Thursday, October 2, 2003

Federal regulators fined radio giant Infinity Broadcasting Corp. $357,500 yesterday for airing in August last year a segment on the “Opie and Anthony Show” featuring a Northern Virginia couple having sex in a Roman Catholic church.

The Federal Communications Commission issued the fine, the largest ever for a single incident and the highest amount permitted by law. In 1995, the agency reached a $1.7 million settlement with Infinity related to a series of raunchy segments on “The Howard Stern Show,” a program the company distributes.

The FCC also issued a $55,000 fine yesterday against the owner of WWDC-FM (101.1), a Washington area rock music station that aired a segment in May last year on the “Elliot in the Morning” show in which host Elliot Segal questioned students at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington about sexual activities.

“This is essentially a slap on the wrist,” said Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat and the only one of five agency commissioners to vote against the fines.

In Infinity’s case, Mr. Copps said, the FCC should have considered revoking the company’s broadcast license.

Infinity and Clear Channel Communications Inc., the Texas conglomerate that owns WWDC, have 30 days to pay the fine or appeal, FCC spokesman David Fiske said.

“We’ve been afforded an opportunity to respond, and we intend to do so,” said Infinity spokesman Dana McClintock. He declined further comment.

In a statement, Andrew Levine, senior vice president of government relations at Clear Channel, said, “It is never our intention to offend, but to entertain. Clear Channel will work with our local station managers and on-air talent to make sure the lines drawn by the FCC today are not crossed in the future.”

Infinity is a subsidiary of Viacom Inc., a media conglomerate that also owns several television networks, a movie studio, movie theaters, a publishing house and amusement parks. Viacom generated $24.6 billion in sales last year.

Mr. Copps said Infinity could pay its fine by selling one extra commercial during one of its popular prime time television programs.

Clear Channel is the nation’s largest radio station owner, with about 1,225. It generated $8.4 billion in sales last year.

Federal law bars the airing of obscene material and limits broadcasting indecent material, deemed to contain sexual or excretory references in a patently offensive manner. Indecent material can be broadcast only before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m.

The FCC defines as indecent speech that depicts or describes sexual organs or activities, and a broadcast must be “patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.”

On Aug. 15 last year, Infinity hosts Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia challenged listeners to have sex in public places, part of a program-sponsored contest to win a free trip to the Sam Adams Brewery in Boston.

The segment aired on 13 Infinity-owned stations, including WJFK-FM (106.7) in the Washington area.

Brian Florence, 38, and his girlfriend, Loretta Lynn Harper, 36, were caught having sex in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Authorities charged them with obscenity and public lewdness.

Program producer Paul Mercurio, who was at the cathedral, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was ordered to perform seven days of community service.

Mr. Florence died of a heart attack at his Alexandria home this week, before his scheduled court appearance. Miss Harper was expected to plead guilty to a minor charge and avoid jail time, their lawyer, Maranda Fritz, told the Associated Press.

Infinity fired Mr. Hughes and Mr. Cumia.

The proposed fine against Infinity amounts to $27,500 per station, the maximum the agency can issue in such cases. FCC officials have asked Congress to increase the size of fines they can levy in such instances.

Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat, said he would propose changing FCC regulations to make clear that each program segment found to be indecent would be considered a separate violation subject to the $27,500 fine. In the current cases, the FCC proposed to fine each station once for each whole program broadcast.

The FCC has fined Infinity and Clear Channel before for the antics of Mr. Hughes, Mr. Cumia and Mr. Segal.

In one instance, the agency penalized Infinity after Mr. Hughes and Mr. Cumia aired a graphic song about incest.

In March last year, the FCC fined Clear Channel $6,000 after Mr. Segal aired a telephone answering machine message without the permission of the person being called.

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