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The Notorious But Necessary “Radio Edit”

You’ve heard them. Songs on the radio that have the naughty words either obscured or beeped out (think Green Day’s “Longview”) or have long passages edited out altogether (cf. the “safe” version of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”). These are known as “clean” or “radio” edits.

You might well wonder why these exist in the first place.  Given that radio frequencies are public property in both Canada and the US, stations that use these frequencies are required to follow policies that are deemed in the public’s best interests. In other words…

After many years of trial-and-error, it’s more-or-less okay to play songs with bad words on Canadian radio after 9pm and before 5am. After that, you run the risk of dealing with a Canadian Broadcast Standards Council issue which requires just one (that’s ONE) complaint to set into motion.  While not fun (I dealt with dozens and dozens of these things when I was a program director), at least the CBSC isn’t a government organization. It’s a self-regulating body created by the nation’s private broadcasters to show the CRTC and the federal government that they can handle things themselves without Ottawa getting involved. That’s a very good thing.

In the US, it’s a different story. The Federal Communications Commission is a government body that polices the airwaves for unacceptable content. It has the power to fine radio stations thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars for content that breaches its code. American program directors live in fear of a call from the FCC, which can be triggered my some busybody who heard an errant “shit” in a song lyric at 2 in the afternoon. Interesting for a country where the First Amendment is held in such high regard, innit?

This fear has led to a constant torrent of “clean,” “radio” and “FCC-safe” edits from record labels. No one wants to be broadsided by a bad word.

Meanwhile, Canadian programmers continue to pray that no one notices the bad words in songs like Pink Floyd’s “Money,” “At the Hundredth Meridian” from the Tragically Hip and “Who Are You” from The Who, all of which have been played on Canadian radio for decades with nary a single complaint. That would never, ever happen in the US.

This brings me to an NPR article called “The Art of the Clean Version.”

If you listen to music on the radio, chances are you’ll hear a lot of lyrics that don’t match the ones on the original album recordings. When songs get profanity, obscenity or references to drugs or sex removed for broadcast, it’s a process known as clean editing. Joel Mullis is one of the masters of the art.

“I can see a cuss word — you know, from doing so many clean edits,” Mullis says. “I don’t even have to listen to them a lot of times, because I recognize what an ‘S-H’ looks like, what an ‘F’ looks like, in a waveform,

Back in the early 2000s, Mullis was an engineer at The Zone, a popular recording studio in Atlanta. He worked with many of the big names in Southern rap at the time — Ludacris, David Banner, Young BloodZ and others. After recording the artists in the studio, Mullis was often responsible for going back into the mix and making a broadcast-friendly version of a track.

“For a long time, that basically meant going in and chopping out the cuss words,” Mullis says. “But one thing that I got known for was making the clean edits part of the song.”

Continue reading. America. What a nutty place.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38427 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “The Notorious But Necessary “Radio Edit”

  • In 2011, Money for Nothing was banned for what…6/7 months for 1 word, from 1 complaint?
    What took so long, considering when the song was released?


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