The DJ turned stand-up comedian was always proud that he had a place in broadcasting history, since it was the airing of his “Seven Dirty Words” routine on WBAI-FM New York that produced a landmark indecency court decision – even if the outcome was not the one Carlin advocated. George Carlin had been suffering from heart disease and died Sunday at age 71.
Unlike some recent f-word and s-word slips that have gotten broadcasters in trouble with the FCC, the WBAI broadcast was a deliberate attempt to challenge the indecency law. Carlin’s LP recording of the “Seven Dirty Words” was played as political commentary on the hypocrisy of our culture labeling certain words as too filthy to be broadcast, while “kill” and “war” were perfectly acceptable. One listener – and only one in the entire New York City market – filed a complaint with the FCC, which fined the station. WBAI’s owner, Pacifica Foundation, appealed to the courts and the result was the landmark 1978 US Supreme Court decision upholding the FCC’s authority to regulate indecent speech on radio and television.
Despite his raw stage act, Carlin was perfectly capable of abiding by the FCC rules and made frequent appearances on television after achieving national fame. He was a frequent guest host for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” He even had major roles in children’s television, as “Mr. Conductor” on “Shining Time Station” and as narrator for the “Thomas and Friends” HBO specials.
RBR/TVBR observation: Like so many people in broadcasting, we especially loved Carlin’s bits fashioned on his experience as a DJ in Shreveport, LA and Fort Worth, TX. We wore deep grooves in the vinyl playing and replaying “Wonderful WINO” and his bits as “Al Sleet, your hippy-dippy weatherman.” Louisiana and Texas were also foreign lands for the kid from New York sent there for training by the US Air Force, which led to his commentary on his first encounter with grits. As much as we loved his records, we loved seeing him on stage in person even more. Alas, we now have only memories.