WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission rocked shock jock Howard Stern’s world Thursday with one of the highest indecency fines on record.
The nearly half-million-dollar fine also marked an aggressive shift in the FCC’s new get-tough-against-smut policy. For the first time, the commission has fined for separate indecency violations in the same program, instead of fining a program that contained indecencies once for each station that aired it.
The commission slapped Clear Channel with a total of $495,000 for airing salacious material April 9 on Stern’s show on six stations around the country.
In the first unanimous agency decision since the FCC stiffened its antismut resolve, all five commissioners agreed to level the current statutory maximum of $27,500 per violation.
The commissioners took exception to graphic discussions between Stern and sidekick Stuttering John about John having oral and anal sex with his wife, as well as Stern and a guest’s promotion of the product Sphincterine, an oral-hygiene product used before sex.
In all, they found that the show violated federal indecency standards three times, and imposed $27,500 for each infraction. (The sum was then multiplied for each of the six stations.)
Legislation making its way through Congress would raise the statutory maximum to $500,000, making these violations worth $8 million in the future.
Clear Channel, which previously suspended Stern from the six stations it owns that carried the show, reacted to the news of the latest fine by terminating its relationship with the superstar shock jock.
“Mr. Stern’s show has created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it,” Clear Channel prexy John Hogan said in a statement. “The Congress and the FCC are even beginning to look at revoking licenses. That’s a risk we’re just not willing to take.”
Democratic commissioner Michael Copps who has complained bitterly about the FCC’s weak record on indecency, was satisfied with the latest action against Stern.
“Today’s decision is a step forward toward imposing meaningful fines,” he said in a statement released with the ruling. “For the first time, the commission assesses a fine against more than a single utterance rather than counting an entire program as one utterance.”
In many ways, Stern has been at the center of an indecency firestorm kicked up by Janet Jackson’s Superbowl breast-baring stunt and Washington’s resultant crackdown. Last month, his show was the target of another FCC fine, and a study named him the agency’s public enemy No. 1 for racking up a total of $1.96 million in proposed fines over 14 years (before the last two FCC actions against the show). The lion’s share of those fines were for shows broadcast in 1991 and 1992; five separate actions during that time were settled for $1.71 million.
So far, Viacom-owned Infinity stations have stood by their man, refusing to suspend or threaten Stern specifically. In fact, Stern has since complained that he has become the posterboy for the FCC’s antismut crusade and has railed against a new climate of censorship.
Viacom has yet to face fines for Stern’s content this year, even though Infinity stations aired the same show that led to the heavy fines against Clear Channel. But it’s only a matter of time. The FCC usually fines shows as a result of listener or viewer complaints and, in the past, only acts against the companies that own the stations that spur complaints.
But in the new aggressive enforcement climate, the FCC may change that practice. Last week, an FCC source said the agency reserved the right to take on Infinity for airing the same Howard Stern show.