WASHINGTON Federal regulators announced a record $1.75 million settlement yesterday with the nation's largest radio chain to resolve indecency complaints against Howard Stern and other radio personalities.
The Federal Communications Commission's deal with Clear Channel Communications is the latest example of federal regulators' increased enforcement of indecency standards.
The amount narrowly tops the $1.7 million that Infinity Broadcasting paid in 1995 for indecency violations by Stern, the shock jock whose New York City-based radio show features sexually explicit talk and off-color humor.
"Clear Channel has now formally admitted that it violated the law and has made binding commitments to clean up its act," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said.
Stern has railed against the FCC, saying its crackdown on indecency threatens free- speech rights and that he's been targeted because of his opposition to President Bush.
The agreement settles a $495,000 fine proposed by the FCC against San Antonio-based Clear Channel for remarks Stern made in an April 2003 broadcast. That show was carried on six of Clear Channel's 1,200-plus stations.
The settlement also covers several dozen open investigations and pending cases stemming from listener complaints lodged against shows on Clear Channel stations.
Commissioner Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC, voted against the settlement and criticized the decision as not punitive enough.
"Citizens have a right to expect commission follow-through on their complaints," Copps said. "Today a majority decides that, rather than investigate these pending complaints or even seek information about these broadcasts as part of the settlement discussions, it will wipe the slate clean for Clear Channel."
After the FCC proposed slapping fines on Clear Channel for Stern's show, the company yanked him from its six stations that aired him. He is still heard on dozens of Infinity's stations.
Clear Channel officials say the deal allows the company to move forward.
"We didn't agree that all the complaints were legally indecent, but some clearly crossed the line and for those we have taken full responsibility," said Andrew Levin, executive vice president and chief legal officer.
Federal law bars radio stations and over-the-air TV channels from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. The rules do not apply to cable and satellite channels or satellite radio.
Pressure to more intensely enforce the law has grown since the now-infamous Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show that ended with singer Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson's right breast to 90 million viewers. The incident generated more than 500,000 complaints to the FCC.
A short time later, the FCC issued a $755,000 fine against Clear Channel for graphic discussions about sex and drugs aired on the "Bubba the Love Sponge" program. Clear Channel did not contest the fine and fired disc jockey Todd Clem.
The maximum fine for breaking indecency laws is $27,500 for each violation, but the House has voted to raise the cap to $500,000 and to require the FCC to consider revoking a broadcaster's license after three indecency violations. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.