It was the eve of Good Friday, and the Miami radio shock jocks Enrique Santos and Joe Ferrero were toning down their act out of respect for the holiday--and for station WXDJ's new list of 21 prohibited words and phrases describing sexual and excretory acts. So all that listeners got to leaven their morning commute was a caller who couldn't sleep because of a neighbor's loud orgasms, a song about a cheating husband whose wife cut off one of his testicles and some sound bites of what everyone assumes was Fidel Castro bellowing about homosexuals and vaginas. "We don't want to upset listeners," says Ferrero, "but we're also paid to do entertainment and crazy stuff." How are they still getting away with it? In part because the boundaries of permissible radio raunch are so hard to define--but also because Santos and Ferrero are lucky enough to be broadcasting in Spanish.
Spanish-language shock jocks seem to have a de facto grant of immunity from the FCC. Only one of its 20 staff investigators speaks Spanish, and none of the nine radio and TV stations fined in the last 15 months for violating the agency's indecency standards was a Spanish-language broadcaster. After Janet Jackson's Super Bowl breast-baring stunt, the FCC and its chairman, Michael Powell, began cracking down on the likes of Howard Stern, whose talk show has been dropped by six of the radio giant Clear Channel's stations; this month Clear Channel was fined $495,000 for Stern's blue-tinged broadcasts, and has agreed to pay $755,000 for similar trespasses by Bubba the Love Sponge. Now some Hispanic media watchdogs accuse the agency of neglecting their community's segment of the industry--which has grown from 347 Spanish-language radio stations in 1993 to 626 last year. "The enforcement level at the FCC has been very faulty," says Marta Garcia, a Puerto Rican-American who sits on the board of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "They turned a deaf ear."
Not entirely. In 2001 and 2002, the commission did assess fines against four Spanish-language radio and TV stations for gags about anal and oral intercourse and a skit about sex toys. But critics ridicule the fines, which ranged from $7,000 to $22,400 (for the owner of a radio station in New Bedford, Mass.), as pocket change for such huge companies as Miami-based Telemundo. "Give me a break," says Alex Nogales, the NHMC's Mexican-American president. "I'm glad they did it, but these fines are nothing." The FCC is currently reviewing complaints against two Spanish-language stations--one of them WXDJ, where Ferrero and Santos, U.S.-born Cuban-Americans, achieved instant celebrity last year when they placed prank calls that lured both Castro and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez onto "El Vacilon de la Manana" ("The Morning Blast"). (The FCC says that when it gets complaints, it acts accordingly.) "Powell is trying to find someone in Spanish-language TV or radio to make an example of," says Santos, 29. "It's like a witch hunt, and that's wrong and offensive."
Not to mention difficult: defining what constitutes a dirty word in Spanish can present special challenges. The FCC's litmus test for obscene speech relies on "contemporary community standards," but in Miami or New York, Latin immigrants come from several different countries; in much of Latin America, the word bicho means simply "bug," while in Puerto Rico it's slang for penis. When a shock jock uses the word coger, does it mean "take hold of," as it does in Madrid, or is it a vulgarism for copulating, as in Buenos Aires? (Well, three guesses.) But where there's a will, there's a way: Powell clearly has the will, and if he hires some Spanish-speaking agents for his free-speech-or-obscenity border patrol, they could well find a way. And the shock jocks, of course, will find work-arounds so the drive-time audience won't mistake "El Vacilon de la Manana" for "Morning Edition en Espanol." What's the Spanish for "this too shall pass"?