- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. agreed yesterday to pay the government a record $1.75 million to settle a series of indecency complaints, a victory for regulators who have cracked down on material they deem indecent for the airwaves.

The settlement is the largest a television or radio company has paid for violating decency standards, narrowly exceeding the $1.7 million that the Infinity Broadcasting Corp. paid in 1995 for airing racy segments of “The Howard Stern Show.”

Clear Channel’s deal shifts attention to Infinity, which has racked up several unpaid fines since the 1995 settlement, including a $357,500 penalty for airing a Northern Virginia couple’s sexual encounter inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in August 2002.

The two companies have been Federal Communications Commission targets since February, when pop singer Justin Timberlake exposed one of Janet Jackson’s breasts during the nationally televised Super Bowl halftime show, intensifying the government’s scrutiny of the airwaves.

“Clear Channel has now formally admitted that it violated the law and has made binding commitments to clean up its act,” said FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, a Republican.

The FCC has proposed more than $15 million in fines against Clear Channel — the nation’s largest owner of radio stations — this year. In March, the company paid one of those fines, a $715,000 penalty for airing sexually oriented segments of the “Bubba the Love Sponge” show on some of its Florida stations.

The San Antonio company’s $1.75 million settlement covers the remaining fines, including penalties for airing sexual discussions on Mr. Stern’s program and “Elliot in the Morning,” which originates on WWDC-FM (101.1), Clear Channel’s rock music station in the Washington area.

The deal also resolves dozens of listener complaints about Clear Channel shows that were still under FCC investigation.

“We didn’t agree that all the complaints were legally indecent, but some clearly crossed the line, and for those we have taken full responsibility,” said Clear Channel Executive Vice President Andrew Levin.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps objected to Clear Channel’s settlement, saying the agency should not dismiss complaints that have not been investigated.

“A majority decides that, rather than investigate these pending complaints or even seek information about these broadcasts as part of the settlement discussion, it will wipe the slate clean for Clear Channel,” said Mr. Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC.

Under FCC rules, over-the-air TV and radio stations cannot broadcast material containing references to sexual and excretory functions from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are most likely to tune in.

Congress is considering legislation to toughen indecency fines against broadcasters. The House passed a bill in March that President Bush endorsed, but it has stalled in the Senate.

The FCC has not announced whether it will act against CBS, the network that aired the Super Bowl halftime show.

Clear Channel and Infinity have taken different approaches to dealing with the FCC.

Both companies adopted “zero tolerance” policies against airing indecent material after the Super Bowl show.

But Clear Channel executives have acknowledged that their company violated rules on indecency, unlike their Infinity counterparts.

Also, the company dropped Mr. Stern’s program from the six Clear Channel stations that aired it, while Infinity kept the veteran “shock jock” on its airwaves.

“Clear Channel’s decision to settle is smart because it gets everything behind them. I don’t know that Infinity could do the same thing, because Howard Stern is still an employee,” said Howard M. Liberman, a communications lawyer who formerly worked as an FCC staff attorney.

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