For the entire length of recorded human history, there has been censorship of people's right to action or information. In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating from the tree of good and evil and even asking about it. Ever get sworn to secrecy about a family secret? As much as you might hate to admit it, that's censorship. Heck, entire countries like China have this baked into their DNA.
For most of our lifetimes, censorship has never stopped being in the news from Watergate to WikiLeaks and because of our natural human desire to be free, stories of censorship have never stopped being interesting. Into that fray steps Matthew Billy and his new podcast Bleeped that starting on June 18 is releasing new stories of censorship that have been heavily researched. Each episode comes from a very different place but they all have one thing in common - each one will have you in agony asking "how could this happen?" Much like the horror movie trope of the audience yelling at the screen while the character is opening a creaking door, I found myself wanting to scream at the story I was listening to unfold.
Matthew previously worked on the highly regarded musical documentary podcast Between the Liner Notes about music history. He says that a bunch of the episodes had to do with censorship and he found that he liked covering the censorship more than he liked covering the music. The seeds of the new show were planted when he was in Miami to interview Luther Campbell from Two Live Crew who were famously censored for the language on their album 25 years ago and the music industry reacted by putting warning labels on CDs after that. Mr. Campbell didn't return his phone call but Matthew says "the trip was very fruitful because a light bulb went off in my head." He decided to devote an entire podcast to stories of censorship and shortly after returning from Miami he started working on what would become Bleeped.
Billy says his goal for the show was to cover regular people that got censored, show the negative impact on their personal lives, and how they fought back. "Very often, the results are positive, and it has some kind of positive change on society."
In the first episode, those goals are definitely accomplished with the harrowing tale of financial investor Fane Lozman losing his houseboat to developers in the city of Riviera Beach, Florida that became national news. It's the kind of story that sounds so unbelievable it would have to be a movie. Fane had just moved to the city of Riviera Beach with the houseboat he built when he was alerted that real estate developers were going to buy out the property he was docked on. He did everything he could to fight his impending homelessness but through a series of increasingly questionable legal moves the city succeeded in seizing control of his floating home and it was gradually destroyed as it was towed away. The crux of the legal dispute was whether his house was technically a "vessel" which means that it should have the ability to transport itself through the water. His house wasn't intended to go anywhere and although he did lose his home, he ended up taking his case before the Supreme Court twice and ended up winning both cases.
Working mostly by himself, Matthew brings this newspaper story to life and lays it out in excruciating detail through a series of interviews with Fane and others that powerfully illustrate the power of audio and information to overcome censorship.
The second story I was given in my preview highlights the power of the internet and social media to empower the powerless when they become censored and is equally gripping as the first. John and Jen Palmer ordered a desk ornament and key chain from kleargear.com that never arrived and so like a lot of us they wrote a negative review on ripoffreport.com and that normally would have been that. The company retaliated by charging them money for the bad review; the Palmers didn't pay and their credit rating took a nosedive. Eventually, they found a lawyer to take their case which got them on local tv and the ensuing newspaper coverage of the story went viral and was picked up by national outlets like the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post.
Thanks to the ensuing coverage, the case eventually wound up in the Supreme Court where the Palmers won, but they weren't able to collect any money for damages because the company was impossible to track down physically and used addresses that were only mail drops. Once again, Matthew Billy walks the listener through the story in a long-form conversation with the Palmers through the highs and the lows in a really engrossing way.
The format of the show will feel perfectly familiar to listeners of popular shows like This American Life and Radiolab in the way that it shines a light on something that you may not be aware of. Unlike the broad themes of its forbears however, Bleeped has a niche it digs into and so far finds interesting ways to differentiate the stories from each other.
Another story about censorship of a Cincinnati art show highlights a growing problem in America over art with difficult subject matter and about how the conservative movement in America attempts to ban it by declaring it not art but obscene. Matthew says, "The extreme right wing has re-appropriated free speech to justify certain things, and making it about them. And I think it's important to recalibrate that conversation and look at free speech in a much broader way."
Matthew would prefer for the show to not be political but he says, "the very act of censoring somebody is political in itself." He's working on an upcoming episode about a drag queen story hour at a library and about how their events are being canceled because of protests and lawsuits. "In my mind," Matthew says, "that's not political, that's just a debate about how public space is allowed to be used. But the people who push back against the drag queens would say that it is a political discussion."
It's not like censorship is a new thing but stories like this are coming to the forefront more and more often now because of the internet and social media and smartphones. "We're just talking more now than ever," Matthew says.
I should also add that all of this speech is being done on platforms that are private businesses. So they have a much greater ability to police what we say than a federal or a local government could police me just talking in the public square. That's governed, obviously, by their terms of service, so we're getting a lot more into the question of "is the first amendment controlled by the government or these private companies like Facebook?"
It's going to be interesting to see how Bleeped tackles these questions as they come up, but based on the four preview episodes I heard, the show won't shy away from peeling back all the layers of a delicate issue. Matthew hopes Bleeped can bring people to a greater sense of consciousness of what's going on around them in order to be armed with the truth. Because after all censorship is silence and the best way to fight that is with the sound of information. The most dangerous censorship is the censorship of the mind.