Indecency, Obscenity, Profanity and the 7 Words Forbidden by the FCC

It is forbidden to broadcast these words on the radio:

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

However, other language can be deemed in violation by the FCC, if they are seen as Indecent, profane, or obscene. The meaning and definition of these are vaguer and up to the FCC’s discretion but avoiding this when possible is advised. Descriptions are given below.

Indecency, Obscenity, Profanity

It is a violation of federal law to air obscene, indecent, or profane programming at any time. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines indecent speech as material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. Also, “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, such as sexual or excretory activities and organs.” Further, the FCC says defines “obscenity” and “profanity” as “depicting or describing sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lacking in serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

The FCC considers three factors in determining whether material is indecent. The first factor is the explicitness or graphic nature of the material.

Because the meaning of works or images is not always clear, and the definition of indecency encompasses innuendo and double-entendre, the Commission seeks to determine whether material: 1) has an “unmistakably” sexual or excretory meaning; 2) dwells on or repeats sexual or excretory matters at length; or 3) panders, titillates, or is used for shock value.

It is not necessary for material to satisfy all three factors to be considered indecent, so offenses are often decided in courts. Thus, language violations have serious and permanent consequences, requiring defense fees and possible FCC fines from $10,000 to $100,000 or more or grounds for the license to not be renewed. They can disable or close a community radio station.

Please contact us if you have questions or need help:

  • Ursula Ruedenberg, Pacifica Affiliates Coordinator / 510-812-7989 / 
  • Stephanie Schubert, Network operations coordinator /