WASHINGTON Efforts to sharply raise the fine for indecency on the airwaves, to levy penalties for each utterance and to consider revoking licenses for multiple offenders are making broadcasters sit up and listen.
That’s what critics want.
“When you talk about real fines and the real possibility of license revocation, you do get their attention,” said L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Parents Television Council, a conservative advocacy group.
Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio chain, announced yesterday it was dropping Howard Stern from its six stations that aired the syndicated shock jock. The company suspended the Stern show in February.
“Mr. Stern’s show has created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it,” said John Hogan, president of Clear Channel Radio. “The Congress and the [Federal Communications Commission] are even beginning to look at revoking station licenses. That’s a risk we’re just not willing to take.”
Earlier, Clear Channel fired the disc jockey known as Bubba the Love Sponge, whose program drew a record $755,000 indecency fine.
And the National Association of Broadcasters, after holding a daylong summit last month, announced it would form a task force to look at writing a new voluntary code of conduct.
“They are looking at the bottom line,” said Jeremy Lipschultz, a professor of communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “If you raise fines enough and you pressure them enough, I’m sure it takes its toll.”
What bothers some First Amendment advocates is that the media is not fighting back.
“That’s the most depressing and tragic aspect to this,” said Paul Levinson, chairman of the department of communications and media studies at Fordham University. “The media, rather than standing up for the First Amendment, are giving into the people who want to trample all over it.”
Nevertheless, the costs of violating indecency rules are rising. The commission yesterday proposed fining Clear Channel a total of $495,000 for 18 violations: the maximum $27,500 fine for each of three specific incidents during a single broadcast on each of six stations. It marked the first time that the FCC proposed multiple penalties for one program. All six Clear Channel stations airing Stern would be penalized, although the FCC received a complaint against just one.
Clear Channel has 30 days to contest the fine.
In a statement posted on his Web site, Stern characterized the fine as furtherance of a “witch hunt” against him by the Bush administration, which he says is punishing him for his criticism of the president.
“It is pretty shocking that governmental interference into our rights and free speech takes place in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s hard to reconcile this with the ‘land of the free’ and the ‘home of the brave.’ ”
Meanwhile, the fines may get even higher; the House has voted to raise the maximum fine to $500,000 and to require the FCC to consider revoking a broadcast license after three indecency violations. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
Congress has held several hearings this year to prod the FCC to step up indecency regulation. And the commission is listening.
So far this year, the FCC has proposed almost $1.6 million in indecency fines, more than the previous 10 years combined, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group.
“The agency is a creation of Congress,” said former FCC staff attorney Howard Liberman, who now represents broadcasters. “They have to go down there and testify. Their budget is controlled by Congress. They therefore have to respond to congressional pressures.”
Federal law bars radio stations and over-the-air television 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.