How Contraception Gave Birth to the "Bleep"

Cristen Conger

Blame the "bleep" on birth control.
Blame the "bleep" on birth control.
Thinkstock

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but thankfully for sensitive ears, the Federal Communications Commission regulates obscenity over the airwaves. In a fascinating (though profanity-laced, FYI) article at The Verge, Maria Bustillos traces the history of the "bleep," that auditory blotting out of unsavory language that radio and TV broadcasters deem inappropriate for unassuming audiences, and how it simultaneously spotlights the word or topic in question:

A bleep is honest, immediate, noisy. It's the cultural superego in motion, calling attention to a difference of opinion regarding the offensiveness of the bleeped material. Here is this questionable thing; think about it for yourself, investigate if you like.

Curiously, it wasn't a typically bleep-worthy utterance that initiated this type of censorship. Rather, it was fears over a veiled reference to birth control that got a radio station fretting a legal crackdown. In 1921, vaudeville star and high-profile birth control champion Olga Petrova was slated to perform on a New Jersey radio station, and producers were concerned that she might use the platform to discuss conception, which would've been a big no-no in light of the hyper strict anti-obscenity Comstock Laws still in place that previously brought about Margaret Sanger's 1916 arrest related to her advertising America's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY. Instead of talking explicitly about birth control, Petrova attempted to skirt censorship by reading amended Mother Goose rhymes, including: "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe/ She had so many children because she didn't know what to do."

The station had anticipated that Petrova might pull something, so they set up something to pull as well. Although it wasn't exactly a "bleep," the engineer devised an emergency switch of sorts that allowed him to immediately replace Petrova's broadcast with a phonograph recording. In response to this type of censorship that emerged from her 1921 radio appearance, Petrova later commented: "One would suppose that radio audiences must be completely paralyzed...and therefore unable to turn off the switches of their own sets the instant their ears were shocked ... by what they heard."

Today, the TV "bleep" has become more of a punchline than panic button as creative minds have figured out how to inject some fun into First Amendment censorship. Incorporating profanity into scripted series only to have it intentionally bleeped out is a common comic gag these days, so much so it's considered a trope. For broadcasters that wish to effectively erase naughty language, the "bleep" is a bygone, replaced by the more dour "dump button" that, as Bustillos describes, "provides a relatively insidious, more censorship-like form of editing, because its alteration of the original broadcast has been actively concealed."