FCC VERSUS HOWARD STERN : Agency’s ‘Indecency’ Ruling Hasn’t Stopped N.Y. Deejay
Relentless self-promoter. . . .
Nice Jewish boy from Long Island. . . .
Calculatingly offensive but funny, very funny. . . .
Typical New York hustler who’ll say anything for a buck. . . .
The range of descriptions of the most popular morning deejay in Manhattan doesn’t stop there. Nowadays, he’s also the sneering champion of First Amendment rights.
Howard Stern, the 33-year-old clever, angry cynic who holds court each morning over WXRK-FM, became the focus of national attention last spring when the Federal Communications Commission singled him out as the very incarnation of broadcast indecency.
On the face of things, not much has changed. New York cabbies still apologize to their fares for listening to Stern and offer to switch channels if it becomes too offensive. Stockbrokers and stevedores alike tune in while they’re stuck on the Long Island Expressway to see who Stern is savaging now. Brooklyn teens still sneak in a listen over their parents’ objections.
And Stern still spews invective and innuendo at every minority and majority group in the five boroughs and beyond.
He grants no interviews these days. According to his agent, Richard Basch, Stern says all that he will say to the press about the FCC over his morning radio program.
Lanky (6-foot-4), loudmouthed and admittedly lewd, Stern has been sniping at the FCC itself since its April 16 decision. There is now a disclaimer at the top of his program advising parents that the rock-and-talk program is “for adult audiences, and some adults may find portions of the show offensive.”
But, basically, the 6-to-10-a.m. program, which is simulcast over WYSP-FM in Philadelphia, remains as snide and sexual as it was before the warning from the FCC that WYSP could be fined or lose its license if Stern persisted in being indecent.
“The ruling is so vague as to what indecency is . . . so blurred . . . that it really is scary,” said Ken Stevens, WYSP’s general manager.
Outside of totally gutting his on-air act, Stern and Infinity Broadcasting, owner of both WYSP and WXRK (and KROQ-FM in Pasadena, Calif.), have no specific guidelines on how far they may go in broadcasting Stern’s brand of shock satire.
Though Stern hasn’t shown any outward sign that he is censoring his material, Stevens says the FCC ruling has “had a mentally chilling effect generally on performers like Howard.”
It is ironic that, 12 years after he began getting himself regularly fired by challenging the bounds of good taste while he angled for the big time, Stern has the No. 1 morning-radio show in the No. 1 market in the country at the same time that the FCC has threatened to permanently pull his plug.
Even before he was a professional, Stern was getting his show yanked for cause. He was thrown off his very first radio gig as a Boston University student deejay. His on-air act was milder in those days. The bit that got him the boot was called “Godzilla Goes to Harlem.”
Since then, he has promoted an on-air lesbian dating service, suggested that Princess Diana was not a virgin on her wedding day, offered to become the slave master for the Pointer Sisters and gave a broadcast forum to animal lovers--that is, animal lovers in the most intimate sense.
He has become a millionaire since he first went on the air commercially in Upstate New York in 1976 and he has managed to push his earnings to a rumored $750,000 a year by daily testing the bounds of taste. For his trouble, he has been unceremoniously fired from station after station, always landing on his feet in a bigger market by promising to deliver big ratings.
And he does deliver big ratings. From Detroit to Washington to New York and Philadelphia, his audience has gotten bigger as his act has grown ranker.
Ten months ago, he went over the line, according to the FCC.
Over the Line
“He asked the woman who worked with him there if she hadn’t jumped the turnstile at the subway that morning and if she caught her hair when she jumped over. Well, it was very clear he meant her pubic hair,” said Allen Wildmon, public relations director for the Tupelo, Miss.-based National Federation for Decency. “There was also references to her breast size and references to oral sex.”
Last October, two members of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Federation for Decency taped the Howard Stern show and sent it off to Tupelo. Wildmon transcribed the randiest portions of the tapes himself and shipped them to Washington.
Along with a third tape mailed in by Mary V. Keeley of Philadelphia, a 48-year-old housewife and mother of a 15-year-old Stern fan, the five FCC commissioners believed they had sufficient evidence and cause to accuse Stern of indecent broadcasting and to threaten WYSP with fines or loss of its broadcast license if the indecency continued.
Instead, the FCC rulings against WYSP and two other stations--KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara and KPFK-FM in Los Angeles--have resulted in a backlash from the broadcast industry. Fifteen radio and television groups, including all three major networks, have joined Infinity in a pending petition demanding that the FCC give a better definition of what it means by “indecency” than its subjective reaction to offended listeners and groups such as the National Federation for Decency.
The federation, founded 10 years ago by Wildmon’s brother, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, is a regular target of Stern’s invective, along with the FCC. It doesn’t surprise or upset Wildmon too much. The fact that his brother is often called “the Tupelo Ayatollah” in what he refers to as the nation’s liberal press is an indication that the federation is doing some good, he said.
“We feel that the interpretation of the obscenity law should be applied the same way that any other law is applied,” he said. The fact that federal law imposes a qualified ban on broadcast language dealing with sexual or excretory functions is clear, Wildmon said.
“For some strange reasons, people look at broadcast laws differently from any other law. They should be acted on the same as any other law.”
Community standards of decency might vary from New York to Philadelphia to Tupelo, but the very fact that broadcasting reaches a broad spectrum of the population is reason enough for the FCC to act, even if only a handful of listeners are offended, Wildmon maintained. He sees nothing funny in sodomy and oral sex and has a quick answer for those who suggest that members of the National Federation for Decency simply switch to another station when Stern’s show is on.
“People give you the simplistic answer that all you’ve got to do is reach up and turn it off. Reaching up and turning it off is like walking down the street and seeing a rape, turning your head and walking on by. You don’t get involved.
“But radio, like TV, affects the actions of its audience.”
Boxed in New York
Since the FCC indecency ruling, Stern has gained more than 30,000 regular listeners at WXRK-FM in New York, according to the average quarter-hour audience survey by Arbitron Ratings Service.
During the same time period, he has dropped 15,000 regular listeners at WYSP-FM in Philadelphia.
In Hollywood, Fox Broadcasting shot a pilot for a Howard Stern television show, but canceled its option to carry the program after the FCC ruling. A Fox spokesman would not say whether the FCC action had any effect on the fledgling network’s decision to drop Stern. She said that it is company policy not to speak about why programs have been dropped when they are in their development stages.
What Stern has managed to do, observed KPWR-FM morning deejay Jay Thomas, is box himself in. New York City’s audience may be hipper, more sophisticated and streetwise than audiences elsewhere in the country, but the kind of innuendo they enjoy over their morning coffee won’t play west of the Hudson River, he said.
“He can’t continue to be blue because there is nowhere to go with it,” Thomas said. “If he keeps getting dirtier, he’s gonna lose his sponsors, his audience. If he goes clean, people are gonna say he’s lost it.”
Since arriving in Los Angeles a year ago, the morning personality at KPWR-FM (105.9) can’t shake his ties to Stern. Before Thomas left New York last year, he and Stern were deejays on the same station, WXRK-FM. They still share the same New York talent agent. And since the FCC branded Stern’s drivetime talk “indecent,” Thomas has been regularly compared to the New York shock jock.
“I love Howard. Because of him, I’m the anointed L.A. shock jock. I’ve been on the ‘Today’ show, all the talk shows. But, I mean, he says the words. He says the actual (four-letter) words. I would feel embarrassed to say that sort of thing on the air. I’d rather say something like, I don’t know, like areola. ‘How’s your areola?’ Like that.
“But Howard, he says the words.”
Since he began his stint on KPWR last September, Thomas has been censured by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith for allegedly making anti-Semitic statements over the air, and, last winter, one listener was so incensed that he attempted to enter the station and assault Thomas while he was on the air.
His spewing, sputtering morning persona is just an act, however, according to Thomas--an act that pales by comparison to Stern’s.
“I think it’s just an act with him too,” Thomas said. “It’s just dollars and cents because he gets off the air and he’s like this great Jewish father and husband.”
Indeed, Stern has been married for 10 years to a social worker. He and his wife, Alison, and daughter, Emily, live a normal, upper-middle-class existence on Long Island.
“It’s just money and he’s making a lot of it,” Thomas said.
Though the FCC action against Stern is an action that has affected all deejays to some degree, most on-air personalities--including himself--will not have to change their acts much, Thomas said.
“In Stern’s case, enough people kept complaining so that it got to be like in the Westerns where you’ve got people telling the sheriff: ‘Aren’t you gonna do something about that bully over there?’,” Thomas said. “So they had to do something.”
A Mother’s Reaction
One person who did do something by complaining directly to the FCC was Mary V. Keeley of Philadelphia. Her complaint was among a handful that set the FCC wheels turning against “indecency.”
“I turned the radio on one morning and my 15-year-old son had been listening,” Keeley said. “I chatted with a number of his friends and they had all listened as well. I wrote to the station first. They dumped it back in the laps of the parents. I got a form letter saying it was my responsibility to monitor what my son listened to.”
It was then that the 48-year-old housewife contacted New York-based Morality in Media. It was through that 26-year-old media watchdog organization that she contacted the FCC.
“There was no break in his talk. It was just non-stop filthy,” she said. “We are perhaps not as cosmopolitan as they are in New York City. I didn’t know you could get away with saying things like that on the radio.”
Keeley is not a member of the National Federation for Decency or the religious right or any other group, she said. She is not an activist of any kind. She was simply outraged that the WYSP management would do nothing to keep Stern’s prurient patter from her son’s ears.
With mild uncertainty, she said that she is fairly certain that he no longer listens to the show. She has spoken to other mothers of teen-age sons since she wrote the FCC last October and, she said, she is convinced that she may have been the most vocal among them, but she is not the only one who was angry.
“From March of 1986 to April of 1987, I counted 79 complaints against Howard Stern,” said Roger Holberg of the FCC Complaints and Investigations Division. “But they weren’t all for indecency. There were quite a few for racial slurs.”
Though Stern has a larger audience in New York, the bulk of the complaints came from the simulcast in Philadelphia, according to Holberg. Even with complaints from two cities, Stern’s program has broken no records in numbers of offended listeners, Holberg said.
What set Stern apart from similar “shock jocks” was the time and trouble that three listeners took in substantiating their claims that his broadcasting was indecent.
Two National Federation for Decency members responded to the Wildmon brothers’ call for tape recordings of Stern’s program. Keeley’s was the third complaint.
“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this and I did it on my own,” she said.
She got threatening phone calls, and some Stern fans actually came to her door to complain.
“Obviously, there are a lot of people who like him and they were very, very angry with me. They told me if I didn’t like him, I could turn off my radio.”
Yes, she said, she could turn it off. But children, especially teen-agers, don’t and won’t turn off a titillating confrere such as Stern, she said.
“I’m glad I did it,” she said. “And I’d do it again.”