday evening, far removed from anything Ofcom might consider “when children are likely to be listening”. The start of each hour of each show is preceded by a clear warning: “The following programme contains swearing, and may not be suitable for younger listeners”. Theoretically that is more than enough to fully contextualise and forestall any complaints about fruity language in what follows. It means that “piss”, “shit” and “bastard” and other invectives of that ilk can actually be broadcast unexpurgated in a manner you wouldn’t contemplate at any other time of day and in different circumstances.

The f-word is a different matter. Right from the start, regardless of the nature of the programme, we judged that even a late night talkSPORT audience would baulk at hearing presenters or sportsmen saying “fuck”. That’s possibly over-cautious, after all you can hear extensive profanity in late night Radio 4 plays, but it is comfortable line to draw for our status as a commercial organisation. Having decided to remove the word, the question now is how to do it. You either bleep it out or edit the exchange out of the programme altogether. The latter is safer but in truth not always possible to do cleanly. It also for me kind of undermines the whole integrity of the programme. There is little point in advertising an adults-only show if it doesn’t actually contain anything adult (I’m reminded of Victor Lewis-Smith once satirising the censorship of his programmes by portraying a manager demanding dangerous radio that is also very safe and so not actually dangerous). Bleeping is perhaps better and respects both the sensibilities of those who don’t want naughty words but also those who are grown up enough to deal with them. Too many bleeps however and things get painful. By its very nature a burst of tone calls attention to a profanity that might otherwise just be background chatter and makes it a more prominent part of the dialogue than was actually the case. You run the risk of making a guest sound incredibly foul mouthed by just trying to clean them up.

So it is a balancing act, and one which often causes me much heartache. I loathe censorship in all forms, but with my professional hat on I have to remember that I’m not the regulator. Sometimes things have to go that I myself don’t have a problem with, but which I know others will. Here then are a few examples of how I attempted to create that balance last weekend.


First the edit. Here is the audio from guest comedian Paul McCaffrey as he recounted the trials of supporting a seaside club:

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Should that be left in? On balance, no – particularly as it was at the end of a section of the show which had featured multiple instances of fruity language. You could leave the swearing out without damaging the joke or treading on the point Paul was making. So here is how that particular exchange went out in the broadcast programme:

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Pretty seamless. So far so good.


Earlier in the show however was an instance of swearing it would have been wholly wrong to take out. This was the exchange in question:

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To put this in context, it is a powerful description by Brian Moore of how he was taught to confront inner demons and not let them dominate him. To edit that would have been wrong and undermined the whole point he was making. So this one I bleeped, protecting those with sensitive ears, those who didn’t tune in to hear a much-admired rugby player and broadcaster swearing but also keeping the integrity of his story intact.

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You’ll note that I wasn’t particularly precise with the bleep there. That’s my own personal sop to creative freedom, a nod to the intelligence of the audience to say “yeah it is obvious what he said, but if anyone asks we can say we took it out, right?”.


The final example is one which caused a great deal of argument in the office, even on the afternoon of the broadcast. Something that wasn’t actually profane but could be construed as such. Here was the original tape:

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The expression “see you next Tuesday” as a theoretically polite shorthand for one of the rudest words of all has tripped broadcasters up in the past. A footballer used the phrase one afternoon on an edition of Sky Sports’ “Goals On Sunday” show, the reference sailing over the heads of presenters and production crew and resulting in some heads rolling when it was subsequently picked up on by management.

My instinct however was to leave the above reference in. The comedian was after all self-censoring, unable to bring himself to use the word even in front of a paying audience. Nonetheless the weekend editor was unhappy with it having reviewed the tapes at my request. “Take it out” was his instruction. My argument was that by editing or bleeping we were actually making it sound like he had actually sworn when he didn’t which to me was unethical. But then I opened up the file and tried it anyway. Extraordinarily it made the joke better.

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The whole point of the anecdote was after all to recount the forlorn experience of refereeing a football match (badly) and taking constant abuse from the crowd. The comedy comes from the moment when a spectator tells him he’s a c**t, and all he can do is regretfully agree with that assessment. But it doesn’t work without the profanity, there is far less comic pathos in being called a ‘see you next Tuesday’ than there is being called a c**t. So against all instincts I bleeped the self-censored epithet. The story now carried far more resonance and most importantly of all humour. Not all censorship is bad it appears.


So that’s a brief lesson in editing rude words, and the fine tightrope you have to walk when preparing a recorded show for broadcast. If I’ve fired up your curiosity, then if you are in the London area then why not come along to the next recording of Matt Forde’s Sports Party (on the evening of October 20th) and if you look very carefully at the back of the auditorium you’ll see at least one sweating radio producer noting down times and preparing for arguments over the exact contextual justification of the third utterance that night of the word “wanker”.

 

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