Big media `shocked' by Stern

Analysis

February 27, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Radio is the source of a lot of edgy entertainment these days - racy proclamations, angry rants and ego-driven intrigue - but it's mostly happening off the air.

This week alone, executives at the nation's largest radio company, Clear Channel Communications, set new internal standards for decency, fired a Florida talk show host known as "Bubba the Love Sponge" for his explicit comments on sex and drugs, and pulled the program of Howard Stern, the nation's best-known "shock jock," from its airwaves (at least for now).

Clear Channel's top radio official, John Hogan, told lawmakers yesterday he was "ashamed" of the Florida talk show, which drew a proposed $755,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission.

In a separate statement, Hogan said Stern's program was "vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency."

Stern told listeners he wanted to remain "cryptic" on his Clear Channel suspension. Then he sounded off against FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell and compared his detractors to the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a demagogue famous for trying to silence critics by claiming they were Communist sympathizers.

Cultural conservatives have cheered the moves. But the Stern suspension arrived with little cost to Clear Channel: The often-raunchy show was being carried on just six of its 1,200 radio stations, all in mid-level markets. And some observers say the San Antonio, Texas, company's moves are politically driven, in direct response to the anti-indecency rhetoric streaming from public officials. (Clear Channel officials did not return e-mailed requests for comment.)

"This is an election year," says Larry Gerbrandt, chief operating officer for Kagan World Media, a research and consulting firm in Carmel, Calif. "Senators get headlines off this stuff. There's a lot of chest-beating out there."

This round of chest-beating follows Janet Jackson's now-infamous breast-baring incident during last month's MTV-produced Super Bowl halftime show on CBS. Clear Channel has undergone a "deathbed conversion" on decency issues, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit group that advocates against media consolidation. "They're obviously scared to death."

All of this heat obscures what are, at their core, serious issues - competing concerns about free speech and the coarsening of public discourse.

Mel Karmazin, president of Viacom, was called before a House panel two weeks ago after the Super Bowl debacle. His company owns CBS, MTV and Infinity, the radio company that helps to syndicate Stern's show. While defending the right of his company to define indecency for itself, Karmazin last week ordered his radio executives to take safeguards to prevent indecent material from reaching the air. Federal broadcasting regulations are intended to restrict explicit content on broadcast television and radio to hours when children presumably are not watching or listening. Cable and satellite outlets, however, do not face such regulation. And premium television cable channels pursue the most edgy entertainment, including frank depictions of sexual activity. In response, mainstream radio and television outlets have broadcast increasingly vulgar programs.

So the content of radio programs should not surprise Karmazin or any other broadcaster. Stern's show, which he syndicates in partnership with Viacom's Infinity, drew previous federal fines for lewdness and often dwells on scatological, sexual and racially charged material. Another Infinity show was canceled in 2002 after purporting to broadcast the sounds of a couple having sex in a New York City cathedral. The explicitness of "Bubba the Love Sponge" was a mild extension of what's been on the air for years, not a violation of normal practice.

So far, there has been no negative response by Infinity to the offensive material that drew the public ire of Clear Channel. Stern's show runs on roughly three dozen Infinity stations. "We have no intention of suspending Howard Stern from the Infinity radio stations on which he runs," said Dana McClintock, spokesman for Viacom.

On Tuesday, Stern had engaged in sexually explicit banter with a former boyfriend of socialite Paris Hilton. Then a caller used racially charged language to ask the guest about other sexual exploits. Clear Channel cited both the sexual and racial content for its decision to pull Stern's show for now.

The episode occurs at a time when major media conglomerates - including the Chicago-based Tribune Co., owner of The Sun - are pursuing federal permission to acquire more entertainment and news outlets.

One illustration of the perceived effects of that consolidation occurred yesterday. News executives at WTOP radio in Washington decided to yank the scheduled CBS news update at 8 a.m. because its earlier news report about the Stern controversy seemed designed to fuel interest in his show. "It seemed promotional more than newsworthy," said Mike McMearty, news director for WTOP. Additionally, as McMearty noted, the CBS story failed to point out its corporate ties to Infinity.

The bottom line for media giants, Gerbrandt and Schwartzman argued, remains the financial bottom line.

"They obviously are hoping for things to cool down - and hoping they can resume their prior activities," Schwartzman said.

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