WASHINGTON - Federal regulators Thursday proposed $495,000 in indecency fines against Clear Channel Communications for broadcasts by Howard Stern, prompting the nation's largest radio chain to drop the country's best-known shock jock.
Clear Channel suspended Stern in February from its six stations that carry his program, which regularly features graphic sexual discussion and humor. It decided to make the move permanent after the Federal Communications Commission cited the chain for 18 alleged violations from Stern's April 9, 2003, show.
"Mr. Stern's show has created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it," said John Hogan, president of Clear Channel Radio. "The Congress and the FCC are even beginning to look at revoking station licenses. That's a risk we're just not willing to take."
In a statement posted on his Web site, Stern said he was not surprised by the fine. He characterized it as furtherance of a "witch hunt" against him by the Bush administration.
"It is pretty shocking that governmental interference into our rights and free speech takes place in the U.S.," he said. "It's hard to reconcile this with the 'land of the free' and the 'home of the brave.'"
The FCC investigation was prompted by a listener in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who complained about a Stern program that included discussion of sex accompanied by flatulence sounds.
Federal law bars radio stations and over-the-air television channels from airing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children may be tuning in. The rules do not apply to cable and satellite channels or satellite radio.
The FCC imposed the maximum fine of $27,500 for each of 18 violations on six Clear Channel stations: WBGG in Fort Lauderdale; WTKS-FM in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; WTFX-FM in Louisville, Ky.; KIOZ in San Diego; WNVE in Honeoye Falls, N.Y.; and WSDS-FM in Pittsburgh.
The FCC fined each station for two specific incidents during a single program, the first time the commission has done so. Previously, the FCC levied fines for an entire program, no matter how many different indecent utterances occurred.
Commissioner Michael Copps, who usually dissents from indecency decisions because he says the penalties aren't strong enough, was part of a unanimous commission this time.
"I have long advocated that the commission use all of the tools it has to tackle indecency on the public airwaves," he said. "Today's decision is a step forward towards imposing meaningful fines."
Last month, the FCC proposed fining Stern's employer, Infinity Broadcasting, $27,500 for a Stern show broadcast July 26, 2001, on WKRK-FM in Detroit. The show featured discussions about sexual practices and techniques.
Infinity paid $1.7 million in 1995 to settle various violations by Stern. The Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group, said fines against Stern accounted for almost half of the $4 million in penalties proposed by the FCC since 1990.
Stern has charged on the air that he's being punished for his criticism of President Bush. Clear Channel's political action committee and its employees have given $265,800 to Republicans for the 2004 election, more than any other broadcaster, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.
"You've got to vote Bush out to send a message as a Howard Stern fan," Stern said during one recent broadcast. "There's a cultural war going on. The religious right is winning. We're losing."
A conservative advocacy group, the Parents Television Council, applauded the FCC's decision.
"Stern is a repeat offender of the most commonsense decency standards and we welcome the news that the FCC is moving to combat these patently indecent shows," said L. Brent Bozell III, the group's president.