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FCC overlooks Spanish radio stations in crackdown

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2004

The Federal Communications Commission has ignored the racy antics on Spanish-language radio during its crackdown on broadcasting material that the agency deems indecent.

Since 2001, the FCC has proposed $71,400 in fines against three Spanish-language radio stations and one TV station for airing material that violates its rules against indecency. It proposed the most recent fine on Dec. 13, 2002.

During the first four months of 2004, the FCC has proposed six indecency fines totaling $1.5 million, all against English-language broadcasters. All but $27,500 of these fines were aimed at radio stations that air programs such as "The Howard Stern Show," which tend to feature sexually suggestive conversations and comedy bits.

"Spanish-language radio has gone way beyond Howard Stern. Some of these guys do and say things that would embarrass Howard Stern," said Alex Nogales, president and chief executive of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a Los Angeles group that seeks to improve the image of Hispanics in the United States.

Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, said Spanish-language radio deserves the same scrutiny as its English-language counterpart.

"If you're going to be in the business of looking at what is and what is not indecent, no one should be singled out," she said.

An FCC spokeswoman declined comment. Executives at several Hispanic broadcasting companies also declined comment or could not be reached.

Spanish-language broadcasters have not entirely escaped the FCC's scrutiny: Last week, the agency proposed a $4,000 fine against a Miami station that aired a crank call by two disc jockeys to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The disc jockeys did not violate the FCC's decency standards, but they did break its rules against airing a telephone conversation without the permission of the person being called.

The Hispanic population in the United States swelled by 58 percent in the 1990s, making it the nation's largest minority group, census data show. Spanish-language radio stations have become common in most big cities. Four are in the Washington area.

The stations often feature rollicking "morning zoo" shows. The language on these programs is often too crude for the airwaves, Mr. Nogales said.

Ms. Navarrete said the FCC lacks the manpower to investigate complaints about these programs. The agency has one Spanish speaker among its 20 staff investigators, although it has the power to hire outside translators to help it review complaints against Spanish-language programs.

"We're very concerned about the lack of Latino representation within the FCC," she said.

Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Florida Democrat who represents the heavily Hispanic Miami area, told newspapers in February that "the bottom line is that the FCC just doesn't have enough people to translate Spanish."

A spokesman said Mr. Deutsch had no further comment.

Under FCC rules, broadcasters cannot air material containing references to sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to tune in. The rules apply only to over-the-air radio and television stations, not their cable and satellite counterparts.

The debate over Spanish-language programming has raised a key question: Do Hispanics and the FCC agree about what is indecent?

For example, industry analysts said, the soap operas -- or telenovelas -- that are popular on Spanish-language television networks such as Univision and Telemundo tend to be racier than their counterparts on ABC, CBS and NBC.

"The Spanish-language soaps show much more skin than anything you see on daytime television, but maybe that's because it's more tolerated in their culture," said Howard M. Liberman, a communications lawyer and former FCC staff lawyer.

Regulators face another problem: Defining indecent words, given the complexities of the Spanish language.

Words have different meanings to Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States. For example, "bicho" means "bug" in most of Latin America, but in Puerto Rico, it is slang for the word "penis," published reports say.

The FCC has collected $44,800 of the $71,400 fines it has proposed against Spanish-language broadcasters since 2001.

In February, it was forced to drop a $22,400 fine against a New Bedford, Mass., Spanish-language radio station that aired dirty jokes on four occasions in December 2000 and January 2001 because the statute of limitations expired.

In February 2001, the FCC proposed a $21,000 fine against a Puerto Rican radio station that aired sexually suggestive conversations on three mornings in October 1999. Later, the agency agreed to reduce the fine to $16,800 after the station's owner protested.