Bleep!

Roman Mars [00:00:01] Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Nothing is too niche for Squarespace, so you can share your thing, whatever it may be. Squarespace’s insight can help you grow your business. You can even build a marketing strategy based on your top keywords or most popular products and content thanks to Squarespace Analytics. With Squarespace email campaigns, you’ll stand out in any inbox. Start with an email template and customize it by applying your brand ingredients like your site colors and your logo. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the promo code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This message is brought to you by Discover. This message is brought to you by Discover. Did you know you could reduce the number of unwanted calls and emails with online privacy protection, the latest innovation from Discover? Discover will help regularly remove your personal info, like your name and address, from ten popular people search websites that could sell your data. And they’ll do it for free. Activate in the Discover app. See terms and learn more at discover.com/onlineprivacyprotection. A quick warning. This episode contains references to adult language and might not be suitable for younger listeners. I think you’ll know within about 15 seconds if this episode is appropriate for your kid, so this is just a heads-up. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Before Chris Berube became a bigshot 99PI producer, he had a college radio show in Toronto where he interviewed bands coming through town. 

Chris Berube [00:01:40] I remember this one time when I got the call to sit down with monster metal legends Gwar. You probably know Gwar. They dress like aliens. They’re very loud. They’re not my thing, but they’re fun. So, I go into the interview–my tape recorder in hand–and the dudes in Gwar cannot stop swearing, even though I repeatedly asked them to stop. The tape of this interview has been lost to history, but it sounded something like this. “Hey, Gwar, how’s it–? 

Gwar [00:02:15] *BLEEP*

Chris Berube [00:02:16] “Oh. Uh–” 

Gwar [00:02:16] *BLEEP*

Chris Berube [00:02:18] “Please stop the–” 

Gwar [00:02:21] *BLEEP* 

Chris Berube [00:02:21] “Okay.”

Gwar [00:02:24] *BLEEP* 

Chris Berube [00:02:24] Look, it was not my finest moment as a journalist. 

Roman Mars [00:02:26] The interview went out on the air. And right after, Chris was called into the station manager’s office, and he was told–in no uncertain terms–the interview had too many swear words. 

Chris Berube [00:02:39] But it didn’t have swearing. It just had bleeps. But people were concerned about the swearing because to lots of people, there isn’t much of a difference. The *BLEEP* sound is synonymous with bad words. 

Roman Mars [00:02:52] Today, the one-kilohertz tone is universally understood to be covering up inappropriate words on radio and TV. 

Chris Berube [00:03:01] You probably hear the bleep button all the time on reality shows like The Bachelor. 

Bachelor Contestant [00:03:05] I didn’t *BLEEP.* 

Chris Berube [00:03:07] Or mockumentary-style comedies. 

Ron Swanson [00:03:10] I was born ready. I’m Ron *BLEEP* Swanson. 

Chris Berube [00:03:14] Oh, and of course, on the PBS children’s television show Arthur. 

Teenager’s Mom [00:03:17] You can forget about going to that concert tonight. 

Teenager [00:03:19] What? You can’t do that. 

Teenager’s Mom [00:03:21] I can, and I have. 

Teenager [00:03:22] *BLEEP* 

Chris Berube [00:03:25] Like the member list of Grammy-nominated thrash metal band Gwar, the approach to censoring content on public airwaves is constantly evolving. Right now, the bleep is often used to censor bad words, especially on TV. But there are other options, like silence–just making it seem like the swear never happened. So how did we end up with the bleep? You know, it’s actually a pretty *BLEEP* interesting story. 

Roman Mars [00:03:54] In the 1920s in America, radio was the hot new thing. After years of newspapers and the Telegraph, now even the smallest local radio station could broadcast voices into hundreds or even thousands of homes. 

Maria Bustillos [00:04:06] You know, they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. 

Chris Berube [00:04:10] Maria Bustillos is a writer and editor at Popula. 

Maria Bustillos [00:04:13] You know the early days of the Internet, where people would read any blog? They would read anything. It was like, “My day at the dry cleaner,” you know? And people would be like, “Oh, my God. This is fascinating.”

Chris Berube [00:04:26] Maria says a hundred years ago, there weren’t big national broadcasters, and local stations had to figure out how to fill all that time. So, they would put pretty much anything on the air. 

Roman Mars [00:04:37] If you had a song you wanted to play or an essay you wanted to read, you could probably just walk into your local radio station and you had a fairly good shot of getting on the air. 

Chris Berube [00:04:46] Of course, this creates a ton of opportunities for things to go wrong. Maria points to this one notorious incident from 1921, when a performer named Olga Petrova went on the radio and read an innocent seeming nursery rhyme, which was secretly politically incendiary. 

Maria Bustillos [00:05:05] Olga Petrova was this famous vaudeville actress. And she went on this radio show in Newark. 

Roman Mars [00:05:13] Olga Petrova wasn’t just an entertainer; she was also an advocate for birth control. Petrova was close friends with Margaret Sanger, who founded the American Birth Control League. 

Chris Berube [00:05:23] Before the radio, people could do anything. She started reading her poem. 

Maria Bustillos [00:05:27] She read this nursery rhyme that was like, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children because she didn’t know what to do.” 

Chris Berube [00:05:36] It’s kind of a blink and you missed it thing. “What to do” in the rhyme was birth control. I know it sounds incredibly tame in 2022, but a hundred years ago, Olga Petrova’s satirical nursery rhyme was probably against the law. 

Maria Bustillos [00:05:51] That was terrifying to people. The 1873 Comstock Laws at that point, which had banned the distribution of so-called obscene materials–including information about contraception, which was deemed obscene–were enforced. So, the people who ran the radio station were like, “Oh my God, they’re going to take our license.” 

Chris Berube [00:06:11] They got her off the air. And lucky for the station, the authorities didn’t notice. But the men working the board were freaked out–and with good reason. At that point, it wasn’t clear what content was allowed and what could get your license revoked. After incidents like the one with Petrova, radio operators realized they needed to have a backup in case somebody like a feminist–or worse, a communist–got on the air. And that’s why they invented bleeping–or sort of bleeping. 

Maria Bustillos [00:06:42] That original bleep began as a music that cut in suddenly to a broadcast that might be sort of problematic. They had another operator the entire time playing classical music. And if anything came up that they didn’t want to hear, there would be a signal to this engineer–and, like, boom! You’d be hearing classical music that second. That was, like, the original version of bleeping. 

Chris Berube [00:07:11] The classical music solution was widely adopted by radio stations across the United States shortly after the Petrova incident. In fact, Olga Petrova ran into the censorship regime in 1924 when she read from one of her plays on a different station. This time, when she hit the potentially offensive material, it didn’t get on air. 

Maria Bustillos [00:07:31] “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children–“

Roman Mars [00:07:40] By the 1950s, radio had gone fully professional, with big national broadcasters reaching everyone in America. And it was joined by a dynamic, upstart, flash-in-the-pan invention called “television.” 

Chris Berube [00:07:52] Heard of it? By this point, radio and TV were regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, who had the power to dish out fines and even revoke licenses for any content they found indecent. And it was into this brave new world that the bleep button was born. 

Roman Mars [00:08:09] The first bleep was created so radio stations could cover up swear words just in the nick of time. Most live radio isn’t actually live; it’s sent to the airwaves seven seconds after it happens in real life. This gives broadcasters seven seconds to catch a swear word and cover it up with a bleep sound before it reaches your ears. 

Richard Factor [00:08:29] You’ve got a producer with his finger on the button, and the button disconnects the broadcast audio and goes “beep!” I could probably do that better if I worked on it. I don’t need to. 

Chris Berube [00:08:41] That’s Richard Factor. He was a board operator at WABC in New York in the 1960s. 

Richard Factor [00:08:47] Back in the day, it was, like, the biggest radio station in the country–possibly in the world. 

Chris Berube [00:08:53] Richard says the reason the *BLEEP* was an obvious choice is because radio stations used something called an oscillator. An oscillator is built into most mixing boards, and it sends out test tones like 100-hertz or 500-hertz or the one-kilohertz tone. 

Richard Factor [00:09:12] It creates a tone; it’s like a synthesizer. If you have a synthesizer–that’s nothing but an audio oscillator that they filter and make different tones out of. 

Chris Berube [00:09:21] Since the oscillator was already built in, Richard says using the bleep tone to cover up a swear word–well–it just made sense. 

Richard Factor [00:09:29] There’s nothing special about it. It just covered up the naughty audio. 

Chris Berube [00:09:33] Because the alternative was just a long stretch of nothing. And silence on the radio is a total no-go. 

Richard Factor [00:09:41] You have to have something because if you go off the air for seven seconds, somebody tunes in another station. 

Chris Berube [00:09:46] While the bleep tone was kicking around in the 50s, it became ubiquitous much later, thanks in part to a fateful Supreme Court case. In 1973, the radio station WBAI decided to test the waters and see if America was ready for uncensored content. 

Roman Mars [00:10:03] They aired a long clip from a comedy routine by George Carlin called The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. For those wondering, the words are *BLEEP,* *BLEEP,* *BLEEP,* *BLEEP,* *BLEEP,* *BLEEP,* and of course, *BLEEP.* 

Chris Berube [00:10:20] The routine was uncensored, and it had a ton of curse words. So, the FCC sent a warning to the station’s parent company, Pacifica. The whole thing became a First Amendment case at the Supreme Court. And the Court ruled that actually, no, you cannot air all those swear words. And, yeah, the FCC did have the right to decide what was and was not appropriate for the airwaves. 

Roman Mars [00:10:43] The ruling emboldened the FCC, who gave out bigger and bigger fines. By 2006, Congress passed a law instructing the FCC to issue fines of $325,000 for broadcasting swear words on radio and TV. 

Chris Berube [00:10:58] With all of that going on, the bleep censor became more and more popular. People wanted edgier content–stuff that felt more like real life. And at the same time, the FCC was going fine crazy. So, the bleep was a perfect solution–in part because the bleep doesn’t just erase a bad word, it also draws attention to it. 

Robert Thompson [00:11:19] The bleep, I think, is good insofar as it announces, “We are messing with what it is that we’re showing you.” 

Chris Berube [00:11:27] Robert Thompson is a professor of media history at Syracuse University. 

Robert Thompson [00:11:31] “What you are about to see is not happening the way it actually happened. It’s been changed, and we’ve got this obvious beep that warns you of that.” And bleeps throughout our life are generally warnings. If a garbage truck is backing up toward you, you hear the bleeps to warn you. Before a weather advisory comes up on your television set, we hear those annoying beeps. 

Chris Berube [00:11:59] The bleep sound became popular in part because it is obnoxious. It feels kind of illicit, even while it is technically covering up the swear word. 

Robert Thompson [00:12:09] The bleep, in my opinion, actually emphasizes, it underlines, it foregrounds it. 

Roman Mars [00:12:16] By the early 2000s, the bleep was everywhere. The Jerry Springer Show made it a mainstay of daytime TV, while reality shows, like The Bachelor, made it a staple in primetime. 

Chris Berube [00:12:26] And TV’s censors became more loosey-goosey in how they used the bleep. 

Robert Thompson [00:12:31] If you listen to a bleep, a smart bleeper can often get the bleep to begin after the first consonant of the word and end before the last consonant of the word. Everybody knows what they’re saying. Lip reading will usually do it in itself. 

Roman Mars [00:12:47] The advocacy group The Parents Television and Media Council did a study in the early 2000s and found that bleeping increased by–please don’t laugh–69% during a five-year period. 

Chris Berube [00:12:59] Reality TV was a big driver of this increase in bleeps. But there’s another reason it really took off in the early 2000s. It’s the rise of what Maria Bustillos calls “the comedic metal bleep”–the moments when a comedy show uses the bleep not to cover up a swear word but as a punchline in and of itself. 

Maria Bustillos [00:13:19] It’s like a strange signal for every viewer of, like, “We’re going to break into your fictive dream now and introduce the concept of naughtiness or indecency.” 

Robert Thompson [00:13:32] A bleep is like a rimshot after a joke. “If you didn’t hear that bad word, we bleeped it so you could be sure that you knew where it was.”

Chris Berube [00:13:41] The idea of the comedy bleep is actually pretty old. Comedian Jack Paar did a version of the joke in the 1960s, replacing words in famous advertisements with a cuckoo clock sound. 

Jack Paar [00:13:52] Mother, please. I’d rather *CUCKOO* myself. What’s wrong, Helen? Maybe it’s your *CUCKOO.* A toothpaste for people who can’t always *CUCKOO* between meals. 

Chris Berube [00:14:07] In the early 2000s, it became a standard type of joke–where the bleep button is used so much, it sounds absurd. 

Robert Thompson [00:14:15] My favorite example of this was The Osbournes, starting in– What was it? 2002. Way funnier to watch that show as it aired with the bleeps than to play it on DVD or find it on streaming without the bleeps. The bleeps had almost a morse code, telegraphic kind of rhythm and music to it. 

Ozzy Osbourne [00:14:34] I’m *BLEEP* sick and tired of *BLEEP* *BLEEP.* 

Robert Thompson [00:14:37] Profanity as poetry courtesy of the bleep. 

Ozzy Osbourne [00:14:41] Everywhere I go, this *BLEEP* *BLEEP* is driving me *BLEEP* mental. 

Maria Bustillos [00:14:47] One of my favorite ones was the writers of Arrested Development. There’s an Arrested Development episode where they’re bleeping all the way through the scene, and nobody can tell exactly what they were saying. 

Michael Bluth [00:15:01] You know, I’m in pretty good shape. You could be eating my dust all day, slowpoke. 

Buster Bluth [00:15:05] And you might be eating *BLEEP* *BLEEP.* 

Michael Bluth [00:15:06] Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. 

Chris Berube [00:15:16] The show’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz, says his actors weren’t actually swearing during these sequences. They would say the words “lip flap.” So, if somebody read their lips, they wouldn’t be able to tell what swear word it was supposed to be. Hurwitz explained the joke’s appeal to NPR. 

Mitch Hurwitz [00:15:32] That was the point at which we realized, you know, it’s more fun to not know exactly what it is that we’re saying. It becomes kind of a puzzle for people. And I think it’s about, you know, letting your imagination do the work. 

Roman Mars [00:15:44] The apotheosis of this trend is a recurring sketch on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. It’s called Unnecessary Censorship, where he replaces parts of perfectly normal sentences with long, obnoxious bleeps. 

News Anchor [00:15:56] President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address and urged Americans to build a, quote, “big *BLEEP* nation.”

Barack Obama [00:16:02] We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we *BLEEP* on the moon. 

Chris Berube [00:16:09] In so many ways, the censor bleep noise–it’s like a super swear. It can be used to barely conceal a swear word, like on Jerry Springer. Or it can be used to let our minds run wild and consider all sorts of possibilities, like Arrested Development. As a tool of censorship, it’s not that effective, which is why certain political action groups would like to see it dead. Hello, Tim. 

Tim Winter [00:16:36] Can you hear me, Chris? 

Chris Berube [00:16:37] Tim Winter is the head of the Parents Television and Media Council. 

Tim Winter [00:16:41] We are a grassroots, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our mission is to protect children from the graphic sex, violence, and profanity that seems so pervasive in our entertainment media today. 

Chris Berube [00:16:55] The PTC is famous for having monitors watch broadcast TV and submit complaints to the Federal Communications Commission. They also do things like lobbying Congress to increase the fines against broadcasters who put swearing on the air. 

Roman Mars [00:17:10] The PTC believes TV and radio should be a family friendly haven, where content is appropriate for everyone. And for Tim, that conviction has created a complicated relationship with bleeping. 

Tim Winter [00:17:21] First and foremost, when it comes to a bleep button versus hearing the profanity–especially on entertainment content that is likely to be consumed by children–now the bleep button is better than the profanity, usually, generally speaking, in our opinion. It’s one of those things where we don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of good. 

Chris Berube [00:17:44] But still, he thinks the bleep button isn’t some neutral thing. In Tim’s mind, the bleep button is kind of like cheating. 

Tim Winter [00:17:53] If the intention is to shock, then you put the loud bleep in there. And that’s exactly what they’re doing; they’re doing it for effect. This is no earnest effort to make sure that the program, you know, doesn’t violate indecency standards. This is a way to almost do the opposite. You’re doing it intentionally to suggest and to provoke. You’re almost adding it back in and adding emphasis to it, even though you’re not saying the words. 

Chris Berube [00:18:19] In 2010, the PTC launched a boycott against a sitcom based on a Twitter account called *BLEEP* My Dad says. The Twitter thread used a profanity in the title, but the show didn’t. And in the trailers, they actually just used the word “bleep.”

CBS Announcer [00:18:35] Bleep My Dad Says. Thursdays this fall. Only CBS. 

Chris Berube [00:18:40] They called sponsors of Bleep My Dad Says and told them to boycott the show. It was canceled after a few episodes, mostly because nobody was really watching. 

Roman Mars [00:18:51] The bleep button might be on its way out, but not for the “protect the children” reasons favored by Tim Winter and the PTC. It’s because swearing across society has become more and more accepted. A Reuters poll found that only 14% of Americans never swear in day-to-day life. 

Chris Berube [00:19:07] Recently, the FCC has lost some of its regulatory power. In 2010, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s right to levy fines for fleeting swear words in live broadcast, saying their rules were, quote, “unconstitutionally vague.” 

Roman Mars [00:19:24] In the years since that ruling, TV and radio hasn’t been a vulgarity free-for-all. Advertisers and parents probably wouldn’t abide that. But the standards are definitely changing. 

Chris Berube [00:19:34] Most stations don’t bleep words like “bitch” or “ass” anymore. It’s possible we’re heading towards a world where *BLEEP* and *BLEEP* won’t be *BLEEP* out. But personally, I hope we keep the bleep. The bleep button is America’s super ego. It’s the desire to say exactly what we want all the time and the knowledge that we can’t. 

Roman Mars [00:20:03] When we come back, the delicate art of censoring swear words during live broadcasts. 

Jake Glanz [00:20:08] I’m ready to press the big red button, because at this point, I’m like, oh, if this goes over, the air is going to get fined. My whole career is over. 

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Chris Berube [00:25:03] Today, when you hear the bleep button on radio and TV, it’s almost always in pre-recorded content–like a reality TV show or a sitcom. But it’s rarely used in live broadcast. Think about all the times you’ve seen something go horribly wrong on live TV. Like when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, then he started yelling, and they just cut off his sound. 

Roman Mars [00:25:26] Same thing anytime a professional athlete loses their cool. 

Commentator [00:25:29] LeBron James eventually was carried to the Heat bench. 

LeBron James [00:25:33] Oh, shi–

Chris Berube [00:25:40] Silence works just fine as a replacement for a bad word on television because there are still images being broadcast. But on the radio, silence doesn’t cut it. People think silence is dead air. For years, live radio used the bleep sound effect. But they stopped in the 1970s, and that’s because of one bored operator who really did not like the bleep button. 

Richard Factor [00:26:02] Most of the time you didn’t need the bleep, which again–you know–you’re calling it a bleep only because you got to call it something. But it’s really just a tone to fill dead air while the naughtiness went away. 

Chris Berube [00:26:17] That’s Richard Factor. You heard from him earlier. He was a board operator at WABC in the 1960s. But a few years after that, Richard started a new audio company with some friends called Eventide, which became a huge deal in the audio world. They created all kinds of effects for audio engineers, some of which were used by David Bowie and Eddie Van Halen. But one of their inventions, in 1977, changed radio forever. It was called the broadcast audio delay. 

Richard Factor [00:26:47] I have a lot of trouble just talking to standard humans saying, “Richard, what do you do?” And I said, “Well, I’m an inventor.” “Oh, do you have any patents?” “Yes.” “What’s your patent on?” “The thing that keeps the naughty words off the radio.” 

Chris Berube [00:27:03] Basically, Richard’s broadcast delay allows a board operator to cut out a swear word without using the bleep button. 

Roman Mars [00:27:11] Here’s how it works. Remember, most live radio broadcasts run on a seven-second tape delay, meaning live broadcasts actually get transmitted seven seconds later than they happen in real life. Richard’s invention, the broadcast delay, took it a step further. The machine has a black panel with a giant yellow button in the middle with the word “dump” on it. If somebody swears, the board operator can hit the dump button and cut straight from the tape delayed broadcast to the live feed–essentially skipping over the swear. 

Chris Berube [00:27:43] Why “dump?” Why did the word “dump” seem like the right name for that particular function? 

Richard Factor [00:27:49] Well, because that’s precisely what you’re doing. You’re taking some words and dumping them into infinity or nowhere–take your pick. And you’ve given me the opportunity to–I think they call them “props”–give props to my buddy Kenny Schaffer, who often complains that he doesn’t get enough credit for stuff. But he’s the one who invented the dump button. 

Chris Berube [00:28:14] If you dump correctly, the bad word just disappears–and no one’s the wiser. We wanted to hear the dump button in action, so we called up Jake Glanz, the head of broadcast engineering at SiriusXM, a company that–hey, look at that–owns 99% Invisible. 

Jake Glanz [00:28:30] Hi. You’re on the air. 

Chris Berube [00:28:34] Hi, it’s Chris Berube calling. Is this Jake? 

Jake Glanz [00:28:34] This is. You’re caller #1. 

Chris Berube [00:28:37] Hi. Is this your first time doing this on the air–as an on-air person? 

Jake Glanz [00:28:41] No. Perhaps you didn’t realize you’re talking to the former host of Jake’s Wake and Bake. 

Chris Berube [00:28:48] After his foray into college radio stardom, Jake spent years working as a board operator. And he says hitting the dump button is the thing that keeps board ops awake at night. 

Jake Glanz [00:28:58] It’s overwhelming because–especially if you’re trying to engineer a very complicated show, dealing with live callers, working against a clock, you have some hard times perhaps you have to hit–it’s overwhelming. 

Chris Berube [00:29:13] Let’s do a demonstration of the dump button in action. For this exercise, I’m going to call into a live radio show. And let’s pretend “gumdrop” is the worst swear word you’ve ever heard. Keep it in mind. Gumdrop. Okay, so here we go. Are we ready? Do you feel ready? 

Jake Glanz [00:29:31] Sure. 

Roman Mars [00:29:33] “This is KNPI, all architecture, all the time. We’re coming to you live from beautiful uptown Oakland, California, where it’s sunny and 73 degrees. Today we’re talking Le Corbusier. Misunderstood genius or overrated hack? We’ve got Chris from Toronto on the line. You’re on the air.”

Chris Berube [00:29:49] “Thanks, Robin. First time, long time. So, Le Corbusier? Get out of here with this guy. He said that buildings are “machines for living in,” which–I mean–come on! I don’t want to live in a machine. That moron thought people would live in these stupid gumdrop buildings with no gumdrop amenities anywhere close by. Le Corbusier should have stuck to what he’s good at.” So, while I’m ranting and raving, a board op like Jake would hit the big yellow dump button, and this is what folks would hear on the radio. “He said that buildings are machines for living in, which–I mean–come on! I don’t want to live in a machine. That moron thought people would live in these–“

Roman Mars [00:30:32] Very fascinating. Okay. Thank you, Chris. Next caller. 

Jake Glanz [00:30:34] Okay. I think we got it. Yep. Let’s hope that the effect of this is not going to encourage people to test the board op’s ability to react in time. 

Roman Mars [00:30:46] Please do not call in to test this with your local board operator. I used to be a board operator. That’s just *BLEEP* inconsiderate. 

Chris Berube [00:30:53] Now, you might have noticed an issue with the dump button. After you eliminate the seven-second delay, you’re kind of screwed if somebody swears again later in the program. So, Richard Factor’s broadcast delay included a second innovation–time stretching software that would slowly rebuild the tape delay over the next few minutes. Basically, the software looks for little pauses in speech and then stretches them out. 

Jake Glanz [00:31:19] If it was a talk show format, you could kind of add the delay between pauses and take advantage of that, so the natural speech would kind of be elongated, I guess. The delays would be built when there was silence between the words. You could build up, say, within a couple of minutes to get to a safe amount of delay time. 

Roman Mars [00:31:43] If you listen to live radio, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the dump button in action, and there’s a good chance you didn’t notice it. The appeal of the dump button is obvious. It wipes out the swear word and makes it seem like nothing happened. 

Chris Berube [00:32:00] Richard Factor says, for the most part, radio stations prefer the dump button to that intrusive, obnoxious bleep. 

Richard Factor [00:32:07] Well, for sure, in terms of programming, it’s better if it’s seamless. I have no doubt at all that when you run a program and nobody can tell something’s gone wrong, you’re better off. 

Chris Berube [00:32:19] But is this seamless transition better for listeners? Maria Bustillos–the culture writer–she thinks that silence is taking away important context. And she says the bleep sound is actually better. 

Maria Bustillos [00:32:31] I think that the bleep is actually more revealing and better for listeners or viewers than any other form of censorship. Like, what we have now potentially is they can erase the thing–seamlessly erase or remove. Like, you won’t know that there was a lacuna at all, and I think that’s really harmful. We all know how manipulative media can be, and the viewer or listener may remain completely naive to that. You know, whatever alterations have been made, I think a bleep is healthier. 

Chris Berube [00:33:08] Let’s consider an incident from early in Jake Glanz’s career. 

Roman Mars [00:33:12] When Jake was 18–before he was waking and baking–he was working as a board operator for a politics show on a Black-owned radio station in New England. 

Chris Berube [00:33:21] One afternoon, the show was hosting a debate between two candidates running for office. A Black candidate was running against a white incumbent. And Jake says the incumbent was not thrilled with the situation. 

Jake Glanz [00:33:34] The incumbent loses his cool at one point. And I’m not sure if it was the N-word… 

Roman Mars [00:33:41] Whatever he said, Jake remembers it being a slur. And so, Jake started to panic. 

Jake Glanz [00:33:46] I have the delay right in front of me, and I’m ready to press the big red button. And I go to press it because at this point, I’m like, “Aw, if this goes over the air, the station’s going to get fined. They’re going to, you know, excommunicate me. My whole career is over.”

Chris Berube [00:34:04] So in a situation like this, what’s the right move? If the offensive word goes out on the air, Jake and the station could get in trouble with the FCC. If Jake uses the bleep button, maybe that trivializes a really serious situation because the bleep button is kind of funny. But if Jake does a seamless cut and just eliminates the whole thing, then the listener could be missing out on really telling information about somebody running for office. Clearly, none of these are perfect solutions. Okay, here’s what actually happened. 

Roman Mars [00:34:35] Jake’s station manager was standing right beside him. And when the incumbent started ranting, the manager told Jake to let the slur go out on the radio. For this story, it’s important to know that Jake’s manager was Black. 

Jake Glanz [00:34:48] The general manager held my hand from pressing the button. And he goes, “This is a news program. We’re okay.” I’m not so sure about that, but, you know, I was like, “Okay.” 

Chris Berube [00:35:02] It turns out Jake didn’t get in trouble. The station wasn’t fined. In fact, Jake thinks this moment impacted the election in a positive way. 

Jake Glanz [00:35:11] Lo and behold, that incumbent lost the race. Yeah, his true colors came out, so to speak. 

Chris Berube [00:35:20] When it comes to censorship, the right choice isn’t always obvious. If it’s a call between a bleeped sound, or a seamless cut, or including a swear word, I actually don’t know what I prefer. There are good arguments for all three. For me, the whole thing just feels like a big *BLEEP* paradox.  

Roman Mars [00:36:12] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Edited by Kelly Prime. Original music by Swan Real.  This 1912 recording of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz courtesy of the Library of Congress. Sound mix and additional production by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Our executive producer is Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Jayson DeLeon, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Ben Frisch, Mya Byrne, Jared O’Connell, and Maria Bustillos, whose article about the bleep for the tech site The Verge helped inspire this episode. You can find more of Maria’s work at Popula and the Brick House Cooperative. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit and TikTok, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI and 99pi.org. 

  1. Thisfox

    Your youtube videos expired in record time. They’re all marked as “restricted” here in Oz, we can’t watch them. Can you change them to a more internationally accessible format?

  2. Geoffrey

    While radio bleeping is fascinating, I’ve always loved the substitute words on TV. My favorite: “Freeze right there or I’ll blow your galdarn knees off egg roll!”

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