Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The nation’s largest radio station chain said yesterday that it will require its disc jockeys, talk-show hosts and announcers to pay part of federal fines imposed for “indecent” remarks they make on the air.

Clear Channel Communications Inc. — which owns or programs 1,225 stations, including eight in the Washington area — said the provision is part of a new “zero tolerance” policy against indecency.

The company yesterday suspended the Howard Stern show on its stations that carry the “shock jock,” after Mr. Stern on Tuesday aired remarkably crude racist comments degrading to blacks and women.

“Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content, and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it,” Clear Channel Radio President John Hogan said. “It was vulgar, offensive and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency.”

Mr. Stern’s show is produced and distributed by Viacom Inc.’s Infinity Broadcasting Corp. radio unit. Clear Channel, which didn’t disclose how many of its stations carry the show, said it won’t reinstate Mr. Stern “until we are assured that his show will conform to acceptable standards of responsible broadcasting.”

Clear Channel said that if the FCC proposes a fine against the company, it will suspend the host immediately and begin an investigation. “If we or the government ultimately determine the offending broadcast is indecent, the DJ will be terminated without delay,” an executive said.

The San Antonio company announced the policy the day after it fired a Florida host known as “Bubba the Love Sponge,” whose sexually explicit morning show prompted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to propose a $755,000 fine last month.

“As a broadcast licensee, we are fully responsible for what our stations air, and we intend to make sure all our DJs and programmers understand what is and what is not appropriate on Clear Channel radio shows,” said President and Chief Operations Officer Mark P. Mays.

The policy is the broadcasting industry’s latest — and strongest — response to what Mr. Mays called “the rising tide of indecency on the airwaves.” Outrage over broadcast indecency spread after Feb. 1 when Janet Jackson bared her right breast during a televised Super Bowl halftime show. The singer said the brief flashing was an accident, but it touched off more than 200,000 complaints to the FCC and increased scrutiny for broadcasters from lawmakers and regulators.

Last week, the head of Infinity laid out a zero-tolerance policy in an internal conference call with top executives. The company, which owns 185 stations and syndicates the Howard Stern program and the “Don and Mike Show,” has vowed to fire offenders.

Clear Channel’s policy goes one step further by rewriting contracts and promising to make hosts pay part of fines imposed by the FCC. In the past, broadcast companies have paid the fines.

“From now on, every contract that Clear Channel enters into with on-air talent will include this provision. While that won’t relieve Clear Channel from our responsibility as a broadcast licensee, we believe it will have a significant deterrent effect on indecent content,” Mr. Hogan said.

Officials of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the labor union that represents radio hosts, objected. Tom Carpenter, the union’s national director of news and broadcasting, said, “From our perspective, the responsibility for complying with the FCC regulations is the burden of the employer. It’s inappropriate for Clear Channel to shift that burden to the backs of its employees.”

An FCC spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on the policies of the companies it regulates.

Determining what the federal government considers indecent will be difficult, say industry executives, who have asked the FCC to issue clear guidelines. Clear Channel asked the agency yesterday to form a “decency task force” of industry executives that would issue guidelines.

Under FCC rules and federal law, radio stations and over-the-air television channels cannot broadcast material containing references 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.

The rules issued by Clear Channel Communications came on the eve of the second congressional hearing this month on broadcast indecency. Mr. Hogan is scheduled to testify with top officials from TV networks.

Congress is considering increasing the maximum fine for broadcast indecency from $27,500 to $275,000, a change the FCC endorsed even before the tumult over the Super Bowl halftime performance.

Radio hosts have complained about the crackdown. This week, Mr. Stern, whose program is syndicated by Infinity, threatened to quit and move to satellite radio, saying his show is being censored too heavily.

“We lost the fight. They win,” Mr. Stern said on his program Tuesday.

Don Geronimo and Mike O’Meara have made similar on-air complaints recently. This month, Infinity suspended the hosts of the syndicated “Don and Mike Show” without pay after they allowed an obscenity on the air.

It is too early to determine how the new policies will affect the industry, analysts say, although some suggested that the rules could help by bringing back advertisers who have fled from programs such as Mr. Stern’s.

“You might be more likely to advertise if you know there are protesters outside the station’s front door,” said William Burns, who tracks the radio industry for Johnson Rice & Co., a national financial research firm.

Dana McClintock, an Infinity spokesman, said his company is unlikely to follow Clear Channel’s lead and rewrite contracts with its performers. “If someone violates our policy, we fire them,” Mr. McClintock said.

Clear Channel canned Todd Clem, aka “Bubba the Love Sponge,” Tuesday. In its proposed fine, the FCC cited Bubba segments that included graphic discussions about sex and drugs that ran 26 times on four Florida stations.

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