The culture war came home in a very personal way this week when I innocently gave my granddaughter her first radio. It never occurred to me that I was doing anything subversive, until I saw the look on her father's face when she came running up the porch brandishing her new gift. "Look, Daddy," she said, holding the tiny, red transistor in her hands, "it even has earphones."
The radio was one of those logo-bearing giveaways I'd picked up at a talk-show convention where I'd been broadcasting my own daily radio show earlier in the week. Rather than tossing it in a drawer, I'd passed it on to my 7-year-old granddaughter, thinking she'd enjoy listening to her own music when the family went on outings.
I remember getting my own radio for my 9th birthday, a pink plastic job powered by four "D" batteries that weighed at least five pounds, despite being billed as "portable." I discovered classical music on my own thanks to that radio, tuning in to Denver's one classical station each night before I went to sleep. But that was the 1950s, when the cultural terrain was far different than today.
I should have known better than to try to give my granddaughter the same experience.
So much of what comes over the public airwaves these days is unsuitable for children that it is simply dangerous to give a child his or her own radio or television. Tune in to Howard Stern by accident and you'll hear every manner of sexual perversion discussed. Tune in to a rap station and you'll hear not only sex but also glorified violence and misogyny. In fact, it's almost impossible not to hear something objectionable if you move up or down the AM and FM dials, even during the early morning hours or after school.
Those who'd like to keep the filth on the air claim that cleaning up the airwaves infringes on the First Amendment rights of all Americans. Howard Stern, Opie and Anthony (who broadcast descriptions of an actual couple having sex in New York's St. Patrick's cathedral as part of an on-air contest), Bubba the Love Sponge, and all the other shock-jocks out there aren't forcing you to listen, after all.
That's like saying that the company that dumps raw sewage into the reservoir isn't forcing you to drink polluted water. These programs are toxic; they have degraded our culture and threaten the well being of an entire generation of young people. And so pervasive is their influence that there is almost no way to shelter the young entirely.
Even when parents try to protect their children, they can't do so 24 hours a day. What happens when the kids are at school or playing at friends' houses? What happens when they're in the back seat of the family station wagon stopped at a red light and the guy in the next car is blaring Fifty Cent or the Greaseman?
Children are bombarded on a daily basis by disturbing and overtly sexualized images in omnipresent advertising. You can't watch the evening news without advertisements for erectile dysfunction, or walk into a mall without lewd images from Victoria's Secret or Abercrombie and Fitch leaping out at you from every turn.
Last week, Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio network, suspended Howard Stern's show just in time for its CEO to testify before Congress about the company's new zero tolerance policy on indecency. Perhaps these companies are finally getting the message.
Sure there's an audience for trash -- and if adults want to buy this smut, the Supreme Court has ruled they have that right. But why not force those who want to buy obscene and indecent products to be the ones inconvenienced rather than the rest of us? With all the various methods of delivering images and sounds, why use the public airwaves to present the likes of Howard Stern? You've always been able to buy pornography, only it used to be sold under the counter and in brown wrapping paper, it didn't come into your home uninvited.
Maybe if we put the onus on those who want this garbage by insisting it be available only through direct purchase and not on the public airwaves, it would be safe again to give a child a simple radio.