FCC commissioner James Quello hinted Thursday that he’s prepared to yank station licenses from Infinity Broadcasting if syndicated radio host Howard Stern doesn’t tone down his shock jock talk.
Quello, in a speech before the Federal Communications Bar Assn., noted that previous fines against Infinity have seemingly had little impact in curbing Stern’s allegedly indecent utterances. “How many ‘next times’ can the public and the (FCC) tolerate?” asked Quello. “Common sense alone would dictate that it is obvious the fines have not had a deterrent effect.”
Infinity Broadcasting president Mel Karmazin declined comment on Quello’s remarks. In the past Karmazin has said that while he and Infinity are respectful of the FCC’s position, they believe the “Howard Stern Show” is in compliance with FCC indecency rules.
Quello, who has become known as an indecency “hawk,” noted the FCC has received two new indecency complaints against Stern and Infinity. If the broadcasts are “actionable,” Quello said, he “will not shrink from a further judgment that forfeitures, however sizable, are not deterring illegal action” and that station license revocation proceedings may be needed.
“As a former newsman and broadcaster, I consider myself a strong advocate of First Amendment rights,” said Quello. “I believe reporters and broadcasters have a right to be wrong (and) a right to be insufferable smart asses. But not a right to violate established indecency and obscenity laws.”
Quello has done something of a turnaround on Stern as of late. Last month, Quello voted against approving a station purchase by Infinity, saying itis “antithetical to the public interest to authorize additional stations for probable dissemination of gross indecency and possibly obscene broadcasts by Stern.”
But in December 1992, under similar circumstances, Quello voted to approve an Infinity purchase from Cook Inlet Radio Partners despite Stern, saying it was unfair to penalize Cook Inlet for the sins of Infinity.
Quello even said he found Stern’s broadcasts funny, although he added that the radio personality did not need the raunchy humor.
But since then, Quello has cozied up to fellow Michigan native and anti-violence/anti-Stern crusader Terry Rakolta, and has started taking a hard line on Stern.
For all the tough talk on Stern, the FCC has officially fined Infinity only once –$ 6,000 for indecency regarding a 1988 broadcast. While it is true that the FCC has sent Infinity notices of apparent liability totaling over $ 1.6 million, the commission has yet to respond — as it is required to — to Infinity’s defense of Stern. Until it responds to Infinity’s reply, the only unpaid fine remains the $ 6,000 penalty, which Infinity will challenge in court if necessary. Some of the FCC’s notices of apparent liability are now almost two years old, and all have come from Las Vegas resident Al Westcott, who has made getting Stern off the air his mission in life.
Should the FCC find further indecency violations against Infinity, it’s unclear whether other commissioners would join Quello in the call for license revocation. The key vote could come from Chairman Reed Hundt, who worked for a law firm that represented a broadcaster accused of airing indecent material.