WASHINGTON -- After weeks of wavering on the murky issue of "indecency," the Federal Communications Commission has decided to impose a $600,000 fine on the company that employs Howard Stern, the New York radio host known for his obsession with sexual organs and bodily functions and his nasty comments about minority groups.
But the FCC backed away from a much tougher proposal to block the company, Infinity Broadcasting Co. of New York, from the $100 million purchase of three big radio stations.
The compromise prompted a rare dissent from FCC Chairman Alfred C. Sikes, who was outvoted, 4-1, after urging the other four commissioners to delay approval of the deal until a hearing could be held on whether Infinity was fit to hold lucrative radio licenses. The decision is to be announced today.
"Originally, they were all very gung-ho and damn the torpedoes," remarked one agency official who insisted on anonymity. "Now, it's a complete turnaround."
The decision was quickly criticized as an intimidation of broadcasters' free expression on the one hand and by those who thought the fine was no more than a slap on the wrist.
Susan Low Bloch, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center, said, "This will force the issue of whether there is a legally justifiable difference between the electronic media and the print media."
The pending action against Infinity, which the company will almost certainly appeal in federal court, will inevitably sharpen the long-running battle between those who strongly support absolute freedom of expression for broadcasters and those who want to clamp down on the growing volume of sexually provocative programming on radio and television.
Infinity executives were said to be at the company's Christmas party and could not immediately be reached for comment.
The FCC defines indecency as programming on radio or broadcast television that is "patently offensive," measured by standards in each local community where the programming is hTC heard.
In recent years various federal courts have ruled that indecent broadcasting is not illegal but must be restricted to hours when children are not likely to be listening.
Congress passed legislation in 1989 that ordered the FCC to establish a 24-hour ban, but that rule was struck down as unconstitutional last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
Mr. Stern has made millions of dollars, and even more money for Infinity, by pushing the boundaries of acceptable language in broadcasting, making his program one of the most widely listened to morning radio shows in the country.
The show, broadcast in New York on WXRK-FM, is heard simultaneously in Philadelphia and Washington and taped for broadcast later in the day in Los Angeles.
The show is simulcast locally on Baltimore's WJFK-AM (1300).
Infinity is believed to charge about $3,000 for a 60-second advertisement during the Stern show, which is broadcast from 6 a.m. to between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.