It is a common misconception, even among the show's staff, that Loveline has to refrain from and Dump any cuss words uttered on-air due to FCC broadcast rules. This is actually untrue.
The FCC has two types of material it prohibits: obscene and indecent. "Obscene" material is defined by a three prong test, but largely boils down to overtly pornographic content that has no literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Because the discussion of sexuality on Loveline is intended to be medical and educational, it does not violate this rule. Furthermore, cuss words themselves are not considered to be obscene; indeed the courts ruled in Branton v. FCC that NPR's broadcast of John Gotti yelling variations of "fuck" 10 times was not in violation of the law.
The second type of material defined in FCC regulations, "Indecent," refers to more general offensive language or material about sexual or excretory organs or activities that don't rise to the level of "obscene," as well as profane language such as common swear words. However, the ban on "indecent" material only applies between the hours of 6:00AM and 10:00PM (as stated in FCC regulation 47 C.F.R § 73.3999). This non-regulated period from 10PM-6AM is known informally as "Safe Harbor." Because Loveline broadcasts after 10PM PST, it is effectively exempt from the normal prohibition on swearing or indecent language in terrestrial radio, and also gives the show additional leeway to discuss sexual material.
Dr. Drew himself seems to be unfamiliar with the details of this law, often lamenting the stupidity of the FCC "banning" cuss words while letting him talk is gruesome detail about various sexual matters. He also expressed the common myth that George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" was used as the template for the law, when in actuality it was simply an observation of pre-existing broadcast practices. Carlin also did not "testify before Congress" as Drew often claims, but rather a recording of his "Seven Word"s stand-up routine was played on the radio, which led to a complaint and the now famous Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation in 1978.
Ironically, the FCC does not actually keep a formal list of prohibited words. Based on listener observation, there are actually six words that Loveline chooses to censor, and two of them are only dumped in certain contexts. The words "fuck," "shit," "cunt," "tit(s)," are always censored, while "cock" is only dumped if referring to a penis, but not a chicken or the sports term shuttlecock, and "piss" if used in reference to urination, but not if used in reference to anger (e.g. a person being "pissed off").
So far, no clear explanation has been given for why the show censors cuss words when it is not required by law. Tyler White, the show's webmaster at the time, responded to a fan inquiry on Twitter with "yes, technically expletives are allowed after 10pm but nobody does it." No elaboration on why was given.
In 2013, Mike tried to set Drew straight on the matter but did not get an opportunity to elaborate.
- Drew: Do you know, by the way, you're allowed to say "S" now on CNN?
- Mike: We're allowed to say it here if wanted to, it's just we're not going to. It's after a certain time of night. We've all agreed that this is a... (cut off by sound from caller)
In 2015, both Mike and Anderson spoke about a special seminar they attended at the radio station where a company attorney explained the rules on broadcast restrictions. The general tone was of extreme paranoia about being fined by the FCC, and there was no mention if Safe Harbor was discussed.
The most likely theory from fans surmises that it has something to do with the show being syndicated.