Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

PRI's Censored Short Story Podcasts

By Dennis D. McDonald

A couple of months ago I discovered PRI’s Selected Shorts series of podcasts based on radio broadcasts of public readings of short stories by classic and contemporary authors. One of the first stories I listened to via my iPod was Joseph Conrad’s “Down to the Sea in Ships” — the initial description of a seaport absolutely bowled me over. I was hooked. I’ve subscribed to the series on iTunes ever since.

But I’ve now had two experiences which threw me for a loop. Two of the stories I’ve listened to have had words “bleeped” or simply omitted on the podcast. The words I’m sure were the usual crudities and sexual function references, words you don’t normally hear on radio or “broadcast” TV for fear of FCC fines. According to Selected Shorts management in 2008, such words had to be bleeped from the radio broadcast for fear local public radio stations would complain or would be fined by the FCC.

Even though the Short Stories series appears targeted at adult audiences, many of us have gotten used to a certain level of over-the-air censorship and chalk it off to living in a society where some folks are offended — or even fear — certain types of words, especially when kids are within earshot. I understand that. I’ve raised kids. You don’t need to lecture me about my responsibilities as a parent.

But PRI’s censoring of the two contemporary short stories really shocked me, especially since in one case the announcer made a point of saying that the author was in the audience the night a story was read. Did the author realize the work would be censored when broadcast on radio and censored again when distributed for downloading via iTunes?

As I said, we’ve come to accept certain levels of censorship in broadcasting, but in situations where people are free to download or not, do the same rules apply? Isn’t that choice similar to deciding whether or not to subscribe to a cable TV channel that broadcasts original uncensored versions of movies or adult TV series? (By the way, I’m well aware of examples of Apple’s well-publicized censoring of  iTunes downloads.)

If I were an author, I would think long and hard about whether I wanted a program like Selected Shorts to read my story if I thought selected words that I considered essential to character, plot, or atmosphere would be jarringly and noticeably deleted. Perhaps a middle road would be to warn listeners in advance with a statement such as this:

“Listeners on radio or via podcast should be aware that the version of [author name]’s short story “[title]” that you hear read in this recording has been altered to eliminate certain words or phrases that might give offense to some. The author, if living, has [approved /disapproved/is unaware] of such alterations.”

What do you think?

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald

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