I tried to bluff my dad, and I got busted. Forty years later, Radio tried to bluff the American people, and we got busted.

Rain pounded against the glass as I gazed at the fierce thunderstorm, wishing I could be outside. My bicycle was lying on the sidewalk in a pool of water. No problem until I saw my dad’s car coming. I scampered into the rain, opened the garage door, grabbed my bike and shoved it into the dry garage. I didn’t think my father saw me; he was still pretty far down the road.

“Did you leave your bike in the rain, son?”

With fingers crossed, I said, “No, sir.”

“You know the rule: If you leave your bike in the rain, I take it away.”

I insisted I brought it in before the deluge, but a quick trip to the garage proved otherwise, and I lost my bicycling privileges. I had been given a responsibility — and now I was busted.

Radio left its bike in the rain and tried to pull it in before Dad got home. Though we knew right from wrong, we pushed until the edge of the envelope became invisible. We were outside it and tried to pretend we weren’t. One station tried to out-smut the other because smut sells, and this is a business driven by revenues. We began reining ourselves in only when the government slapped our hands. “Bike? Rain? Oh, we forgot. Sorry, Dad.”

The FCC has been wimpish for the last 15 years and did not live up to its responsibilities. Then Justin Timberlake ripped the breast covering from Janet Jackson and exposed the American media’s inability to police itself. Thank you, Justin. We needed that.

Congress has allowed the media to do what we wanted; legislators got religion only when the FCC was exposed to the disgust of angry voters in an election year. So, who is to blame? None of us corrected the problem until we got caught — not the broadcasters, not the FCC and not Congress. That’s a bunch of wet bikes, friends.

I’m not big on Congress’ stepping in to police the industry, but we showed the American public that we would definitely do whatever it took to build ratings and revenues. We proved that we cannot be trusted. I said “we.” I didn’t write any editorials about it until after the fact. I’m as guilty as you are.

I believe the increase in fines was the right thing to do. The previous fines had been less money than Mel Karmazin spends on dry cleaning each year. Paying them had no more impact than a $150 speeding ticket has on Bill Gates; yet even these levels of fines soon will not be enough. Only ripping away the broadcast licenses of a property worth $500 million will get and keep the industry’s attention.

Radio has been highlighted in national news and has been the focus of congressional probes. A few irresponsible broadcasters have polluted the preciously good image of an industry mostly made of responsible people.

Just last week, a major national advertiser told me: “Once the headlines about radio hit, we immediately pulled all our radio advertising. We can no longer be associated with the medium known for disgusting and vile content.”

We’ve been painted with a broad brush, becoming known for the vile content of a few irresponsible license-holders who are “becoming responsible” only when they have been busted. We left our bike in the rain. I can only hope that Papa Congress loves this country enough to take away a few bikes.

4/12/04 Radio Ink Magazine. By B. Eric Rhoads