The Phoenix FM Bible : information for Phoenix FM presenters

Swearing and offensive language on air

  • Presenters and guests must not swear or cause offence on air
  • Songs containing swearing or offensive lyrics should not be broadcast on your shows.
  • If either of the above happens, presenters must make an immediate (and sincere) on air apology - don't be flippant or treat it like a joke.
  1. What is "swearing"?

    Ofcom regularly publishes a guide called "Attitudes to potentially offensive language and gestures on TV and radio". The current version can be found here.

    Not official guidance, but you might find this interesting:

  2. What is "offensive"?

    The Broadcasting Code states that anything which may cause offence must be justified by the context.

    Such material may include, but is not limited to, offensive language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, discriminatory treatment or language (for example on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, and marriage and civil partnership), and treatment of people who appear to be put at risk of significant harm as a result of their taking part in a programme.

    Our general rule is - avoid lyrics with swearing, lyrics that reference gratuitous violence, lyrics are sexist, racist and/or homophobic.

    Accidents happen - and the apology (as listed in our rules) is very important. Ofcom will accept this as a major mitigation into any rule breach. It goes without saying that if the apology is insincere or sarcastic, it will make matters worse.

    It also goes without saying that, for example, you can't play several songs with swearing in them, with an apology after each. They will see that as evidence of management not giving regulatory training to presenters.

    It's also worth noticing that Ofcom's list isn't what THEY think you can and can't say - it's what THE GENERAL PUBLIC thinks. Ofcom frequently conduct large surveys to see how words become more or less offensive over time.
Be careful:

A "radio edit" often means the song has been edited in length for radio play. It may or may not also have offensive lyrics removed.

A "clean edit" or "clean radio edit" should be suitable for radio play.

Interpretation of the rules:

There is no watershed in radio. Instead, radio broadcasters are asked to make judgements about what is appropriate for the audience at any time of day or night.

Ofcom's Broadcasting Code declares its objective as finding a balance between the right to free expression of opinion, allowing adults to make informed choices about what they will see and hear, and protecting audiences – particularly young people – from offence or harm.

So it's possible that songs with swearing with them could be played at a time when young people aren't listening - something that isn't legally defined, but generally accepted to mean "not breakfast and not late afternoons and early evenings".

Context is also important. The BBC reported on a campaign called "Bollocks to Brexit" throughout the day without breaching the rules, because the context was that the word was being used as a protest rather than a sexual reference.

Likewise, a political song with the word "fuck" in it may be different from a song with "fucker" in it frequently as the latter might be seen as gratuitous.

Back in 2007 the station had a complaint after a presenter played the non-radio edit of Stan by Eminem at 11.30pm. There wasn't a lot of swearing in it but the lyrics are very offensive. Playing it so late at night wasn't allowed as an excuse - so the rules are very vague.

Because of this vagueness, our own station rule is that we must play clean edits in all shows. This way it stops the possibility of a complaint being made against us.