The Federal Communications Commission, after weeks of rancorous internal debate, was set today to fine Infinity Broadcasting Corp. of New York $600,000 for allegedly indecent remarks made by radio personality Howard Stern.
The fine, which has raised concerns among broadcasters that their free-speech rights might be jeopardized, would be the largest issued by the commission against a broadcaster. But it will fall short of FCC Chairman Alfred C. Sikes’ threat to place constraints on Infinity’s broadcast licenses.
Stern, the nation’s best-known “shock jock,” has come to the attention of the FCC for routinely making on-air remarks considered by many to go beyond the bounds of good taste, especially in matters pertaining to race, ethnicity and sexuality.
He once said, for example, that he wanted to “strip and rape” male disc jockeys at a rival Los Angeles radio station. He also drew the ire of commissioners when he said he hoped Sikes’ prostate cancer would spread.
But as offensive as his program is to some, he has been a hit with audiences. His morning show, which mixes banter about sex, race and humor, is ranked No. 1 in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and is heard in seven other large cities as well.
Last month, the FCC came down hard on Stern. It imposed a $105,000 fine on the owners of KLSX-FM in Los Angeles for 12 alleged indecent comments by Stern in late 1991.
As the FCC debated whether more action should be taken against the stations that aired Stern’s show, the controversy took on increasingly political overtones.
Infinity, which has annual revenues of about $150 million from the operation of 18 FM and AM stations and broadcasts Stern’s show in the East, recently paid $113 million to buy three more radio stations.
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a proponent of decency standards, initially registered an objection to Infinity’s purchase of the additional stations because of Stern. He later withdrew the objection when he learned the stations would not air the program.
Two other senators, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), joined the fray. Stevens urged approval of the Infinity purchase because the group selling the stations, Cook Inlet Radio Partners, is based in Anchorage and is owned by Alaskan native people. D’Amato came to Stern’s defense, saying his remarks were protected by the First Amendment.
Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union called on the incoming Clinton Administration to support Stern’s free-speech rights.
Following today’s official vote, expected to be 4 to 1, Sikes is said to be prepared to issue a heated dissent, having preferred tougher sanctions against Infinity.
Sources said the commission decided to levy the fine because Infinity had permitted “a pattern of violations of the indecency rule.”
Stern has used his program to bitterly and repeatedly attack the FCC.
The FCC has had the power to regulate indecent broadcasts since a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, stemming from on-air comedy routines by George Carlin. But the agency rarely invoked the power.
Then in 1987, a more conservative commission appointed by the Ronald Reagan Administration initiated a new crackdown, largely in response to complaints from outraged parents who were unhappy about what they heard on radio and TV during hours when their children could tune in.