WASHINGTON With Congress playing close attention, federal regulators are proposing a record $755,000 fine against the nation’s largest radio chain for airing a sexually explicit radio show.
The Federal Communications Commission, whose chairman recently urged that penalties be increased for indecent programming, said four Clear Channel stations all in Florida aired various episodes of “Bubba the Love Sponge” a total of 26 times. The fine proposed yesterday would be the single largest ever for indecency.
Clear Channel also faces an additional $40,000 fine because of record-keeping violations at the stations. The company has 30 days to pay the fine or appeal.
Lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications subcommittee planned a hearing today on indecency standards. They took notice of the issue after the FCC’s enforcement bureau declined to fine NBC for airing an expletive uttered by rock star Bono during the Golden Globe Awards show last year. The FCC is deciding whether to overrule the bureau.
Two House Republicans have introduced legislation to ban broadcasters from airing eight specific words or phrases, including the word uttered by Bono.
The bill lists the words, reminiscent of comedian George Carlin’s comedy routine about the seven words that couldn’t be said on the public airwaves. The Carlin broadcast led to a 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding the FCC’s right to regulate indecent programming.
Also yesterday, the FCC proposed a $27,500 fine against Young Broadcasting of San Francisco Inc. for airing a man exposing himself on its “KRON 4 Morning News” show. The only other fine for indecent programming on television was the $21,000 leveled against Telemundo of Puerto Rico License Corp. for three programs on San Juan’s WKAQ-TV in 2001.
Support is increasing for legislation to raise from $27,500 to $275,000 the maximum fine per incident that the FCC can levy against broadcasters for indecent programming.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell asked Congress earlier this month to boost the fines tenfold, and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House telecommunications panel, quickly introduced legislation to do so. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and the panel’s top Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, are co-sponsors.
Upton said he hoped to have the bill reach the House floor before spring. The Senate Commerce Committee last year included a similar increase in fines in its legislation renewing the FCC.
“A number of these stations are repeat violators,” Upton said. “It proves the point that the fine under today’s law just isn’t enough.”
Meanwhile, the commission yesterday sought to answer critics who say the FCC isn’t doing enough to clean up the airwaves. Powell said that the current commission has proposed fining broadcasters almost twice as much as the previous two commissions combined. “This commission’s indecency enforcement has dwarfed its predecessors,” he said.
But even Powell’s fellow commissioners said they could do more. Commissioner Michael Copps dissented from the Clear Channel decision, saying the FCC should move to take away the company’s licenses instead of levying fines.
And Commissioners Kevin Martin and Jonathan Adelstein said the FCC should fine broadcasters $27,500 per utterance rather than per program. “We should not be giving a broadcaster who violates our indecency rule at the beginning of a program a ‘free pass’ for the next two hours,” Martin said.
Clear Channel was fined for objectionable segments of “Bubba the Love Sponge” aired on its stations in four Florida cities: Callahan, Clearwater, Port Charlotte and West Palm Beach. Clear Channel faces an additional $40,000 fine because of record-keeping violations at the stations.
In response, Clear Channel called for an industry task force to develop indecency standards for radio, television, cable and satellite networks.
“We work hard every day to entertain, not offend our listeners,” said John Hogan, head of Clear Channel Radio. “None of us defend or encourage indecent content it’s simply not part of our corporate culture.”
The fine against Young Broadcasting of San Francisco was for the KRON morning TV program on Oct. 4, 2002. During it, a performer from a theatrical show titled “Puppetry of the Penis” briefly exposed himself. The performers appeared on the TV show wearing only capes.
The largest cumulative fine for indecency was $1.7 million paid by Infinity Broadcasting in 1995 for various violations by radio host Howard Stern.