The Station That Dared to Defend Carlin’s ‘7 Words’ Looks Back

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As the encomiums for George Carlin have rolled in from stand-up legends, celebrities and scholars, his death at 71 has also been noted at a diminutive, iconic and iconoclastic radio station in Manhattan, WBAI-FM.

Its broadcast of the comedian’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” became a landmark moment in the history of free speech. In a 1978 milestone in the station’s contentious and unruly history, WBAI lost a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision that to this day has defined the power of the government over broadcast material it calls indecent.

“It’s a bad time here for us because George Carlin was part of the family,” said Anthony Riddle, the station’s general manager. “I think all the producers are dealing with it in their own way,” Mr. Riddle said, some doing commentary and others running archival material, including a bleeped-out version of the “Seven Words” routine.

The 1978 ruling, often termed “the Carlin case,” was actually called Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, and turned on a 12-minute Carlin monologue called “Filthy Words” that appeared on a 1973 album, “Occupation: Foole.”

After the Carlin album monologue was broadcast on WBAI in 1973 during “Lunch Pail,” an afternoon show, a listener objected that his young son had heard the words on a car radio. The corporate parent of WBAI, the Pacifica Foundation, received a letter of reprimand from the commission, which the company challenged in court.

The Supreme Court said that the broadcast was indecent, though not obscene, and gave the commission the right to determine the definition of indecency and to prohibit such material from being broadcast during hours when children were likely to be listening.

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