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Radio’s Shock and Awe(ful)

July 11th, 2004 · No Comments

Most people have heard of Howard Stern, the nation’s premier shock jock. But in local markets and regions around the country, lesser-known shock jocks who work for some of the largest radio corporations have recently outdone even Stern, and created a new rogue’s gallery of commercial radio personalities, who, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), stepped over the limits of decency for broadcasting.

Unlike cable, which sends its services through wires, broadcasters (radio and television) use public airwaves, and are required by federal law to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. Over the years, how the FCC has defined and enforced indecency (considered to be a lesser offense than broadcast obscenity, which is never permitted) has changed with the political winds.

One such shift occurred beginning in the fall of 2003, when the FCC began to levy some of its heaviest fines ever for broadcast indecency complaints.

The first incident involved the afternoon show of “Opie & Anthony,” originating at WNEW in New York and carried on 12 other Infinity Broadcasting stations, including those in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Dallas. In August 2002, they ran a contest called “Sex for Sam,” which involved participants winning a trip to the Sam Adams Brewery in Boston by having sex in “risky locations’ throughout New York City, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a zoo, Rockefeller Center, the Disney Store, and the FAO Schwarz toy store. Each of the five couples participating was assigned a “spotter” who called back to the station and engaged in on-air descriptions of the sexual activities with the hosts.

When word about the Sex for Sam stunt spread across the country, Infinity fired shock jocks Opie (Gregg Hughes) and Anthony (Anthony Cumia). (Opie & Anthony already had a reputation for pushing the envelope; Infinity had hired them in 1998 after they had been fired from their previous job in Worcester, Massachusetts for falsely reporting that the mayor of Boston had been killed in an automobile accident.) In October 2003, the FCC fined Infinity Broadcasting (a subsidiary of Viacom) $357,500 for the indecent content of “Sex for Sam.”

Another notorious case involved a Tampa-based shock jock, “Bubba the Love Sponge,” whose top-rated program was broadcast on four of Clear Channel’s Florida stations. The content in question included sketches in 2001 involving foul-talking Scooby Doo, Fat Albert, and George Jetson cartoon character voices. Bubba the Love Sponge (his legal name; he was born Todd Clem) had already been tried and acquitted on animal cruelty charges in 2002 for broadcasting live the castration and slaughtering of a wild boar during his show. In January 2004, the FCC slapped the largest single fine to date, $755,000, on Clear Channel for numerous indecency complaints about Bubba the Love Sponge’s 2001 programs. Clear Channel later fired him.

Thus, the crackdown on indecency was already rolling when just a week later, Janet Jackson’s right nipple was momentarily exposed to the world due to a “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Although the Super Bowl incident generated volumes of outrage, both calculated and sincere, the biggest FCC target remains Howard Stern.

Stern has already achieved a special place in radio history for being the personality behind so many FCC fines. In 1995, Infinity Radio coughed up $1.7 million to settle several pending indecency complaint cases over Howard Stern broadcasts on its stations in New York, Philadelphia and Manassas, Va. between 1989 and 1994. In April 2004, the FCC levied a fine of $495,000 against Clear Channel over six of its stations that carried Stern’s show. Shortly after, Clear Channel dropped Stern’s program from its stations. In June 2004, Clear Channel agreed to pay another $1.75 million in fines to clear up more than 200 pending indecency complaints, many of them dealing with Stern’s show. (As FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps noted at the time, more than two-thirds of the indecency complaints made to the FCC since 2000 have been against Clear Channel. Clear Channel’s stations in Iowa include WHO and WMT, although they were not involved in these cases.)

The FCC actions against Stern’s show has spurred the shock jock to denounce George W. Bush’s administration for playing election-year politics with him. Interestingly, the FCC actions against Stern only made his program even more popular. Infinity (the Viacom subsidiary that distributes his program) added Stern’s show to its stations in the markets where Clear Channel dropped him. In those markets, Stern is back on top, bringing in more revenue for Infinity, the nation’s second leading radio chain (and second only to Clear Channel in FCC fines). Stern has also suggested that he might sidestep FCC oversight entirely in the future by moving to subscription-based satellite radio (XM or Sirius) when his contract with Infinity expires.

Tags: FCC · Journalism Ethics · Media Economics

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