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U.S.'s largest radio network suspends Stern

Clear Channel president says he was wrong to air controversial shows in House hearing
/ Source: The Associated Press

The head of the nation’s largest radio station chain apologized Thursday for a raunchy morning show that brought the largest indecency fine in history.

John Hogan, president of 1,200-station Clear Channel Radio, told members of the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications subcommittee he was “ashamed” of the “Bubba the Love Sponge” show. The program, which aired on stations in Florida, recently brought a $755,000 proposed fine from the Federal Communications Commission for sexually explicit content and other alleged indecency violations.

“We were wrong to air that material,” Hogan said. “I accept responsibility for our mistake and my company will live with the consequences of its actions.”

Clear Channel fired the disc jockey Tuesday, then announced the next day it would suspend any personality accused of airing indecent programming and would ask its DJs to share in any financial penalties. Also Wednesday, it suspended broadcasts of the Howard Stern show on its six stations that carry it, citing sexually graphic content from Tuesday’s broadcast.

Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, praised Clear Channel’s actions. “That sets a good standard,” he said.

Clear Channel’s moves are the latest examples of broadcasters responding to pressure from federal regulators and lawmakers who say too much of radio and TV programming has become unsuitable for children.

Hogan joined executives from ABC, Fox, NBC and Pax in testifying before the subcommittee, which voted earlier this month to increase the maximum fine for indecency from $27,500 to $275,000.

Poster child for indecencyFor many critics, Stern is the poster child for indecency. His show has graphic references to sex and regularly includes strippers and pornographic movie stars as on-air guests. The show that prompted Clear Channel to act included a man discussing a sexual encounter with hotel heiress Paris Hilton.

Infinity Broadcasting, which owns the Stern show, paid a $1.7 million fine in 1995 to settle several indecency violations related to it. The show is heard on dozens of Infinity stations.

On Thursday, Stern told listeners he had been unaware of the move by Clear Channel. Stern routinely criticizes the government’s indecency policies, saying they are arbitrary and fail to reflect that anyone who finds his material objectionable can simply change the channel.

“I could blow my stack. I’m trying to be cryptic,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know what’s going on. They are so afraid of me and what this show represents.”

TV networks also are making changes because of the government’s pressure.

In response to letters from FCC Chairman Michael Powell, NBC, CBS and Fox outlined steps they were taking to curb indecency. Among them: Airing live programs on time delays, displaying ratings for programs on their Web sites, reviewing standards and practices, launching ad campaigns to let parents know about the V-chip, and reminding affiliate stations they may reject network programming viewed as unsuitable for their communities.

ABC has not yet responded to Powell, but network president Alex Wallau told lawmakers Thursday said he would also support a campaign to educate viewers about the V-chip. “We believe strongly that we have a responsibility to enable our viewers to make informed choices about the programs that they watch and that they want their children to watch,” he said.

Powell’s letters to the National Association of Broadcasters and the four major networks followed CBS’ Super Bowl halftime show, which ended with Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast to 90 million viewers.

“True and lasting change will only be achieved if the broadcast community recommits to its public service roots and its tradition of abiding by community standards of decency,” Powell wrote, urging a return to a voluntary code of conduct, which was dropped in 1982 under Reagan administration pressure.

Under FCC rules and federal law, radio stations and over-the-air television channels cannot air material that refers 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 and satellite radio.

Dr. Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, questioned how long the broadcasters’ concern about indecency will last.

“Some of this hand-wringing in public is from the very people who have brought us a rogue’s gallery of shock jocks,” said Wright, whose association of Christian radio and TV broadcasters counts 1,700 members.