The admission by a station executive that Howard Stern's racy morning show is being systematically edited by KLSX-FM (97.1) has produced a flurry of negative reaction, even from those who would like to see the so-called "shock jock" taken off the air.
Legal experts say the station's action is a classic case of the "chilling effect" that government regulation can have on free speech. Stern fans are angry that they aren't getting to listen to his comic antics in their entirety. And his critics say the editing is ineffective.
"Certainly KLSX is within its right to size up its options and decide what to do, but I find it rather a mistake," said Jeff Cole, a lecturer on media ethics at UCLA. "Howard Stern didn't come to KLSX as an enigma or a mystery. Howard Stern came with this extraordinary controversial image. That is what they bought. That is what they promoted. And now Howard Stern is being Howard Stern and this is what listeners want; this is what made Howard Stern the No. 1 person during his hours. Now that the going is getting a little tough, KLSX wants to neuter Howard Stern, and that is not going to really satisfy his critics and it's going to make listeners feel like they're little children and have to listen to a condensed or abridged version."
The editing came to light last week after an hourlong segment of the Stern show was cut. Prior to that the editing had been relatively minor--usually just a few lines at a time--but this segment featured a protracted series of crude jokes at the expense of guest Jessica Hahn, who was on the program to promote her new video.
The first three hours of Stern's New York-based show are heard live on KLSX from 3-6 a.m. The program is then broadcast in its entirety on tape from 6 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m. The Hahn segment was aired from 5-6 a.m. but was cut from the second broadcast. Federal regulations limiting the use of indecency are in effect from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Greater Media Inc., which owns KLSX and was fined $105,000 in October for Stern broadcasts deemed indecent by the Federal Communications Commission, said it had ordered the editing in hopes of avoiding further sanctions. But Stern fans were mystified by that decision.
"There's still enough material remaining on the air to come up with reams of complaints," said Marc Wielage, a video engineer and Stern fan. "Greater Media has aired material that is every bit as risque as what they were cited for last October. The show is still going to offend people who have always been offended by it. So I fail to see how it's going to do any good. KLSX should either air the show intact or else take it off entirely for something more politically correct. You either go all the way or not at all."
Even the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, who in the past has sharply criticized Stern, sees the editing as a rather useless effort.
"In the short term it certainly seems like a small step forward, but in terms of the long term it won't be appropriate at all," he said, "because if the man tends to do obscenities and vulgar things on the radio, it's bound to slip out in some other way that isn't going to be controllable."
Al Westcott--the self-styled crusader who filed the complaint against Greater Media that led to its $105,000 fine, and to another one of $600,000 against Infinity Broadcasting Corp. for broadcasting the same material on three of its stations--also views the editing policy as ineffective.
"I think it's a step in the right direction but it comes a little too late," Westcott said. "I wonder why this particular segment struck (Greater Media). I've heard other material that I would consider to be equally objectionable."
Westcott is now based in Las Vegas and has since filed four more complaints against Stern, who is also heard in Las Vegas. Two of his complaints are pending for investigation, said Bob Ratcliffe, assistant chief of law in the FCC's mass media bureau. Ratcliffe said that there are no other complaints on file from listeners in any of the 15 cities in which Stern's show is heard.
Meanwhile, freedom of speech advocates are concerned about what the ramifications of Greater Media's self-censorship might be on other broadcasters.
"To the extent that this technique is successful with someone like Stern without the commission staff having to justify its proceedings even to the full commission or take it all the way through the court, it redefines the relationship between the commission and broadcasters in a way that is potentially ominous for other types of material which someday may evoke the commission's displeasure," said Robert O'Neil, law professor and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of the Freedom of Speech at the University of Virginia.
"This is a textbook example of the chilling effect," UCLA's Cole said. "It's exactly what everyone predicts is going to happen when the government acts in one case and makes broadcasters afraid. It makes a broadcaster ask, 'Why bother?' in the face of listener complaints, government intervention and endless legal fees."
And Tim Dyk, an attorney representing 21 broadcasters and media-related organizations in a U.S. District Court lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the FCC's indecency actions, sees Greater Media's editing efforts as a predictable outgrowth of the FCC's unclear policies on indecent broadcasting.
"Because the FCC is issuing preliminary and final decisions and establishing standards that they expect broadcasters to follow in their programming, and yet there is no way to get judicial review of these forfeiture proceedings, the result is that broadcasters have no choice other than to engage in self-censorship because they can't get a judicial determination as to what's permissible and what's impermissible," Dyk said.
For his part, Stern has been uncharacteristically subdued on the issue, even though in the past he has decried any attempts to edit his broadcasts. He has steadfastly refused to comment to The Times, but sources close to Stern say that his silence belies his very real anger in the matter and that he may leave KLSX for another station that would air his program intact.
"I'm surprised and disappointed that Stern hasn't taken a stronger stance about the censorship," listener Wielage said. "I think he knew about it all along and certainly for the last few months. He may be reluctant to discuss it on the air for fear of inspiring the practice on other stations that air him. But it's not like Howard Stern to stay away from a controversial subject. . . . It's as if he's actually afraid of it, and I think it kind of detracts from the show to see Howard afraid of anything. . . . It kind of makes him look like a coward for stepping away from the issue like he's doing."
Stern did briefly tackle the subject on the air Monday when asked by a caller about the editing practices.
"Yeah, I read about it too," Stern said of The Times article. "I'm plenty pissed off. I'll tell you one thing: I didn't know anything about it, to tell you the truth. But I'm checking into it. I might pull the whole damn show right out of Los Angeles."
Other listeners are angry at KLSX for initially telling people who called in about the shortened show last Wednesday that the station had experienced "technical difficulties," instead of acknowledging that the program had been edited.
"KLSX handled it totally wrong," said Larry Love, a die-hard Stern fan. " 'No comment' is what they should have said, but to lie to the public calling just doesn't sit right with me."