Thursday, February 26, 2004

Congressmen praised the president of the nation’s largest radio chain yesterday for pulling Howard Stern off the air, but scolded him for suggesting that his company might not pay the indecency fine levied against it last month.

John Hogan, president of Clear Channel Radio, appeared before the House Energy and Commerce’s telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee hours after the company yanked Mr. Stern’s syndicated morning show off the six Clear Channel stations that carried it.

Clear Channel said it would refuse to air Mr. Stern “until we are assured that his show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting.”

“This was a bold step, and I commend [you] for it,” Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and the panel’s chairman, told him. Mr. Hogan said he was “embarrassed” that he had been asked to testify before the panel.

Mr. Hogan said he was “ashamed” of Clear Channel’s “Bubba the Love Sponge” show, which aired on four of its Florida stations. The Federal Communications Commission recently proposed a $755,000 fine — the largest in its history — against the company for sexually explicit content on that program and other indecency violations.

Clear Channel Communications Inc., which owns or programs 1,225 stations across the nation, fired “Bubba” disc jockey Todd Clem on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it announced it would suspend any on-air performer accused by the FCC of airing indecent programming and require performers to pay part of any federal fine.

“We were wrong to air that material. I accept responsibility for our mistake, and my company will live with the consequences,” Mr. Hogan said. Later he said Clear Channel has not paid the fine.

“The legal implications for paying that fine are significant, and so we are carefully considering that,” Mr. Hogan said.

Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr., Mississippi Republican, told Mr. Hogan “there needs to be consistency between what you put on the air and what you contest at the FCC. … If you say one thing here, one thing at the FCC and one thing in the courts, we don’t know which one to believe.”

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the $755,000 fine. “We don’t comment on open cases,” she said.

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

Under questioning from Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, executives from each of the networks said they would consider airing more public-service announcements promoting the V-chip, which helps parents prevent their children from watching programs they deem unsuitable.

The network executives said they would also consider broadcasting parental-guidance ratings for prime-time programs after each commercial break.

They were more reluctant to follow Clear Channel’s lead and require performers to pay part of the FCC fines.

“We don’t want to create an environment where talent is afraid to show up. It is ultimately our responsibility for what goes out over our airwaves,” said Gail Berman, Fox’s entertainment president.

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 TV and satellite radio.

Industry executives have asked lawmakers and regulators to define indecency more clearly. “We’ve got this garbage definition of indecency that nobody can get a handle on,” said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes raising fines for indecency on the airwaves.

A Clear Channel rival, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., owns Mr. Stern’s show and distributes it to other stations. Infinity-owned WJFK-FM (106.7) carries the program in the Washington area. In 1995, Infinity paid the largest cumulative FCC fine to date, $1.7 million, for various violations by Mr. Stern’s show.

During a brief meeting with reporters after the House hearing, Mr. Hogan dismissed suggestions that Clear Channel acted hypocritically when it suspended the program of Mr. Stern, a syndicated host, while leaving the company’s own vulgar performers in place.

“We have to hold syndicated programs to the same standard,” Mr. Hogan said.

Mr. Stern’s removal from Clear Channel stations set off a debate within the industry.

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

Dana L. McClintock, an Infinity spokesman, declined comment.

Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, whose program is distributed by a Clear Channel subsidiary, came to Mr. Stern’s defense. “Smut on TV gets praised. Smut on TV wins Emmys. On radio, there seems to be different standards. … When the federal government gets involved in this, I get a little frightened,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his program.

A spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women said her group had no comment about the degrading comments Mr. Stern aired Tuesday about blacks and women. Representatives for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People could not be reached either, and the organization had not posted any statements on its Web site last night.

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