Clear Channel Communications put Howard Stern on ice yesterday (Feb. 25) as the nation’s largest radio station group made good on its promise to clean up the airwaves.
Stern’s dismissal from the six Clear Channel stations on which his show airs came the day before company president and CEO John Hogan is scheduled to testify before a congressional panel investigating the rise of indecent speech on the airwaves, and on the same day that the radio station group adopted a new “zero tolerance” policy on indecent speech.
“Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content, and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it,” Hogan said. “It was vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency. We will not air Howard Stern on Clear Channel stations until we are assured that his show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting.”
Stern’s New York-based show is syndicated by Infinity Broadcasting, a unit of media giant Viacom Inc., which owns about 180 radio stations in the United States. The Stern show was carried by Clear Channel stations in six markets — Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Rochester, N.Y.; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego; Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Clear Channel executives said Stern’s firing is proof that they are serious about their commitment.
“We’re on the Hill talking about our new initiative and how serious we are,” one Clear Channel executive said. “Then we come back to our offices and find that Howard Stern broadcast this stuff Tuesday morning. We just absolutely could not keep that kind of thing on the air. (We) would have no credibility.”
The group took Stern, one of the nation’s most popular radio personalities and the man who practically invented the shock-jock genre, off its radio stations after an interview with Rick Solomon on Tuesday morning. Solomon gained his 15 minutes of fame as the sex partner of Paris Hilton in a video that was streamed over the Internet. Hilton, one of the heirs to the hotel fortune, also was the star of the Fox reality series “The Simple Life.”
A drastic action like firing one of the airwaves’ most popular, if vulgar, radio personalities is a warning shot to everyone who does business with Clear Channel, a company official said.
“Our DJs will know that we’re serious, and then they will start coming into conformance with what people think is decent programming,” the executive said. “If it’s a race to the bottom, it’s not one we are going to run.”
While the action is likely to help Clear Channel’s argument with lawmakers, Hogan’s statement clearly was a challenge to rival Viacom. Soon after Viacom president and chief operating officer Mel Karmazin told lawmakers last week that he was serious about cleaning up the airwaves, he issued his own “zero tolerance” policy for the group’s stations.
“We’re hopeful that other stations will follow suit,” the Clear Channel executive said. “When Viacom can prove that it will comply with our zero-tolerance policy, we’ll put Howard Stern back on.”
The Stern move is the third one Clear Channel has made this week in its effort to live up to its commitments to clean up broadcast smut. In addition to adopting the zero-tolerance policy this week and taking Stern off of its stations, Clear Channel also fired Todd Clem, aka Bubba the Love Sponge, whose show netted the largest-ever single proposed indecency fine in FCC history last month. The company hopes that its recent decisions will get some traction on Capitol Hill and at the FCC.
“Our hope is that everyone will be treated consistently,” the executive said. “We’re not going to get fined anymore, and our hope is that the rules will be enforced for everyone else so we’re all on a level playing field.”
While Bubba’s $715,000 notice of apparent liability was the biggest single indecency action by the commission, Infinity settled an indecency action with the FCC in 1995 for $1.7 million over a series of Stern broadcasts.
Broadcast indecency has become a hot topic in recent weeks as there have been repeated incidents of the use of the F-word on television, increasingly coarse language on talk radio and the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.
As defined by the FCC and the courts, material is indecent if it “in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” While obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment, indecent speech has free speech protection only if it is aired between 10 p.m.-6 a.m. The Stern broadcast started at about 7:40 a.m.
Clear Channel’s new zero-tolerance policy includes a provision in all contracts with on-air talent ensuring that DJs share financial responsibility if they utter indecent material on the air.
The company’s policy goes beyond new initiatives a string of other major broadcast companies have announced to deal with indecent content.
News Corp.’s Fox and Thomson’s RCA, a leading television maker, plan to urge customers to use the television V-chip, which allows parents to program their TVs to block programs with specific content ratings.
Fox, CBS and NBC also plan to run public-service announcements about the V-chip, and Fox News Channel plans to produce a one-hour news program on the issue, according to letters sent to FCC chairman Michael Powell.
Powell asked each network for suggestions for improving decency on the airwaves after the Super Bowl halftime broadcast on CBS.
While the responses have come at Powell’s request, there is little doubt that they were written with an eye to Congress as the House’s telecommunications subcommittee will put executives from Fox, ABC, NBC and Clear Channel on the hot seat today.
It is the third hearing that the panel has had on the issue on this year, and the subcommittee has already approved legislation that would increase the amount the FCC could fine a station for an indecent broadcast from $27,500 per incident to $275,000 per incident.