WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission is raising the stakes in its campaign against Howard Stern, the New York radio personality whose on-air revels in scatological humor and sexual topics have already generated $1.2 million in fines.
The agency has decided to delay deals totaling $170 million by Infinity Broadcasting Corp., Mr. Stern's employer, to buy three big radio stations while the FCC ponders a new series of complaints about Mr. Stern's program, which is heard by millions of listeners across the nation each weekday morning.
At a minimum, any delay past New Year's Day could cost Infinity several million dollars in financial penalties, as a result of deadlines laid down in its purchase agreement for the largest of the stations, KRTH-FM of Los Angeles, for which Infinity has offered $110 million.
But agency officials say that at least two of the three FCC commissioners who will vote on the matter favor blocking the purchases altogether -- the first time any company would have been barred from buying a station because of its record of sexually raucous programming.
Some FCC officials are also considering a full-scale legal proceeding to revoke one or more of the 20 valuable station licenses held by Infinity, the industry's third-largest radio-holding company.
"They've had violation after violation after violation," James H. Quello, one of the agency commissioners, said. "We've already fined them all the way to $1.2 million. Eventually, you get tired of it."
The battle, which pits the constitutional right to freedom of speech against the responsibilities of broadcasters who require government-issued licenses to use the public airwaves, is likely to work its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.