When podcasters get behind the mic on their first podcast, it often occurs to them that they have the freedom, perhaps for the first time ever, to say anything they want. They can say words that they would not say to their grandmother or their boss, and that are certainly unutterable over the conventional radio waves.
It's true: Podcasting is over the Internet, which is not regulated in any way. The Federal Communications Commission has no say over what can and cannot be said online, inside the law. Podcasters have no one to answer to, and if they swear, they will not get fined thousands of dollars like Bono and they won't have their show pulled if a listener complains.
For example, although Dawn and Drew are notorious for having one of the most unflinchingly honest and crass podcasts online today, there are still some lines they won't cross. But even self-censoring may not turn out to be enough because where the dreaded "line" is varies from listener to listener.
TotPM: What gets aired? Are there things that you just say, "We can't do that; that just crossed the line"?
Drew: Hell no!
Dawn: No, that is not true, Drew, sometimes I am like, "We can't do that."
Drew: That's very, very, very rare.
Dawn: It is very rare, but sometimes I will say something, that even I can't say that, like I know that is going to be [trouble]....
Drew: Yeah, but out of, like, 114 shows that we have done, we have done that, what, twice, maybe three times.... You know what is really crazy, though, is the stuff that we think we are on the verge of not putting it out, where we expect people to slam us and give us all kinds of flack and all kinds of hate mail, [but] we never get any and nobody says anything. But then all of a sudden something we both think is so tame and not a big deal, people will give us all kinds of flack over it.
What You Can and Cannot Say
The list is short on what you can't say. You can't say things that are against the law, such as threats to anyone, slanderous material, or copyrighted material. But swear words? You can go to town. And many people do. If Lenny Bruce were still with us, he would be a podcaster.
The realization that they may swear often makes people go a bit overboard with the freedom. Many podcasts seem to be nothing but swearing. If you listen closely, you might be able to catch a topic here and there, but they often merely sound like drunken sailors on shore leave.
What a lot of podcasters have to learn the hard way is that there is a reason the FCC puts limits on what you can and can't say over the air: Many people are offended by swearing. There are people who would normally be very interested in your podcast, but they will be turned off if you swear a lot. Others will cheer your use of free speech.
Keep your listeners in mind. For example, although swearing does not turn us off, we are both parents to young children. If we want to listen to podcasts when our children are around, we prefer not to listen to ones that include heavy swearing. Other people listen to podcasts at work, but don't want their boss to wander by and hear your four-letter descriptions of what you think your malfunctioning PC should do with itself. Keep in mind that not everyone listens to podcasts alone.
There is also the subject of oversaturation. Swearing is intended for an effect, a shock, a harsh word to make people sit up and take notice. If you use swear words as often as you say the word is, then these words lose their shock value and even their meaning, and people will be straining to hear your message through the barrage of pointless cursing.
Many podcasts have adopted a quick courtesy message ahead of their podcast to warn of adult language. Listeners appreciate this. A 5-second message stating that the podcast is not work- or child-safe can keep your listeners happy and keep you from losing subscribers.
iTunes "Explicit" Tag: Friend or Foe?
For those listeners who subscribe via iTunes, they have another flag available to them to warn of colorful language: the dreaded iTunes "Explicit" tag.
Most iTunes users know that iTunes often offers the "radio" (clean) version of a song, without swear words, as well as the "album" (unedited) version. The album version is labeled "Explicit" in bright red letters.
Now, if you slip up in your 30-minute podcast and say some objectionable word, you may think you're not terribly offensive, but you still qualify as explicit. Mur didn't think her podcast was explicit because she doesn't talk about sex or violence, but her essays do sometimes edge into the more colorful areas of speech, and she realized that she needed the Explicit tag before iTunes would accept her into the directory.
Some people believe the Explicit tag hurts their numbers in iTunes subscribers, but on the other hand, Dawn and Drew have been at or near the top of the podcasting mountain for months and months, and their podcast is quite explicit. The question comes down to providing content that people want. If you do that, listeners will come, Explicit tag or no.
Experienced iTunes users will know that "Explicit" can mean anything from one word that rhymes with hit or an hour of dirty jokes, so you're not likely to push those users away.
E? G? NSFW? X?
Because there is no regulatory commission set to define podcasts beyond the iTunes Explicit tag, podcasters take on the responsibility of rating their own podcasts. Seeing as how we have not accepted an across-the-board ratings system, the ratings may be anything.
The SciFi Podcast Network (www.tsfpn.com) rates its members' shows in three categories: SFGA, meaning it's safe for general audiences, children, even bosses, SF14, the equivalent of a PG rating, meaning there may be some swearing here and there, and NSFW, standing for Not Safe For Work. These podcasts usually contain swearing, sexual situations, violent imagery, and more.
Most podcasts with explicit sexual situations leave clues either on their website, making you confirm you are 18 or older before viewing, or in their podcast titles. It's pretty clear you don't want your 4-year-old listening to Open Source Sex (violetblue.libsyn.com).
Although the movie industry created the MPAA to regulate movies and the computer game industry created the ESRB to regulate video games, the podcast world still has no ratings system. This may be confusing for some listeners. Therefore, as a conscientious podcast host, you will want to seriously consider making a note either on your blog, in your show notes, or in your podcast itself that you have adult information.
We're not trying to tell you not to use adult words or sexual content; one of the best things about podcasting is the freedom it allows hosts. We just believe that the listener has a right to know what he or she is getting into before downloading your show. Therefore, if your show's title doesn't make the adult content obvious (such as Open Source Sex), it is good form to let people know either in the show notes or in a quick comment at the beginning of the show. If that Explicit tag was not there, think about how shocked someone might be listening to Yeast Radio for the first time, especially if they were expecting it to be a cooking show.