Stern, others under attack by FCC

Posted 11:55pm April 16

by Jane Black
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

The future of free speech over the airwaves is uncertain, as over a dozen radio personalities have recently been pulled off the air in an effort by the Federal Communications Commission to control content.

Radio “shock jock” Howard Stern was permanently booted from six radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications on April 8 after the FCC announced it would impose a $495,000 fine on the company for indecent content aired on Stern’s radio show.

Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio chain, was fined for a broadcast last April in which Stern and on-air guests described graphic sexual acts. Stern’s show was also suspended by Clear Channel this February, concerned that the program’s frequent sexually graphic and explicit content would prompt trouble with the FCC.

Stern is the most-fined shock jock in the country, accruing fines of nearly $2.5 million by the FCC since 1990.

“It is pretty shocking that governmental interference into our rights and free speech takes place in the U.S.,” said Stern in a response on his Web site to the FCC’s actions. “It’s hard to reconcile this with the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

This new response of outrage by the FCC was instigated by a nationally televised Super Bowl striptease on February 1 in which entertainer Janet Jackson bared her breast to millions of viewers. The FCC reacted to the political and public outrage by adopting a more aggressive enforcement of decency on the airwaves.

However, many are concerned that new guidelines will result in excessive government interference that runs afoul to first amendment rights.

“This is not a surprise,” said Stern in the Web site statement. “This is a follow up to the McCarthy type ‘witch hunt’ of the administration and the activities of this group of presidential appointees in the FCC, led by Colin Powell Jr. and his band of players.”

Lawmakers are now considering legislation that would increase fines against radio companies for airing material the FCC defines as offensive. The House recently approved legislation that would raise indecency fines from $27,500 to $500,000 for each offense. A proposed Senate version of the bill would require the FCC to hold a license revocation hearing if a station is rebuked for indecency three times.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan, is sponsoring the Senate Bill, arguing that hefty fines will force the media to answer to consumer unease. Under federal law, broadcast media is prohibited from airing indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. A federal ban against profane language is loosely defined to anti-religious terms.

The FCC, which admittingly operates under loosely defined explanations of indecency, says that they allow for freedom of expression and the occasional “slip of the tongue.” The current guidelines define indecency as “terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards.” The agency punishes brazen use of vulgarities and antics such as audio of sexual acts. This year the FCC has proposed fined of $1.6 million — more than the combined total over the past 10 years.

Last week FCC Chairman Michael Powell urged the National Association of Broadcasters to adopt their own content code, which would mean less government interference into the airwaves.

“The FCC seems to be profiting millions from penalizing Stern for what he has always done,” said Shani George, who works on college radio station WRGW at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. “We are supposed to be granted rights to freedom of expression and speech, but for some reason Stern is faulted for the topics he chooses to discuss over the airwaves, be they sexually explicit or not.”

In March Clear Channel also paid over $700,000 in fees to the FCC for sexually explicit material on stations that carried the “Bubba the Love Sponge” program. The Florida-based host of this show was fired. Stern draws approximately 8.5 million listeners each week according to Arbitron ratings data from last fall. Stern’s show is broadcasted from New York and is distributed to 35 stations nationwide by Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, which has paid over $1 million in FCC violations in the 1990s.

“Where is our free speech,” said Bryan Grackin, a personality on WRGW’s “Sex Lies and Radio” radio talk show. “Listeners have a choice. If they dislike like the contents of a program, they have the option to change stations.”

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