On April 8, by a vote of 5-0, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $495,000 fine against six Clear Channel Communications stations for playing allegedly indecent material on an April 9, 2003, episode of the Howard Stern Show. Typical for his program, the show included discussions of oral and anal sex.
Despite a recent Edison Media poll showing 70 percent of rock station listeners believe that radio personalities should say whatever they please, the FCC charged Clear Channel the maximum fine of $27,500 18 times for each occurrence of the offending broadcast aired around the county. Clear Channel promptly canned Stern, their CEO John Hogan quoted by Reuters as saying, “Unfortunately, the FCC’s latest action… leaves us no choice but to abandon the program for good.”
In response, the nation’s best known shock jock has begun airing a parody of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with himself cast as the lead. While his irreverent reaction may offer audiences a few chuckles, the circumstances surrounding Stern’s “martyrdom” reveal the sobering reality of the government’s dwindling tolerance for challenges to broadcast indecency regulations.
The FCC’s current muscle flex is just the latest in a series of efforts to stamp
out indecency on the airwaves. With over 500,000 complaints stemming from Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl flash alone, morality crusaders have had plenty of political cover to propel their policies.
But is the government going too far?
According to the Center for Public Integrity, in the first four months of
2004, the FCC has proposed more fines for broadcast indecency than in the previous 10 years combined.
Last month, the House approved legislation that would give the FCC authority to increase the maximum fine for a TV or radio station violating decency standards from $27,500 to
$500,000 per incident. Spurred on by Republican lawmakers, the bill, which is currently in the Senate, would also allow for the regulation of violence on television pending the results of a new study on V-chip technology, a device that can be programmed in TVs to block out violent programming.
Another bill is currently on hold in the House. Introduced by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), it would ban eight words and phrases from broadcast. The initiative is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s 1978 case against Pacifica Radio where it determined that broadcast of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words skit was indecent and therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
Conservative interest groups like the Parents Television Council encourage the campaign for indecency regulations by forwarding thousands of online petitions to the FCC, where they hope to influence policy.
Even liberal officials like Michael Copps of the FCC are on board. Copps, the stalwart dissenter in last year’s media consolidation battle, has been vocal about his stance against indecency, calling the Stern decision “a step forward towards imposing meaningful fines.”
But are government officials truly exercising the will of the people?
Much of the shift toward increased regulation has come under the guise of protecting children from indecent content. But another recent media survey suggests otherwise, with 87 percent of radio listeners responding that it is a parent’s role to keep indecent material away from their kids, and not the government’s responsibility.
“We are in a war. It’s a cultural war,” says Stern, who has begun using his website as a political weapon in his fight against Bush administration policies, which he blames for the crackdown on his show. “[Attorney General John] Ashcroft is out of control. He’s looking to invade your bedroom. He doesn’t want you watching porno. He doesn’t want you looking at statues. He doesn’t want you watching HBO. He doesn’t want you to hear this show. It’s absolutely out of control.”
Meanwhile the witch hunt continues. On April 12, Victoria’s Secret announced
it will drop its nationally televised “fashion” show this year because of the anti-indecency hysteria.
The New York Post also reported on April 16 that the FCC is likely to fine Infinity Broadcasting, Stern’s employer, an additional $1.5 million. The same report says that unlike Clear Channel, Infinity will stand behind the show.
As for Stern, he says he’ll quit broadcasting if the Senate goes along with the
new indecency bill. Rumors abound that his show, which generates $100 million in revenues and claims 8 million listeners, may move to satellite radio where it
would avoid FCC regulations.